Colorado Buffaloes: 2010 First Look: Special Teams

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 Colorado Buffaloes: 2010 First Look: Special Teams
Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

2010 Special Teams - Returning Players / Recruits

It’s doesn’t take a word play expert to come up with the truth about Colorado special teams’ play in 2009: It was far from special.

From the kicking game, where every field goal attempt was an adventure, to the punt return team, where a fair catch without a fumble was about all that Buff fans could hope for, it was a miserable season for Colorado on special teams.

The numbers bear this out.

Junior kicker Aric Goodman went 10-for-18 (56%) on the season, connecting on just three-of-ten attempts from outside of 40 yards. Bouncing back from a horrid 2008 season, which witnessed a school record setting eight misses in a row, Goodman actually hit on three of his first four attempts in 2009, only to slide back to earlier form late in the season, missing his final four attempts of the year (including one in the 17-10 loss to Iowa State, one in the 31-28 loss to Oklahoma State, and two in the 28-20 loss to Nebraska). By contrast, opponents’ kickers in 2009 hit on 17-of-24 attempts (71%), including six-of-ten from outside of 40 yards.

The punting game, if anything, was worse than the kicking game. Senior Matt DiLallo punted 67 times on the season, averaging 38 yards/punt. With touchbacks and runbacks factored in, the number drops to 32.7 yards/punt. Nationally, the Buffs ranked 113th in the nation in net punting, last in the Big 12.

DiLallo’s senior season continued an unfortunate trend, as his net punting averaged dropped every year he was in Boulder. In DiLallo’s freshman season, 2006, his net punting average was 38.5 yards/kick. The average dropped to 35.8 his sophomore season; 34.0 his junior year; and, finally, down to 32.7 in 2009. DiLallo’s average of 38.64 yards/punt last season represented his first year under 40 yards per punt as a Buff.

If there was a silver lining in the Buffs’ special teams play, it was in kickoff returns. Colorado as a team averaged 23.87 yards per return, good enough for 21st in the nation. This number, however, was more than offset by the Buffs inability to field a punt return team. On the season, Colorado averaged a paltry 3.3 yards per punt return, 117th in the nation. Only Nevada, Memphis, and San Jose State were worse amongst Division 1-A schools at returning punts in 2009. Colorado’s longest punt return of the entire season was 15 yards, coming in the second game of the season against Toledo.

What in the name of Mason Crosby and Barry Helton is going on in Boulder?

The first, and easiest, explanation, is that the players the Buffs have on campus are not getting good coaching. The numbers on DiLallo, whose productivity declined with each season, seems to bear this out. Remember the Thanksgiving day announcement that Dan Hawkins would be retained, but that there would be changes in the coaching staff? If there was a lock amongst the coaching staff to be fired, it was special teams coach Kent Riddle. To date, though, Riddle is still the special teams coach.

The second factor, which cannot be discounted, is the mental aspect. More than any other position, results from kickers and punters can be influenced by mere confidence – or the lack thereof. The joke about Goodman setting an NCAA record for hit crossbars may have been gallows humor amongst Buff fans, but it certainly had to weigh upon Goodman’s confidence.

After Goodman missed three of four attempts against West Virginia, Colorado head coach Dan Hawkins gave Goodman a lukewarm vote of confidence – “Now, I’m not saying that those other guys (including true freshman Zach Grossnickle and walk-on Ryan Aweida ) can’t have a chance,” said Hawkins. “But I don’t think they have the 'get-off' and the leg strength that Aric does right now. That’s just the case.” In other words, Goodman, for better or worse, was the best the Buffs had to put out onto the field.

Finally, there is the matter of personnel, specifically depth of personnel. This goes to kick returns as well as kick coverage. A wise observer once told me to keep an eye on the pattern of players who are on the kick coverage team after the ball is in the air.

If there is talent and speed on the team, the players will fly down the field, almost in a line. However, if there is a dearth of talent and depth, the coverage will look more like a “V”, with the outside men getting quickly down the field, but with the center of the coverage team lagging behind. With Colorado finishing 113rd in net punting, it’s not hard to draw the conclusion that recruiting classes ranked near the bottom of the Big 12 year in and year out has begun to take its toll on the Buffs’ special teams play.

Who is back for 2010?

It is with mixed emotions that Colorado fans bid adieu to punter Matt DiLallo . The loss of a four year starter leaves a void on the roster, but, as noted, DiLallo’s production fell each season in Boulder. The advantage usually afforded Colorado kickers never came to fruition for DiLallo. In 2009, DiLallo had seven punts of over 50 yards, while Colorado’s opponents had ten. DiLallo pinned the opposition inside its 20 yard line 13 times; the opponents 19.

