Colorado Football: Returning "Special" to Special Teams Play in Boulder

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Colorado Football: Returning
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Originally published at: www.cuatthegame.com

2011 Colorado Preview - Special Teams

Placekicker / Kickoff

Personnel: Sophomore Justin Castor; sophomore Zach Grossnickle

New to the Buffs this fall: Freshman Will Oliver

Strengths: Resumes. Colorado kickers do have nice looking resumes ... at least from high school. Justin Castor, the front-runner to replace Aric Goodman as the Colorado kicker, was considered to be the No. 22 place-kicker in the nation from the recruiting Class of 2010.

Caster was named All-Colorado in 2009. He made 15 of his 24 field-goal attempts, had a 43 yard punting average and sent a majority of his kickoffs deep enough for a touchback. Castor, who stands 6'4", 180-pounds, was also athletic enough that he started at wide receiver for Arvada West.

He caught 30 passes for 607 yards and seven touchdowns as a senior. Zach Grossnickle, the Buffs returning starter at punter, is also listed at backup at kicker (at least until true freshman Will Oliver arrives in camp). Grossnickle was the No. 21 rated kicker from the Class of 2009. 

This August, Will Oliver joins the team. Oliver comes to the Buffs from North Hollywood, California, and is rated by kicking guru Chris Sailer as one of the top 12 kickers in the country from the recruiting Class of 2011.

Weaknesses: Game experience. While Zach Grossnickle has been with the team the longest, he is least likely to be the Buffs' placekicker come September.

After redshirting his first year in Boulder, Grossnickle, despite making 12 of 13 field-goal attempts as a high school senior (his lone miss coming from 58 yards out), was asked to concentrate on becoming the Buffs' punter.

This leaves Colorado with Justin Castor as the early favorite to succeeding Aric Goodman. Castor should be a red-shirt freshman, but is a sophomore after having his redshirt unceremoniously torn off for a one-kick tryout against Missouri midway through the 2010 campaign.

Castor's one attempt was blocked, and he was not given another opportunity the remainder of the season. Will Oliver, like Grossnickle and Castor before him, shows promise.

But until the season starts and a Colorado kicker routinely produces, this position will be perceived as a area of weakness on the Colorado football team.

 

The Buffs can go 8-5 if: Either Castor or Oliver takes over the position and is a consistent producer of points. No one in the Buff Nation is demanding the second coming of Mason Crosby from either of these players ... at least not yet.

However, the past few seasons, there has been little confidence that the Colorado offense will be guaranteed points once the 30-yard line of the opposition has been reached.

For Colorado to have a winning season, confidence must be restored in the Colorado kicking game.

 

The Buffs will go 5-8 if: It's the same ol' same ol' in the kicking game. No one is expecting head coach Jon Embree to turn his back on his kicker during a field-goal attempt this fall, as Dan Hawkins did in a 2010 game.

However, if Colorado coaches, players, and fans must continue to wince and cross fingers every time the field goal unit trots onto the field, it will be a long season.

What needs to be resolved in Fall Camp: Quite simply, a starter needs to step forward. With two-year starter Aric Goodman no longer with the team, either Justin Castor or Will Oliver needs to make the job his own.

Colorado cannot go into a 2011 season—a season where points will be at a premium as the Colorado offense attempts to put more points on the scoreboard than the potentially weak Colorado defense allows—without a reliable kicker.

Whoever earns the job this fall camp will likely retain the position for the next three to four years, so this is certainly a competition worth monitoring this August.

 

 Punters

Personnel: Sophomore Zach Grossnickle

New to the Buffs this fall: Senior walk-on transfer Mark Brundage (Rice); freshman walk-on Darragh O'Neill

 

Strengths: There will be a new emphasis on the punting game at the University of Colorado with the new coaching staff. Head coach Jon Embree has mentioned that, when he was a player at CU, head coach Bill McCartney called the punt "the most important play in football."

It was not a punishment to be on the punt team for Bill McCartney. Rather, it was an honor, with McCartney giving out hand-written invitations to be on the punt team. "I was the only player on offense to get one, so I was happy with that," recalls Embree.

