When the NCAA decided to change the kickoff rule, changing the kickoff line from the 35 to the 30, Special Teams Coordinators around the country were cringing. While many coaches were wondering why the rule change Arizona Special Teams guru Joe Robinson was wondering what he had to do after losing Nick Folk to the Dallas Cowboys of the NFL. Robinson knew he had talent at the kicking spots but he did not know exactly how much he could get out of the young and inexperienced kickers and punter.
Sophomore placekicker Jason Bondzio won the job over true freshman Alex Zendejas and he has been impressive so far. Bondzio is just 1-2 in his field goal attempts but he has so far been perfect on his PATs. But what has been most impressive has been his kickoffs through two games. It was thought that even Nick Folk would struggle once in a while with kicking off from the 30 yard line rather than the 35 but Bondzio has yet to struggle.
Through two games Bondzio has been able to kick touchback after touchback almost making it look easy. There has not been much loft on his kickoffs but he has yet to really need much hang time as he is consistently kicking the ball into the end zone.
On the flip side of the kickoff scenario the Wildcats are doing very well in their own kickoff returns. Through two games the Cats are 7th nationally and lead the Pac-10 in kickoff returns, averaging almost 30 yards per return. Sophomore returner Devin Ross ranks 28th nationally with a return average of over 28 yards per return.
The punting units, again thanks to the loss of Nick Folk, were thought to be a worry spot for the Wildcats entering the 2007 season. With Folk gone to the NFL the Cats were forced to turn to their red shirt freshman punter from Texas, Keenyn Crier. Crier has the leg and ability to be an All-American punter but what he lacks is the pure mechanics required to be a great punter. So far Crier has been pretty impressive. Joe Robinson has been impressed with Keenyn’s work ethic and drive to be the best punter in America and that hard work has paid off so far.
Through two games Crier is averaging better than 42 yards per boot and ranks 28th nationally in average. The only real problem with the punting game so far has been the net punting category, which is where hang time and coverage comes in to play. The Cats rank 74th nationally in net punting and much of that is due to Crier out kicking his coverage. As Crier gets more hang time on his kicks you should expect to see the net punting results improve.
When Syndric Steptoe graduated the Cats lost their best kickoff and punt returner and while he is missed as a friend and teammate, the Wildcat have yet to truly miss him on the field in the return game. Senior All-American cornerback Antoine Cason has taken over on punt returns and he has been extremely impressive, already taking one punt back for a 70 yard touchdown return.
“It was a great return by Antoine but we had seven really great blocks on that return to help set him up. It was the best return since I have been here, everyone did their job to perfection,” said Joe Robinson.
Through two games Cason is averaging 32.33 yards per return and is ranked 3rd nationally but only second in the conference thanks to the freak of nature Cal calls a punt returner.
The lone low spot for the Wildcat Special Teams this year was the brain fart of a kickoff return against NAU this past week. After scoring a touchdown NAU squibbed a kick down to around the Arizona 20 yard line and rather than communicate and fall on the ball, five or so Wildcats stood around looking at each other like they were lost puppy dogs looking for momma’s teet. That one bonehead play aside, the Arizona Special Teams have again been special so far this season. Look for even more improvement out of the young kickers as the season goes on and look for Devin Ross to break at least one kickoff return (writer’s opinion) against New Mexico.
Jason Bondzio, RS Sophomore Placekicker
Devin Ross, Sophomore kick returner
Keenyn Crier, RS Freshman Punter
Antoine Cason, Senior punt returner