UCLA post-spring position outlook: Special teams

Spring football is done, and over three months still stand between us and the start of UCLA’s third season under Jim Mora — one that comes with national title aspirations and accompanying media glare. This blog has covered the status of each position group moving forward. Last in the series is …

Special teams

Recently, special teams hasn’t been a major concern for UCLA. Over the last two seasons, the team blocked 12 kicks and punts — an FBS total matched only by Rutgers. Last year, it ranked top-20 in both opponent punt and kick returns; in four of the five years prior, the Bruins ranked outside the top 40 in the former and the top 100 in the latter.

A key difference looms heading into this fall: Jeff Ulbrich is no longer the UCLA special teams coordinator.

Promoted the defensive coordinator, Ulbrich will continue coaching inside linebackers but surrenders lead oversight of the unit that helped extend his own professional career. Outside linebackers will be charged to new assistant Mike Tuiasosopo, who also holds the title of special teams coach.

Tuiasosopo didn’t appear to take a lead role in coaching special teams through spring, and has built his resume heavily on coaching the defensive line. Even head coach Jim Mora said his new hire was still “feeling his way” through special teams. New running backs coach Kennedy Polamalu has been particularly vocal in that facet of the game, and other coaches will likely pitch in here and there moving forward.

UCLA is getting deeper and deeper by the year, which bodes well for special teams; highly touted recruits that would otherwise play early are spending more time there as freshmen. Linebackers Jayon Brown and Cameron Judge were examples last season, though the former in particular could see more time with the defense.

There’s also an ignominious drought: UCLA hasn’t scored a touchdown on a kickoff return since 2007, or on a punt return since 2005.

The good news is that several candidates are vying to break through this coming season. Foremost is cornerback Ishmael Adams, who debuted against Arizona State last November with 234 combined return yards. He followed that showing with 130 yards on three kickoff returns against USC, and reeled off similarly impressive runs this spring. Safety Randall Goforth, receiver Devin Fuller and running back Roosevelt Davis also practiced as returners.

The Bruins also don’t lack legs. Punter Sean Covington is on track to eventually become one of the best in the country. As a freshman, he averaged 41.9 yards per punt, sailing nine past 50 yards and topping out at 67. He also landed 18 punts inside the 20-yard line.

Ka’imi Fairbairn only made 14 of his 21 field goal attempts last season, and looked like the same kicker he was as a freshman. He was perfect inside 30 yards, but missed attempts from 36, 37 and 39 yards out in his last three games. While he had some decent performances in spring, it’s hard to gauge whether or not he can duplicate that accuracy with the pressure of a real game.

Level of concern: 5/10

*With 10 being the highest cause for concern this upcoming season, the scale is based mainly on the unit’s top talent as well as its depth. The latter might be weighed more or less depending on the position group; it would be more important to have multiple running backs than multiple quarterbacks, for example.

Previously …
May 1 — Quarterbacks
May 2 — Running backs
May 3 — Receivers
May 4 — Offensive line
May 6 — Defensive line
May 8 — Linebackers
May 11 — Secondary