THE GOOD, THE BAD, THE UGLY: After a few years in a row of subpar performances, Jeff Tedford let special teams coach Pete Alamar go after last season and replaced him with the personable Jeff Genyk, a longtime special teams coach at Northwestern and head coach at Eastern Michigan.
But the problems persisted. In terms of sheer numbers, Cal’s punt and kickoff coverage actually got worse this season. With the bowl season still to play, the Bears rank 107th nationally in punt return yardage against (12.95 yards per return). They are also on of just seven teams in the country that allowed two punt returns for touchdowns this season (one on a blocked punt against Arizona State). Two teams allowed three punts to be returned for scores.
The Bears ranked 83rd in punt return defense last season (10.52).
Kickoff return defense got worse as well. Last year, Cal ranked 58th nationally (21.49). This year, the Bears are at No. 84 (22.48).
Luckily for the Bears, punter Bryan Anger usually backed the opponent up fairly well before they started returning it for all that yardage. At times, Anger may have outkicked his coverage.
Anger was the clear bright spot of special teams. He looked more like his freshman year when he was one of the best punters in the country. He was stiill solid last year, but had his share of inconsistencies. This year, Anger rarely had a bad punt and oftentimes forced the returner to backpedal significantly to field one of his punts. Considering the struggles of Cal’s offense, that was huge.
At 45.56 yards per punt, Anger ranks eighth in the nation. He was also a finalist for the Ray Guy Award.
One of the reasons Tedford hired Genyk was his history working with kickers. Cal kicker Giorgio Tavecchio still needs some work. The good news is he consistently drove the ball deeper with his kickoffs this season. The bad news is he is still extremely inconsistent with his field goals, and needs to prove he can produce in the clutch, like he did last season at Arizona State.
Tavecchio finished the season 11-for-16 on field goals but just 4-for-8 between 30 and 50 yards. He also missed a couple of clutch field goal attempts that could have proven to be game-winners for the Bears. Cal has to hope that his performance in the season-finale against Washington, in which he made a career-best 53-yarder and also added a 47-yarder, can carry over to next season.
Jeremy Ross had an excellent season as Cal’s punt returner, consistently slipping out of tackles and making something out of apparently nothing a number of times. He ranks 18th nationally (12.68 yards per return).
Between Isi Sofele and Keenan Allen, the Bears had a nondescript season on kick returns. Despite the explosiveness of both players, you never really got the feeling either was going to break off a big return. That is more a statement of the entire unit than the athletes themselves. The unit ranks 73rd in the country (21.32).
MOVING FORWARD: Tedford has stuck by Tavecchio and says he clearly out-performs Cal’s other kickers in practice. But more than any position on the field, the kicker should be evaluated by his performance in games because of the pressure that comes with the job. The Bears still have Vince D’Amato, David Seawright and Jed Barnett on the roster. You’d have to think competition will be heightened in the spring and the fall.
Genyk must find a way to improve both kick and punt coverage, whether it be by finding new personnel or changing the schemes. The good news is the kickers are doing their job, especially Anger, who will be back for his senior season and should be a frontrunner for the Ray Guy Award once again.
The loss of Ross as punt returner won’t be talked about much but it is a significant one. He helped with field position for an offense that couldn’t move the ball consistently. Allen should be a leading candidate to replace Ross, or perhaps Coleman Edmond.