Pac-12: Trevor Davis

Pac-12 enjoying many happy returns

November, 11, 2014
Nov 11
11:00
AM ET
If you play in the Pac-12, there’s never been a better time to be a return man. Because business is booming.

Already with 19 kicks returned for touchdowns -- punt and kickoff -- the Pac-12 is the leading conference in FBS football this season when it comes to taking it to the house. The SEC -- with two additional teams -- is next with 16.

This is by far the greatest season for returners since the Pac-12 became the Pac-12 in 2011. That year, the conference saw 14 kicks returned for scores. The number declined the next two years (13 in 2012 and 12 in 2013) before a massive spike this season. In fact, the Pac-12 this season has the highest rate of kicks returned for a touchdown per game than any other league since the SEC in 2011.

[+] EnlargeKaelin Clay
Rick Osentoski/USA TODAY SportsUtah's Kaelin Clay is tops among Pac-12 returners with four touchdowns (3 on punts, 1 on kickoffs).
Asked for any sort of rhyme or reason for the special teams spike, almost every Pac-12 coach pointed to one common element: Great returners.

“Returns start with returners that have a knack for making people miss and hitting those creases,” said Utah coach Kyle Whittingham, whose team has a league-high four returns (three punt, one kick). “It’s either something you have or you don’t have. It’s tough to train a guy to become a great returner. The No. 1 factor would be that there are a bunch of athletes in this conference that have that capability to miss the first guy, make the next two or three miss as the case may be and finding those creases in the coverage and hitting them.”

Whittingham’s guy, Kaelin Clay, has been the class of the league when it comes to returns. With three scores on punt returns and another on kickoffs, he leads a very talented group. But he’s not the only one with multiple scores. California’s Trevor Davis (two kick returns), Oregon’s Charles Nelson (two punt returns), Stanford’s Ty Montgomery (two punt returns) and USC’s Nelson Agholor (two punt returns) are also in the multi-TD club.

Players with one touchdown include Arizona’s Cayleb Jones (kick) and DaVonte' Neal (punt), Oregon State’s Ryan Murphy (kick), UCLA’s Ishmael Adams (kick), USC’s Adoree' Jackson (kick) and Washington’s John Ross (kick) and Dante Pettis (punt, Washington's first since 2003).

One can argue the flip side, being that kick coverage in the Pac-12 is down. Only Arizona, Oregon and Washington haven't yielded a special teams touchdown. Washington State has the dubious honor of allowing a league-high six returns for touchdowns this season.

“In our case, I think we need more of an identity on defense and our lack of that has hurt us on special teams,” said head coach Mike Leach, who swapped special teams coaches midseason. “I think individual effort (plays a role), we’ve had some young guys out there. I feel like we should be playing better on special teams across the board.”

Funny thing, those special teams touchdowns. Sometimes they play out exactly as they are drawn up. Other times it’s simply outstanding athleticism from a return guy that makes the difference.

“You can put the film on and there are times when you don’t block anybody and the guy runs it back 100 yards for a touchdown, and there are other times if you don’t have a special return guy, you block everybody and he still gets tackled,” Cal head coach Sonny Dykes said. “There are so many skilled athletes in this league and guys that are capable of big returns. I think it starts there.”

We can all pretty much agree that having an outstanding crop of returners is by far the most important element of the equation. But there are a few other factors to consider. For starters, scoring in the league is up. The Pac-12 leads all conferences with 34.1 points per game. That’s the highest it’s been since the league expanded to 12 teams and the highest scoring average in at least a decade. More points means more kickoffs. There are also lots of sacks and tackles for a loss, which creates more punts.

Additionally, most teams use younger players on special teams to give regular defensive starters a rest. You throw talented returners into the mix and you have return touchdowns trending up.

“When you don’t have depth, the No. 1 part of your team that gets hurt is special teams,” Dykes explained. “There’s more kickoffs and it’s a wide-open league. Everyone is going through what we are. You’re kicking off a lot, and then having to play young players on those coverage units, and the combination of really good returners is usually the recipe for disaster.”

Well, only if you’re on a coverage team.
» More team previews: ACC | Big 12 | Big Ten | Pac-12 | SEC

Previewing the 2014 season for the California Golden Bears:

2013 record: 1-11, 0-9 Pac-12.

Final grade for 2013: F. You don’t beat an FBS team, you don’t pass. It’s as simple as that.

