Widgets Magazine
Football preview: Special Teams
Junior punter and kickoff man Jake Bailey will be one of the few returning pieces for the Stanford special teams unit, which needs to replace Conrad Ukropina, Christian McCaffrey and Dallas Llloyd.(BOB DREBIN/isiphotos)

Football preview: Special Teams

In a nutshell

Although often unheralded, special teams and the field position battles are undisputedly crucial components in determining the outcome of a football game, while also being a prime opportunity for young players to first make their mark. In fact, Christian McCaffrey, Stanford’s eighth overall pick in the 2017 NFL draft, first burst onto the scene as a gunner on punt coverage, making several impressive plays at the position during his freshman campaign in 2014.

The Cardinal have experienced great success in their kicking, punting and return games in recent years, led by a handful of special players under the direction of special teams coach Pete Alamar, in his 6th season at Stanford after recent stints at Fresno State and Cal. In 2016, the Stanford special teams squad excelled, ranking second and third in ESPN and Football Insiders’ Special Teams Efficiency ratings, respectively, up from eleventh and ninth rankings the year prior.

That top-three ranking of 2016 will not be easy to replicate in the coming season, given the loss of stud running back and return man McCaffrey and kicker Conrad Ukropina. But early indications give hope that those big shoes can adequately be filled, and Alamar is sure to have the kick and punt coverage teams in top shape, especially given the depth in positional players well suited to fill those roles.

While the kicker, punter and returner positions often claim notoriety and depth chart mentions, special teams excellence often depends on the guys blocking and covering the kicks. Stanford’s kick and punt coverage, in particular, have been excellent in Coach Alamar’s five seasons on the Farm.

This year should be no different, as Stanford has a host of talented and athletic depth at linebacker and defensive back, providing Alamar with numerous options to choose from. One choice he won’t find difficult, however, is whether to include Brandon Simmons on his coverage teams. Simmons, a backup safety recently elected as one of Stanford’s captains, has proven to be one of the best special teamers in the country in the last couple seasons. Look for him flying down the field, taking out opposing returners before they have any chance. With Simmons and Alamar leading the unit and with terrific depth at defensive back and cornerback, look for Stanford’s coverage units to again be one of the best in the Pac-12. Once again, Coach Shaw will have no hesitancy in trusting his coverage units to flip the field and win the ever-important field position battle.

Who’s returning?

Jake Bailey (P) – Bailey has been a steady force punting for the Cardinal in his time on the Farm and has developed into one of the top punters in the country. In 2016, he averaged 43.52 yards per punt, the fourth-best season average in school history, and was just named to the preseason watch list for the 2017 Ray Guy Award, given annually to the nation’s best punter.

Bailey is also in the running to take on the holding duties on field goals and extra points, working with senior short snapper C.J. Keller. Dallas Lloyd handled those duties last year.

Bryce Love (KR/PR) – Assuming the primary kick return duties this year will be junior running back Bryce Love. He’s returned six kicks in his Stanford career so far, but with his 4.4 speed and proven ability to make people miss, he should succeed in following up the strong kick returning legacy left by his predecessors McCaffrey and Ty Montgomery.

Between Jay Tyler and Love taking punts and kicks, the Cardinal should be in for at least a house call or two this season.

C.J. Keller (LS) – Keller has handled field goal snapping duties since his freshman year in 2014. He, along with Dallas Lloyd, setup Conrad Ukropina with consistent holds, which had allowed Stanford to be confident in its kicking game. Expect Keller to continue his consistency even with a new holder and kicker this season.

Ryan McNitzky (LS) – Like Keller, McNitzky came as a true freshman last season to take on long snapping duties. He was the No. 2 long snapper in the nation coming into college and showed it with his rapport with Jake Bailey, which led to a great season from the punting team. Look for Bailey and McNitzky to extend their brilliance into this season.

Newcomers to watch for

Jet Toner (K) – At kicker, redshirt freshman and former three-star recruit Jet Toner seems poised to take over Ukropina’s responsibilities. In the spring game, Toner made four field goals and showed off a powerful boot with a 47-yard make. Going back to high school in 2014, Toner’s longest make in a game is 54 yards.

Collin Riccitelli (K) – Backing up Toner will be redshirt freshman walk-on Collin Riccitelli, who has a similarly strong kicking leg. Neither Toner nor Riccitelli are expected to handle kick-off duties however, as junior punter Jake Bailey will continue to do that job, as he had 44 touchbacks on 71 kickoffs last year.

Jay Tyler (KR/PR) – The frontrunner to take McCaffrey’s place as punt returner is redshirt sophomore wide receiver Jay Tyler. Tyler has not seen the field much thus far in his Stanford career, but got two attempts to return punts last year, losing 11 yards combined. Forgetting the extremely small sample size, Tyler is shifty with 4.5 speed and a low center of gravity that allows him to bounce off would-be tacklers. He also will likely be a factor as a kick returner.

Key departures

Christian McCaffrey (PR/KR) – McCaffrey was the dynamic punt and kick returner for the Cardinal the past three years. He decided to forego his final year of eligibility to take his much heralded talents to Sundays with the Carolina Panthers.

McCaffrey had an incredible ability to create short fields for the Stanford offense either by eluding the coverage team for massive gains or by forcing the opposing punters/kickers to kick it shorter to avoid a run. His 63-yard punt return for a touchdown in the Rose Bowl encapsulated his electric impact on special teams.

Love and Tyler certainly have big shoes to fill.

Conrad Ukropina (K) – Stanford’s all-time leader in career kicking accuracy and field goals made in one season, Ukropina was a rock at his position. He connected on 22 of 27 of his field goals in 2016 and 18 of 20 in 2015, including the incredible game winner against Notre Dame.

He is currently working to finish a masters in business communications and has worked out with NFL teams.

Dallas Lloyd (HLD) – Lloyd, who was the starting strong safety, had held the holding duties the past two seasons before graduating. His level of consistency reflected the great amount of pride he had in that position. Not only will his impact on special teams need to be replaced but so will the intangibles he brought to the team.

Alex Robinson (P) – Robinson was the starting punter in the 2015 season where he had 38 punts which went on average 42.4 yards. Coming into the 2016 season, the team gave the starting nod to Jake Bailey and Robinson played in only three games and had four punts. He is pursuing a masters in Public Policy.

Projected Depth Chart

PK
Jet Toner
Collin Riccitelli
Jake Bailey

P
Jake Bailey
Charlie Beall

LS
C.J. Keller
Richard McNitzky
Will Sweeney

HLD
Jake Bailey

KR
Bryce Love
Jay Tyler
Cameron Scarlett

PR
Jay Tyler
Bryce Love

 

Contact Jamie MacFarlane at jamiemac ‘at’ stanford.edu.