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Football Preview Weekish: Special teams

I would absolutely watch a sitcom based on Desi Cullen's haircut in this photo.

I would absolutely watch a sitcom based on Desi Cullen's haircut in this photo.

As part of TheUConnBlog’s 2009 football Season Preview Week, we’re rolling out the position primers and opponent capsules. Today, we wrap up the players on the field with a look at the special teams.

Previously on TheUConnBlog: Let’s say that there’s a mythical father-son tandem somewhere in Everytown, USA. For the sake of the story, the father is a decent parent – he tries to keep the son out of trouble, to keep his son from costing him money, time and aggravation. And everything would be working out fine, except for the fact that his otherwise-normal son is a huge klutz.

He trips over himself, falls into puddles at random, never found a bench he couldn’t trip over. The father becomes exasperated trying to figure out ways to keep the kid from breaking a leg just about every day. Finally, he decides that the kid just needs constant supervision.

So he works with the kid, tries to teach him how to avoid crashing his bike into telephone poles, how to stop spilling soup on their dog, and to never play lawn darts with the neighbor boys. Finally, after some time, the kid starts to get the message and does his best to be more aware of all the pitfalls we experience every day.

And you know what happened to that kid?

He was actually dead the whole time.

Wait … what? Sorry about that. Where was I? Oh yeah - a somewhat-apt metaphor about UConn’s kicking-game woes over the past few years. Between blocked punts, missed field goals and occasional return-game clusterf---s, UConn has a ways to go to get to respectability. Luckily, it appears that Randy Edsall has targeted the problem, and as it turns out, there’s some reason to believe this unit can learn to avoid falling on its face as it did so many times in 2008.

The depth chart (2008 numbers in parentheses):

Kicker (FGs):

  1. #38 Dave Teggart, redshirt sophomore (13-for-15 FG, long 47; 16-for-16 EP)

Kicker (Kickoffs):

  1. #13 Desi Cullen, senior (72 KO, 4499 yds, 62.5 per, 10 touchbacks; opponents averaged 60.4 yards per kickoff with 4 touchbacks)

Punter:

  1. #13 Desi Cullen, senior (59 punts, 2351 yds, 39.8 per punt, 24 inside 20, 5 touchbacks)
  2. #13 Chad Christen, freshman (that number can’t be right … feel the confusion!)

Holder:

  1. #13 Desi Cullen, senior (6-foot, 200 lb punter)
  2. #10 Zach Frazer, redshirt junior (6-foot-4, 225 lb quarterback)

Long snapper:

  1. #93 Derek Chard, junior (6-foot-3, 241 lb tight end)
  2. #54 Alex Polito, redshirt junior (6-foot-5, 270 lb defensive tackle)

Kick returner:

  1. #23 Jordan Todman, sophomore (15 ret, 363 yds, 24.2 per return, 0 TD)
  2. #44 Robbie Frey, redshirt sophomore (14 ret, 280 yds, 20.0 per return, 0 TD)

Punt returner:

  1. #6 Jasper Howard, junior (28 ret, 306 yds, 10.9 per return, 1 TD)
  2. #42 Robert McClain, senior (5-foot-9, 196 lb cornerback)

2008 high points:

  • Howard’s 69-yard punt return TD against Syracuse, as part of a year in which he led the Big East in punt return yardage
  • Former kicker Tony Ciaravino’s two clutch field goals in the fourth quarter of the overtime win over Temple. They turned a 6-0 deficit into a tie and an eventual 12-9 OT win. Yes, I’m ignoring Ciarvavino’s three misses that day. It was during a damned hurricane, after all.

2008 low points: Where to begin?

  • The Huskies had six punts blocked last season – including three in the nightmarish loss to North Carolina – with a backup punt protector for most of the season. Syracuse, Cincinnati and Pittsburgh were also lucky recipients of free field position at low, low prices.
  • Ciaravino earned the adjective "former kicker" on Oct. 18, when he missed THREE field goals – including the potential game-winner from 47 yards out with a minute to play – in the Huskies’ 12-10 loss at Rutgers.
  • Elsewhere in the Rutgers game – one of the all-time games for special teams blunders – Robbie Frey’s mishap on the second half kickoff gave UConn possession at their own 1-yard line; after a 3-and-out, Rutgers used a short field to score their only touchdown of the day.
  • Oh, you wanted more Rutgers-game errors? How about Jasper Howard letting a pair of punts roll inside the Huskies’ 5-yard line, the second of which led to an inevitable safety which provided the Scarlet Knights’ margin of victory? Urge to kill … rising.

Just goin’ off popular consensus:

Phil Steele: Ranks the Huskies’ ST unit fifth in the conference; Howard first-team All-Big East at punt returner; Teggart 3rd-team at kicker; Cullen 4th-team at punter

Athlon: Does not rank the Big East special teams; no Huskies on the first or second all-conference teams

Rivals.com: Ranks the Huskies second(!) in the conference; Howard first-team all-conference

Our outlook: If the quarterback position has been an Achilles’ heel in recent years, the special teams have been shin splints: painful to watch, and you never know when they’re going to get better. Although in fairness, the dark days of missing extra points and shanking kickoffs out of bounds seem to be past.

Teggart was a relative God-send over the second half of last season at placekicker, making all 11 field goal attempts from inside 40 yards (his two misses came from 42 in the bowl game and 53 against Pitt). He’s a kid with a strong, accurate leg who has a maximum range of about 55, judging by pregame warm-ups. Realistically, he appears to be a solid bet from 50 yards and in.

Cullen, the owner of the greatest self-given nickname in UConn history – "The Kentucky Hammer" – has a solid leg, averaging 40 yards a punt. That average includes the two blocked punts credited to Cullen (the other four, as well as two other punts, are credited to "team"; no idea how that is sorted out). Protection was obviously a major issue last year, but if the line gives Teggart and Cullen the time to do their thing, that’s about as solid a 1-2 punch as you’ll find in the Big East.

To Randy Edsall’s credit, at least he’s taking charge and working to fix last season’s missed assignments, and Cullen vows that he’ll get rid of the ball quicker. Whether those flaws are fixed remains to be seen, but at least there’s reason for optimism.

The return game is less solid, but still decent. Jasper Howard still has his issues with handling punts, and he needs to make better decisions on when to fair catch and when to let a ball bounce, but he’s got the speed to bring back fond memories of Larry Taylor.

Losing Darius Butler (23.5 yds per return) hurts the kick return game, and you have to wonder if Jordan Todman can return kicks and get a full workload at tailback. Robbie Frey, at least, had the Huskies’ longest kick return last year (54 yards) and figures to get plenty of touches as a specialist. The kick return unit figures to be the weakest area of the special teams, unless Edsall can wrangle a couple spare wide receivers with blazing speed and vision.

Overall, special teams should be much improved; at the very least, I expect that they will be good enough to not put the offense and defense in terrible situations most games.

Position grade: B-minus