"When a team is not the most talented, you need to win in all three phases," said Embree. "We need to make teams go a long way with the ball on offense; you can't give up short fields. All that stuff goes hand-in-hand.

During spring practice, the emphasis was on coverage as much as the kickers' techniques. Spring drills brought an emphasis on, as Embree put it, on "kicking and as much coverage as we could ... to me it's more about coverage. We really gave guys all different looks and scenarios. We were trying to get kickers, especially our punter, to understand how he can change the field."

While Grossnickle struggled at times as a red-shirt freshman in 2010, the good news for Buff fans in 2011 is that Colorado now has an experienced punter to rely on this fall.

"In Grossnickle, we've got a guy who's played, who's been on the stage, so that piece I feel good about," said Embree after spring practices. "I think he understands what we're trying to do, and he'll have a good summer to prepare. He's got a big leg."

Last season, Grossnickle was the only punter on the roster. This season, if the punting game does not show improvement with Grossnickle on the field, the Buffs will have other options.

Senior transfer Mark Brundage graduated from Rice this spring, and has a year of eligibility remaining. Backing up a Ray Guy finalist at Rice, Brundage did not see the field that often the past few seasons but did average 44.2 yards per punt in the second half of 2009 when pressed into duty for the Owls.

The other new option is freshman walk-on Darragh O'Neill, a 2010 Fairview high (Boulder) graduate. A two-sport star in high school (soccer and basketball), O'Neill walked on to the team this spring, impressing the coaches.

"He proceeded to hit just four or five monster kicks and caught everybody's eye pretty quick," said Colorado special teams coach J.D. Brookhart. "His challenge now is just to be consistent with that. He has the capabilities."

 

Weaknesses: While there is strength in numbers, there is also weakness. Colorado has three decent candidates for punter, each bringing something to the table in terms of talent.

Unfortunately for the Buffs, the NCAA will only allow one punter and one football on the field at a time, so there needs to be better production from one of these players if Colorado is to be successful.

As a redshirt freshman last season, Zach Grossnickle was 75th in the nation in punting, averaging 39.47 yards per kick. When the poor punt coverage is factored in, the punting game looks even worse, as Colorado was 88th in net punting, averaging only 34.84 yards per punt.

 

The Buffs can go 8-5 if: Zach Grossnickle dominates his competition this fall in camp, and then the opposition this fall. Grossnickle needs to remind the nation that Colorado is the home of great punters.

Gone—but not forgotten—are the days when Colorado punters were in the top ten in punting average, and television commentators dismissed the impressive statistics as being altitude related.

If Colorado is to go bowling in 2011, Grossnickle needs to go from average to extraordinary.

The Buffs will go 5-8 if: Colorado once again languishes in the bottom third in the nation in punting, and Grossnickle is replaced by a senior transfer or a freshman walk-on.

If, as Bill McCartney put it, "the punt is the most important play in football", and if, as Jon Embree put it, "you can't give up short fields", the punting game will be emphasized in camp this fall.

However, if there is not significant improvement in the overall numbers, the Buffs as a team will continue to struggle on the scoreboard.

 

What needs to be resolved in Fall Camp: Was Zach Grossnickle the victim of poor coaching, or is a 39.47 yards per kick average the best which can be expected? If Grossnickle responds to the challenge to his incumbency, the Buffs as a team will be the better for it.

If, however, Grossnickle proves ill-suited for the position, then the Buffs may have to take a flyer on a senior transfer or a freshman walk-on.

 

Punt Returners / Kick Returners

Personnel: Senior Rodney Stewart; senior Toney Clemons; senior Arthur Jaffee; senior Brian Lockridge; sophomore Paul Richardson

 

New to the Buffs this fall: Freshman Jermane Clark; freshma Malcolm Creer; freshman D.D. Goodson; freshman Sherrard Harrington; freshman Greg Henderson; freshman Tyler McCulloch; freshman Nelson Spruce; freshman Austin Vincent; freshman Kyle Washington; walk-on freshman Connor Wilhelm

Strengths: If there was one emphasis for the new Colorado coaching staff, as they hastily assembled the recruiting Class of 2011, it was on speed. While Colorado did rank 27th in the nation in kick returns last season, it was not cause for celebration from Jon Embree and his coaches.

