SEATTLE – The only complaint that could be lodged against Travis Coons last season was that he was only one person. The Huskies would have preferred him to be three. Or at least two.
But as it was, Coons alone handled each of the UW’s kicking duties – place-kicking, punts and, by midseason, kickoffs. And he handled them well, earning second-team All-Pac-12 recognition for his punting and converting 15 of his 16 field-goal attempts.
First-year UW coach Chris Petersen last week referred to Coons as “an unsung hero,” despite the fact he never coached him.
So while the Huskies are not fortunate that Coons graduated and is now competing for the starting kicker job with the Tennessee Titans, they do seem to be fortunate to have a few different players – instead of just one – capable of kicking and punting in 2014.
As it stands now, sophomore Cameron Van Winkle has a strong hold on the place-kicking job, and will kickoff some, too. UW’s ideal scenario, special-teams coordinator Jeff Choate said, would be to have freshman Tristan Vizcaino help handle kickoffs, especially in high-scoring games. And junior Korey Durkee has punted the ball well enough throughout fall camp to lay claim to that position, with Vizcaino providing competition behind him.
“For us to be able to take a little bit off the plate of each one of those guys and let them focus on their specialty, I think that’s going to be beneficial for us this season,” Choate said.
Of course, Coons didn’t start last season with all three jobs. Van Winkle, a scholarship player from Mount Si High School, handled the kickoff duties in the Huskies’ first five games. But a back injury ended his season.
It was bad enough, Van Winkle admits, that he couldn’t help but think sometimes whether the injury might end his career.
“But I trusted in the staff here,” he said. “They knew what they were doing. All that rehab helped out a lot.”
He was able to practice in spring, though coaches took it easy on him to ensure a full recovery. Then he emerged during training camp as the Huskies’ best field-goal kicker.
“He’s been very consistent, especially over the last week, week and a half of practice, coming off the back (injury),” Choate said. “He’s had really no issues with that at all.”
Consistency from 40 yards and in has been an emphasis. Van Winkle explained that most field goals are kicked from that range, so most of his practice attempts are taken between 30 and 40 yards.
But he says he’s still got enough leg to boot it farther if need be. The other day, he said, the Huskies lined up for a 57-yard field goal in order to give the cover team a look at returning a field goal that comes up short of the back line of the end zone.
“I missed it by like a yard, against the wind,” Van Winkle said.
Durkee hasn’t punted since his freshman season in 2012, but his leg-strength shouldn’t be an issue; he boomed a kick during last week’s open scrimmage that he estimates traveled 75 yards in the air. Petersen’s teams have often implemented unique punting methods, such as rugby-style kicks on the move, and that’s something Durkee says he began working on last season.
And he said he’s starting to develop a good on-field rapport with Van Winkle as the team’s holder for field goals and PATs. Durkee did that last year, too.
So the Huskies will, essentially, replace Coons’ 2013 work-load with three different players. Because if they score a bunch of points – and judging by their nonconference schedule, they should – Choate would prefer to give Van Winkle a break.
“If we’re fortunate enough to get a lead or get a bunch of points on the board, we don’t really want him kicking off seven, eight times a game,” Choate said. “That’s what really tears those guys up, especially a guy with his history of back injury.
“We want to make sure that we are smart and manage him because he’s done a nice job as our place kicker and we want to be able to put points on the board, and Tristan’s certainly capable of going out and executing for us on kickoff.”
Christian Caple can be reached at email@example.com. Twitter: @ChristianCaple