LOS ANGELES—UCLA’s special teams have been getting a lot of attention of late and that’s not necessarily a good thing.
Like referees, nobody notices special teams unless something goes wrong.
In a season in which UCLA’s offense has exceeded expectations and its defense seems to be improving week-to-week, gaffes by the Bruins’ special teams have provided some of the most memorable moments of the first seven games.
It started with three blocked extra points in the season opener and continued through last week when mistakes by the punt and punt return teams made a 21-14 victory over Utah a lot more of a nail biter than it should have been.
They all add up to an assortment of embarrassments that have stained what coach Jim Mora called an otherwise solid first half by his special teams.
“We’ve had a couple of plays that make our special teams appear not as good as they are,” Mora said, later adding “There’s just a couple of kind of blunders that have really stuck out.”
The one that stands out most -- perhaps because it was most recent but probably because it was most costly -- came last week against Utah. Punt returner Steven Manfro lined up at the UCLA 20 yard line ready to field a punt.
Utah’s Sean Sellwood -- the nation’s leading punter -- got off a 65-yard punt that sailed over Manfro’s head. Instead of letting it go as punt returners are taught to do on balls over their heads, Manfro drifted backwards and tried to make an awkward over-the-shoulder catch at the three yard line. He muffed it and Utah recovered in the end zone for a touchdown.
“I was backpedaling but I didn’t think I got that deep,” Manfro said. “When the punt is in the air, I’m only focused on the ball. I need to get into my routine being more aware of where I am on the field because I know I shouldn’t be catching anything that goes past the 10 yard line and I need to think about that before he actually punts it.”
Later in that game, UCLA led 21-14 and ran the clock down to eight seconds before punting the ball away. Utah went for the block, but Jeff Locke got it off and the clock would run out with no Utes player back to return. But the ball landed and bounced toward Logan Sweet, who grabbed it out of the air with one second remaining.
That allowed Utah a desperation play to try and tie the score. It failed, but the mistake did not go unnoticed.
“It bothered me because we gathered them around the sideline and we said OK we’re going to go bleed punt,” Mora said. “Then I went back and looked at the film and the thing popped right over him and it was just and athletic and instinctive reaction to put his hands up. The only other option he would have had was to duck. I cut him a little slack there, but I also took it as a great opportunity to learn.”
The season opener against Rice provided such a learning opportunity. The Owls blocked three extra points in that game and the staff made adjustments. Kicker Ka’imi Fairbairn is 21-for-21 on extra point attempts since.
He is only nine of 14 on field goal attempts, however, and is 0-for-4 on attempts of longer than 35 yards. Still, Mora remains confident in his true freshman kicker.
“Even though he’s missed a couple of kicks, he’s a young guy who is developing,” Mora said. “We like him a lot and just to get him out in front of his teammates and feel that they have faith and they have confidence in him, I think that helps him.”
Not all has been bad on special teams for UCLA this season. In fact, punter Jeff Locke has been downright impressive. He’s punted 40 times this year and while his average is a rather pedestrian 41.9 yards, you can’t beat his accuracy.
Locke has placed half of those punts inside the opponents’ 20 and 14 of those have been inside the 10. He’s only had four punts go for touchbacks and opponents have managed to return only five of those punts.
“I don’t think anyone has been as consistent as Jeff Locke in terms of pinning the team inside the 10 yard line,” Mora said. “Not even the 20 yard line but the 10.”
But as good as Locke has been, UCLA’s special teams are still a work in progress. Manfro made a mental error trying to field that punt against Utah, saying he thought about a punt against Rice that he let go only to have the Owls down it at the one yard line.
If it doesn’t happen again, you chalk it up as a learning experience, but twice this season UCLA has made the same error on punt returns. Against Rice and again against California, members of the punt return unit ran into the punt returner trying to make a fair catch. Both plays led to fumbles recovered by the opponent.
Mora said the return man is supposed to yell out “Peter, Peter, Peter” on punts that could pose a problem for the blockers and the blockers either didn’t hear it or the return man didn’t say it on those plays.
“We didn’t do a good enough job as coaches of emphasizing it and then we didn’t do a good job executing it on the field,” Mora said. “We have guys back there returning punts that have a lot of talent but haven’t done it a lot and they get locked in on the ball and they forget to say ‘Peter.’”
While those mistakes have been costly, none has yet cost UCLA a game. The muffed punt against California was the only major special teams gaffe that came in a loss and UCLA would have lost that game with or without that fumble.
Still, Mora acknowledged the need to get the special teams to a point where they go a bit more unnoticed.
“We work hard on special teams,” Mora said. “We take pride in it and when it doesn’t go exactly right, it’s bothersome and we go back and attack it pretty hard again. It’s something we’ve got to get cleaned up as we go forward and I think that we will.”