UCLA season preview: Special teams

July, 31, 2012
7/31/12
3:21
PM PT
With UCLA training camp set to begin Aug. 4 at Cal State San Bernardino, we're taking a preseason look at the roster and breaking down the Bruins position by position.

We've gone through the offense by looking at quarterbacks, offensive line, receivers and running backs. Before switching to defense, we'll take a look at the guys who help make that transition: Special teams specialists.

DEPTH CHARTS AT THE END OF SPRING PRACTICE:

FG Kicker
Joe Roberts (6-1, 206, So.)

Kickoffs
Jeff Locke (6-0, 207, Sr.)

Punter
Jeff Locke (6-0, 207, Sr.)
Michael Leamy (5-11, 183, Fr.)

Punt / Kickoff Return
None. These positions were listed in numerical order because of the ongoing competition.

Long Snapper
Kevin McDermott (6-4, 234, Sr.)
(others listed numerically)
Peter Hajimihalis (5-6, 180, Fr.)
Jay Weneta (6-0, 216, Fr.)
Christopher Longo (6-3, 200, Fr.)

PROJECTED OPENING-DAY DEPTH CHARTS:

FG Kicker
Ka'imi Fairbairn (6-0, 171, Fr.)
Jeff Locke (6-0, 207, Sr.)

Kickoffs
Jeff Locke (6-0, 207, Sr.)
Ka'imi Fairbairn (6-0, 171, Fr.)

Punter
Jeff Locke (6-0, 207, Sr.)
Ka'imi Fairbairn (6-0, 171, Fr.)

Punt Return
Shaq Evans (6-1, 201, Jr.)
Ricky Marvray (5-11, 192, Jr.)
Steven Manfro (5-9, 192, Fr.)
Devin Lucien (6-0, 200, Fr.)
Kenny Walker (5-9, 175, Fr.)
Randall Goforth (5-10, 173, Fr.)

Kickoff Return
Steven Manfro (5-9, 192, Fr.)
Jordon James (5-8, 193, So.)
Damien Thigpen (5-8, 178, Jr.)
Andrew Abbott (5-8, 180, Sr.)
Kenny Walker (5-9, 175, Fr.)
Randall Goforth (5-10, 173, Fr.)

Long Snapper
Kevin McDermott (6-4, 234, Sr.)
Christopher Longo (6-3, 200, Fr.)
Peter Hajimihalis (5-6, 180, Fr.)

KEY LOSSES:
Kip Smith, FG kicker, transfered.
Tyler Gonzalez, FG kicker, graduated.
Josh Smith, kick returner, graduated.
Taylor Embree, punt returner, graduated.

THE SKINNY:
After nearly a decade of no-worry kickers, UCLA ran into all kinds of issues last season when field-goal kicker Kip Smith struggled and then got injured and nobody on the team was up to the challenge of replacing him. Then-coach Rick Neuheisel eventually raided the men's soccer team and found a serviceable replacement there in Tyler Gonzalez, the soccer team manager.

This year, the field goal and extra point duties will fall on incoming freshman Ka'imi Fairbairn, a freshman from Hawaii rated the No. 4 high school kicker in the nation last season. While Fairbairn brings an impressive resume, one that includes a 55-yard field goal last season, he's still unproven at this level. The Bruins found out the hard way last season that touted freshman kickers don't always pan out.

The situation with kickoff and punt returners is also a major question mark that needs to be answered in camp. Taylor Embree, the mainstay punt returner the last two seasons, is gone and so is Josh Smith, the explosive kickoff return man.

The Bruins boast several quick, shifty athletes such as Steven Manfro, Jordon James and Damien Thigpen and all have the speed necessary to succeed as a kickoff returner so it's a matter of figuring out which has the best instincts for the gig. Spring practice did little to settle the issues there, though Manfro's kickoff return for a touchdown in the spring game is an indicator that he could be the top choice.

Finding a punt returner has proven to be more difficult. Punts are by nature more difficult to catch than kickoffs and that was clearly evident during practice, when UCLA players routinely struggled with fielding punts.

As receivers, Shaq Evans and Ricky Marvray have good hands so they figure to be the favorites going in to camp. Lucien is not listed as an official candidate, but he seems like an obvious choice with his combination of hands and speed. Incoming freshman Kenny Walker and Randall Goforth have highlight reels filled with impressive kickoff and punt returns, so look for them to get a look at those spots if the coaching staff is not averse to burning their redshirt years.

While the return positions are up in the air, punter and long snapper are in good hands as punter Jeff Locke and long snapper Kevin McDermott are among the best in the country at their respective positions.

Locke is a three-year starter who is No. 2 on UCLA's all-time punting average list at 44.58 yard per punt. He's a Ray Guy Award candidate with a strong and accurate leg and he is a pretty good bet to have the longest NFL career of anybody currently on the UCLA roster. Locke also handles kickoffs and had 21 of his 61 kickoffs go for touchbacks last season. He is a solid emergency field goal kicker as well as he showed last year when he made a 51-yarder against Texas.

McDermott took over from Christian Yount last season and was flawless in handling snaps on all field goals and punts. He's sure to follow Yount's footsteps to the NFL as UCLA is gathering a reputation for producing quality long snappers.

Depth is a bit of an issue among the kicking specialists at this point. While you don't expect a kicker or punter to get injured, it did happen last year when the Bruins lost Smith to a strained hip flexor and later got a scare when Locke suffered a shoulder injury.

Fairbairn handled punting and kickoffs in high school and Locke, as mentioned, can fill in as a field goal kicker, but as of now neither of those positions have an official backup. Former walk ons Joe Roberts and Micheal Leamy decided not to return to the team this year so look for the team to add a couple of walk-on kickers at some point during camp.

Peter Yoon

ESPNLosAngeles.com

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B. Hundley204148185613
RUSHINGCARYDSAVGTD
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