[+] EnlargeJared Goff
Thearon W. Henderson/Getty ImagesJared Goff passed for 3,508 yards and 18 touchdowns last season.
Key returnees: QB Jared Goff, WR Bryce Treggs, WR Chris Harper

Key losses: OLB Khairi Fortt, TE Richard Rodgers, DT Viliami Moala

Instant impact newcomers: WR Trevor Davis, RB Tre Watson, WR Erik Brown

Projected winning percentage (ESPN.com Stats & Information): .313

Chances to win the conference (ESPN.com Stats & Information): 0.0 percent.

Most important game: vs. Colorado, Sept. 27

Biggest question mark: Can they stop anyone? Defensively, Cal was historically bad in 2013 and unless that’s rectified, it won’t matter how potent the offense might be.

Best-case scenario: 4-8

Worst-case scenario: 0-12

Over/under win total (Bovada): 2.5

Upset special: Northwestern. Cal came within a few tipped passes of beating Northwestern last season and we have to allow for the possibility the Bears made the most of the offseason and start the season on the right foot.

They said it: "You know, in our profession, you are kind of what your record says you are. So you go from being pretty smart to being pretty dumb overnight, and it's a tough thing to live with.” — coach Sonny Dykes
BERKELEY, Calif. -- Headed into his second season at Cal, there's still a lot coach Sonny Dykes needs to learn about his team. Seemingly left with more questions than answers at the end of Year 1, it was clear the spring would be a fact-finding mission as much as anything.

Except at receiver.

There has been some minor tweaking going on during the first two-thirds of spring practice, but it's clear that the coaching staff is confident in the receivers -- perhaps more than any other group on the team.

[+] EnlargeChris Harper
Kirby Lee/USA TODAY SportsChris Harper had 70 catches for 852 yards and five touchdowns in 2013.
'There's some [Pac-12 teams that] probably return, maybe more productive guys than we did, but we've got a lot of guys who can play," Dykes said. "I think our depth has got to be probably as good as anybody's in terms of guys who have played and guys who are starting to to come into their own."

It starts with the duo of Chris Harper and Bryce Treggs, who combined for 147 catches for 1,603 yards a year ago, but Kenny Lawler also was productive (37 catches, 347 yards, 5 TD) -- especially late in the season -- and several others are fighting for playing time.

Assistant head coach Rob Likens, who is responsible for the outside receivers, doesn't hesitate to call the receivers the team's strongest unit -- and that he tells them that every day.

"They have to put it on their shoulders," Likens said of the group's importance to the team. "Experience breeds confidence, and that’s the thing we were lacking last year.

"Obviously, when you’re running a new offense, that first year they don’t know what to expect in a game, how its all going to work out. So we’ve gone through that process already, so they know coming into the spring how [the rest of the conference] is going to play."

The most notable change has been Treggs' move from outside to inside receiver. The move was done as part of an effort to get him the ball more often and engineer more matchups against safeties and linebackers. Making the same position change is 6-foot-6 Drake Whitehurst, who provides the closest look to what the Bears had from Richard Rodgers a year ago.

On the right side, Stephen Anderson and Darius Powe are battling at the inside spot, but Likens said both struggled with too many drops last fall. With Treggs inside, the left outside receiver spot is a competition between Hawaii transfer Trevor Davis and junior Maurice Harris. They are splitting time with the first team.

With such a talented group of receivers and a promising young quarterback in Jared Goff, Cal certainly has the potential to evolve into a dangerous Pac-12 offense, but other deficiencies need to get cleaned up. Namely the running game.

"And we know that. We stressed that this spring," Likens said. "[Last year,] we got into games and we realized that everybody realized that we couldn’t run the ball, so it is a lot of pressure on some very young skill guys."

Likens said Cal will "rely heavily on" a pair of incoming freshman running backs, Tre Watson and Vic Enwere.

Cal will plays its spring game on April 26, at which point the coaching staff will turn the responsibility over to the players to get better. Most, if not all, are expected to be around for a majority of the summer.

"In this offense, that’s crucial," Likens said. "If you don’t do that, you don’t have a chance."

It's an expectation Lawler said the players have bought into, and only partially because of the 1-11 season.

Lawler doesn't believe the lack of success had anything to do with last offseason's effort -- "We actually worked out really hard," he said -- but admitted he's willing to work harder and give more things up this time around.

SPONSORED HEADLINES

PAC-12 SCOREBOARD

Friday, 12/26
Saturday, 12/20
Monday, 12/22
Tuesday, 12/23
Wednesday, 12/24
Saturday, 12/27
Monday, 12/29
Tuesday, 12/30
Wednesday, 12/31
Thursday, 1/1
Friday, 1/2
Saturday, 1/3
Sunday, 1/4
Monday, 1/12