Cliff Grassmick / Staff Photographer
Cliff Grassmick / Staff Photographer
While the Colorado football team had a fantastic season in 2016, its special teams were not exactly special.
That phase of the game was clearly a weakness for the Buffaloes throughout the season. In fact, special teams have been an issue for the past couple of years.
CU’s field goal percentage over the last two seasons (63.6 percent) is the worst in the Pac-12. After getting six kicks blocked in 2015, the Buffs had four blocked last year (they had a total of two blocked from 2012-14). Opponents scored three touchdowns with CU’s punt team on the field last year.
Head coach Mike MacIntyre took some steps in the offseason to address the special teams issues.
In February, Ross Els was hired to coach linebackers, but he was also brought in because of his extensive experience with special teams. The Buffs went with a committee approach to coaching special teams last year, but MacIntyre said this spring, “It’s still a little bit up on the air, but basically (Els) is going to be doing the special teams.”
The Buffs also brought in some more competition at kicker, signing 30-year-old freshman James Stefanou, a former professional soccer player from Australia. While Stefanou has never played in an American football game, he should at least provide competition in fall camp.
During the next couple of weeks, BuffZone.com will take a look at each position group for the Buffaloes. We start by looking at the specialists.
Returnees: Snapper J.T. Bale (So., 6-2, 205); kicker Chris Graham (Sr., 6-3, 240); punter/holder Alex Kinney (Jr., 6-1, 205); kicker Nick Porter (So., 6-0, 185); kicker Davis Price (So., 6-2, 190).
Additions: Kicker James Stefanou (Fr., 6-1, 185); kicker Taylor Wagner (So., 6-0, 175).
Losses: Kicker Diego Gonzalez (graduated); holder Robert Orban (graduated).
2016 recap: CU’s kicking game changed dramatically after Gonzalez tore an Achilles’ tendon in the third game of the year. Before his season-ending injury, Gonzalez was 3-for-4 on field goals, 16-for-16 on extra points and had put 16 of his 19 kickoffs into the end zone for touchbacks. He was showing the type of improvement CU needed from him after a tough 2015 season. CU had a streak of 156 consecutive extra points made before Graham missed one the week after Gonzalez went down. Overall, the Buffs went 34-for-37 (91.9 percent) on extra points and 14 of 22 (63.6 percent) on field goals after Gonzalez’s injury. It got bad enough at one point that MacIntyre sent punter Alex Kinney in to try a field goal, and even that one missed. Graham did have a solid year on kickoffs, however. Kinney, meanwhile, was unable to continue the momentum he built during the second half of his freshman season in 2015. He didn’t pin opponents deep as often as he did in 2015, and the Buffs’ punt team struggled as a whole. Opponents averaged 13.1 yards per punt return, compared to 6.5 in 2015.
2017 outlook: In ESPN’s special teams efficiency rankings, the Buffs have ranked 120th (in 2013), 103rd (2014), 82nd (2015) and 118th (last year) in MacIntyre’s four years. Those rankings shouldn’t be taken as the definitive measurement for special teams, but the bottom line is that this has been an area of weakness during MacIntyre’s tenure. He’s had a dedicated special teams coach (2013-15) and went with a committee approach (2016). Now, it appears the Buffs will try a bit of a hybrid approach, with Els leading the way, but other coaching chipping in. Regardless of how the Buffs choose to coach special teams, they need to get better. Field goal kicking can’t continue to be the adventure it’s been the last two years, and they need to avoid the blocked kicks. Kinney has the ability to produce a bounce-back year and get even better than he was in the second half of 2015, when he was one of the better punters in the Pac-12. At kicker, it’s a mystery what the Buffs will do. Stefanou’s arrival makes that competition interesting, but don’t count out the incumbents. Graham’s got some experience under his belt and Price showed some flashes last season as a true freshman walk-on; both just lacked consistency. Whichever kicker is the most consistent is likely to wind up with the job – at least coming out of camp. Holding onto the job will be another task.