Instead, the Buffs' coaching staff was so convinced that a kick returner would emerge from the list of incoming freshmen athletes (listed above) that kick returning was abandoned in spring practices.

Now, Colorado has a wealth of young legs to go with a demonstrated ability in kick returns (23.28 yards per return in 2010), that the kick return unit has the potential to be even better in 2011.

 

Weaknesses: Do we have to discuss punt returns? Buffs' opponents punted the ball 50 times last fall, but Colorado only returned 18 of those offerings.

The only return man from last year still on the roster is senior wide receiver Toney Clemons, who had three punt returns for a total of six yards (with a long of 11 yards, meaning that Clemons, in his other two returns, actually lost five yards).

Sophomore wide receiver Paul Richardson and senior running back Rodney Stewart are listed atop the depth chart at punt returner, but both players are too valuable at their present positions to be a long term solution to the Buffs' struggles at this position.

 

The Buffs can go 8-5 if: One or more of the incoming freshmen can return kicks as well as they did in high school. A number of the recruits from the Class of 2011 list "kick returner" on their resumes.

Colorado needs to find stars at the return positions, and needs to find them quickly. Sure-handed Scotty McKnight is no longer available to fair catch every punt sent the Buffs' way.

For Colorado to be successful in 2011, the Buffs need to maintain their high average on kickoff returns and significantly improve their numbers in punt returns.

The Buffs will go 5-8 if: Colorado remains good at kick returns, but only because it has so much practice at it.

The Buffs only had 151 yards in punt returns for all of 2010. If that number is not surpassed by midseason, 2011, the lights in the Dal Ward Center will likely be out—again —this December.

 

What needs to be resolved in Fall Camp: Which players will emerge, as true freshmen, to earn significant playing time as kick and punt returners in 2011. As far as fall competitions go, this one is the most wide open.

The Colorado coaching staff went the entire spring without even bothering to establish a kick returner, opting instead to hold open auditions this fall once the full recruiting class was in camp.

It will be interesting to watch and see what new stars—if any—emerge this August.

 

Holder / Longsnapper / Shortsnapper

Personnel: Holder - Senior Kyle Cefalo; red-shirt freshman Justin Gorman ... Snapper - Sophomore Ryan Iverson; red-shirt freshman Kyle Slavin

New to the Buffs this fall: None.

 

Strengths: As a freshman last fall, Ryan Iverson handled the duties as long-snapper, participating in 62 punts.

For his efforts, the former walk-on was awarded a scholarship this summer. Colorado can now look forward to not having to cover this position, in all likelihood, for the next three seasons.

Weaknesses: Colorado lost both of its long time holders, in Cody Hawkins and Scotty McKnight. The Buffs will have to break in a new holder in 2011.

 

The Buffs can go 8-5 if: You never hear the names of the snapper and holder mentioned. Usually, the only time the names of a snapper or holder make news is when there is a mistake on the field, with a botched punt or field goal attempt.

For Colorado to be successful, these players will need to—and probably would prefer to—remain anonymous.

 

The Buffs will go 5-8 if: There is yet another break down in Colorado special teams, this time from the snappers or holders. As Jon Embree has emphasized since his return to campus, Colorado has to win all three phases of the game in order to be successful. 

Colorado will not be able to put the most talented team on the field each and every week in 2011, so the Buffs must do the "little things" right.

If the Buffs cannot handle the routine tasks, including getting off punts and field goal attempts, the Buff Nation will start to look forward to 2012 much sooner than expected.

 

What needs to be resolved in Fall Camp: Who will be the holder on field goal attempts? With Cody Hawkins and Scotty McKnight as holders the past few seasons, Colorado not only had experience at the holder position but retained the possibility of a fake field-goal attempt.

Justin Gorman is a candidate to replace Hawkins and McKnight. Gorman is a walk-on redshirt freshman who played quarterback in high school.

If Gorman wins the job, the potential for a fake field goal will be preserved.

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