University of Washington

UW Spring Football Preview: Special Teams

Washington place kicker Van Soderberg (42) kicks a field goal in the second quarter. The Washington Huskies played the California Golden Bears in a football game at Husky Stadium in Seattle, Wash., on Saturday, Oct. 7, 2017.
Washington place kicker Van Soderberg (42) kicks a field goal in the second quarter. The Washington Huskies played the California Golden Bears in a football game at Husky Stadium in Seattle, Wash., on Saturday, Oct. 7, 2017.

Talking about special teams leading up to spring camp might not sound thrilling but it is an area of concern for the Washington Huskies once they start practicing March 26.

If UW's defense held and the offense needed strong field position, it could count on Dante Pettis to do something in the punt return game. Pettis, who was a senior last season, is gone and the Huskies are on the search for his replacement. Whoever wins the job will be tasked with providing an instant jolt much like Pettis, the NCAA's all-time leader in career punt returns for touchdowns.

Another hole the Huskies must fill is at place kicker now that Tristan Vizcaino, who was also a senior, graduated.

Here's a look at what to watch for with the special teams when the Huskies open camp starting Wednesday.

THE BIGGEST QUESTION IS ... ?

Replacing Pettis and Vizcaino are the primary affairs for the Huskies' special teams unit. Pettis' prowess goes beyond scoring touchdowns. He made UW the best punt return unit in America last season. The Huskies averaged 18.32 yards per return and that was the highest in college football. UW was also first in touchdowns with four and yards per return with 35.2.

Junior receiver Aaron Fuller was behind Pettis last season on the depth chart. He had three returns for 13 yards in 2017. Fuller was also returned punts in high school and scored two touchdowns during his senior year. It's possible UW could consider incoming freshman and four-star cornerback Kyler Gordon. Gordon isn't an early enrollee but he did serve as a kickoff and punt return specialist as a senior.

Former Olympia Capital kicker Van Soderberg appears set to replace Vizcaino. He went 1-for-3 on field goals last season. UW has three place kickers on its roster going into camp but Soderberg is the only one who has played a collegiate game.

FAMILAR FACES

There's actually quite a few returning players in important spots for the Huskies. Salvon Ahmed, who will be a sophomore, was the team's No. 1 kickoff return option. The speedy Ahmed ripped off 14 returns for an average of 25.2 yards per run with his longest being an 82-yarder.

Punter Joel Whitford is also back for his junior season. He was a junior college transfer who averaged 42.3 yards per attempt in his first year with the Huskies. Fifteen of his 42 attempts were inside the 20-yard line while he also launched 10 attempts that went for more than 50 yards.

UW also returns long snapper A.J. Carty and holder Race Porter. Although Ariel Ngata took a redshirt in his first year, he enters this season as the teams's reigning Brian Stapp Special Teams Scout Squad Player of the Year Award winner.

GOING FORWARD

Huskies coach Chris Petersen and his staff have used special teams as a way to develop players. It's how players like linebackers Tevis Bartlett and Ben Burr-Kirven gradually developed into becoming key starters over time.

UW will continue to use a similar format when it comes to monitoring the progress of players who could be used in important roles later down the road.

Washington did add some reinforcements to its special teams in recruiting. Kicker Dylan Williams will be a preferred walk-on who went 10-for-12 with field goals while converting all 73 of his extra point attempts.

Ryan S. Clark: @ryan_s_clark
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