A Thorny Issue: No. 6 Cal Must Address Special Teams Concerns to Think Rose Bowl

Delete AccountCorrespondent ISeptember 21, 2009

BERKELEY, CA - OCTOBER 25:  Runningback Shane Vereen #34 of the Cal Golden Bears carries the ball in the fourth quarter against the UCLA Bruins at Memorial Stadium on October 25, 2008 in Berkeley, California.  Cal defeated UCLA 41-20.  (Photo by Jeff Gross/Getty Images)

You could use all manner of adjectives to describe the Cal football team’s 3-0 start to 2009.

Just stay away from the word “special.”

Despite a lackluster effort from the kicking unit, the Bears turned a fourth-quarter deadlock into a two-score statement Saturday at TCF Bank Stadium in Minneapolis.

With its 35-21 victory over Minnesota, Cal is now one of just three top-10 teams with two wins over opponents from Big Six conferences.

But with its most daunting three-game stretch of the season—at Oregon, home for USC, and at UCLA—beginning next week in Eugene, fixing Cal’s kicking game could be the difference between Emeralds and Roses.

Saturday, Cal netted just 37 yards per kickoff, illustrating what has been a glaring weakness for the No. 6 Bears—the kicking game.

As of Saturday, the Bears have the second-worst average kickoff in the Pac-10 (59.7 yards per kickoff). Giorgio Tavecchio, Vince D’Amato, and David Seawright have combined for just one touchback (also second-worst in the conference) and managed to boot two kickoffs out of bounds (worst in the Pac-10).

In a pair of blowout wins against Maryland and Eastern Washington, it didn’t matter. Jahvid Best and the Bears defense drew enough attention away from Cal’s special teams.

Minnesota, meanwhile, scored two of their three touchdowns with a short field—first from their own 46-yard line, and then from the Cal 26 thanks to a catch interference penalty on true freshman gunner Isi Sofele.

Things will get worse before they get better in the Pac-10.

Half of the conference is ranked in the top 30 in terms of return yardage, including two of the top three return teams in the country in No. 1 Arizona State (50.8 yards per return) and No. 3 Stanford (41).

What’s more, Cal has the worst field goal percentage in the conference and is in the bottom half of the Pac-10 in terms of punt (No. 8) and kick (No. 7) return yardage.

D’Amato has made two of four field goal attempts, one wide left from 29 yards out against Eastern Washington and a 47-yarder wide right Saturday against the Gophers.

It’s hardly a fair workload to really judge him, but that said, how will he fare when the USC defense is sending the house? What about in Autzen or Pasadena with the game on the line?

Preseason All-American cornerback Syd'Quan Thompson has been a fair catch machine as a punt returner—he’s brought back just four for less than eight yards per, plus fumbled another.

His decision-making on returns has also been questionable—he fair-caught a ball on his own six-yard-line against Minnesota and another with room to run and no one within 10 yards.

Backup tailback Shane Vereen is averaging 24 yards per kickoff return, but the Bears average just 21.2 as a team.

Can Cal expect either to drastically improve against the more athletic Ducks, Trojans, and Bruins? The answer is no.

The real question, though, is at what point does Jahvid Best become the solution?

In his two-plus years in Berkeley, Best has yet to return a punt. After bringing back 16 kickoffs for 421 yards and a 26.3 yards per return average in 2008, Best has fielded just one kickoff in 2009 for 18 yards.

Best was a dominant gunner on the punt team in 2007, recording 12 tackles and recovering a fumble to earn First Team All-Pac-10 honors for his special teams work.

He’s electric in the open field and the fastest player in blue and gold. The extra workload could be a concern, but after adding 10 pounds of muscle in the offseason, Best has looked durable in the first three weeks.

Plus, no one will want to kick to Best—more times than not, his presence will get the Bears better field position than a Thompson return.

If the Bears want this to truly be a special season, they’ll need to address the special teams issues, and fast.

Follow Grant Marek on Twitter: @Grant_Marek