DiLallo came to Boulder from Florida as part of the 2005 recruiting class. He was at the time rated as a four-star player, the third-best punting prospect in the nation. He leaves as an after-thought.

Kicker Aric Goodman is listed as second on the final 2009 depth chart at punter, but look for that to change this spring. Kicker/punter Zach Grossnickle , from Denver East, sat out last season, and spent much of the fall concentrating on punting. There are no other true punters on the Colorado depth chart, so look for Grossnickle to be given the first opportunity to win the job this spring.

At kicker? Well, Aric Goodman, despite hitting on just 15-of-32 field goal attempts on his career, will be the incumbent. Goodman will always be the hero of the overtime win over West Virginia. The senior-to-be gained a scholarship that night, but has not fulfilled expectations since. The backup kicker, at least in 2009, was junior walkon Ryan Aweida , who has since quit the team. This leaves only another walk-on, junior Marcus Kirkwood , as competition for Goodman.

The math, then, is simple – unless Grossnickle does double duty, or a true freshman is given the job in fall camp, senior Aric Goodman will be the Colorado kicker in 2010.

The return game is also up in the air. Brian Lockridge filled in admirably for Darrell Scott as a kick returner in 2009. The junior-to-be had 699 yards in kickoff returns, including a 98-yard return for a touchdown against Oklahoma State. With the lack of depth at the running back position, though, Lockridge may not be expendable to return kicks in 2010. The only other returning player who posted more than two kickoff returns in 2009 is defensive back Arthur Jaffee , who had six kickoff returns last fall.

The task of returning punts in 2010 may fall to wide receiver Jason Espinoza – if he can stay healthy. The junior-to-be broke his collarbone twice in 2008, and had only six returns (for five yards) in the second half of 2009, as Colorado all but abandoned the punt return game in favor of fair catches by the sure-handed Scotty McKnight . It should come as no surprise that a number of the speed players (wide receivers, defensive backs) being recruited for Class of 2010 have “punt/kick returner” on their resumes.

Finally, it is also worth noting the loss of long-snapper Justin Drescher . The four year starter dutifully manned the position for four years in Boulder, being recruited specifically for the position in 2006. If you are a regular reader of CU at the Game, you know that I have sung Drescher’s praises before. In 2009, Drescher became just the third player in school history, joining Chris O’Donnell (1988-91) and Greg Pace (2002-05) to handle this thankless job for four seasons.

Who will fill this position remains to be determined. The only returning player on the roster listed at either short snapper or long snapper is senior-to-be Joe Silipo (who had his Daniel “Rudy” Ruettiger moment at the end of the Nebraska game. Silipo hadn’t played a down all season, but ran onto the field to do the extra point snap after Scotty McKnight’s touchdown on the game’s final play. Silipo didn’t get a chance to hike the ball, though, as the officials called the game, ruling that the extra point was meaningless to the outcome. As a result, Silipo, a former walk-on, has still yet to play a down as a Colorado Buffalo).

What about the Class of 2010?

There is one kicker in the 2010 Colorado recruiting class, and he has generated about the same amount of excitement as Grossnickle’s recruitment did last February. Kicker/punter Justin Castor was a Kansas commit from August until January. When Kansas head coach Mark Mangino was fired, though, Castor re-opened his recruitment. Colorado and Arizona State quickly offered, and Castor set up visits for mid-January.

After his official trip up from Arvada to Boulder on January 15th, Castor cancelled his trip to Tempe, signing on with the Buffs. “I always envisioned myself playing at CU, so it is just one of those things where it is a dream which is going to become a reality,” Castor told BuffStampede.com. “I feel really blessed and glad that it worked out.”

Castor is considered by both Rivals and Scout to be the 22nd-best kicker prospect in the nation. Castor made 15-of-24 attempts, with most of his misses coming from more than 50 yards out. Castor also averaged 43 yards/punt, and was good enough of an athlete to play wide receiver for Arvada West, posting 30 receptions for 607 yards and seven touchdowns.

While Castor, like Grossnickle before him, is a welcome addition from a local school, he was not the most highly regarded kicker in the metro-area. That honor went to Kip Smith, the kicker at Broomfield. Smith, a Parade All-American, was a long-time Minnesota commit, but changed his commitment to UCLA last November.

When most of your special teams rankings are in the triple digits nationally, it would be safe to forecast that 2010 will be better for Colorado than 2009. However, the Buffs do lose a four-year starter at punter, a four-year starter at long-snapper, will likely rely on a freshman at punter in 2010, and have yet to settle on a punt returner or kick returner.

For Colorado to post a winning season in 2010, special teams play will have to improve. Whether they will, though, remains to be seen.

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