Experience, consistency key to CU Buffs special teams

Alex Kinney returns after breaking collarbone last season against Nebraska

BOULDER, CO – August 3, 2019: James Stefanou during Colorado Football practice. (photo by Cliff Grassmick/Staff Photographer)

Each member of Colorado’s special teams unit takes pride in the roles they play for the Buffaloes.

During the course of a two- or three-hour practice, however, there are only so many kicks a leg can take. So, the focus turns to other pressing matters.

“(The rest of the team) is over there practicing and we have to either stay warm on a bike or stretch or something,” senior punter Alex Kinney said. “We get some weird conversations going, some different arguments that we like to talk about. It’s something random, like how many marbles would fit in a Gatorade bottle. Just random stuff to argue about.”

The Buffs’ specialists have yet to experiment and find the answer, but that anecdote speaks to the camaraderie of what might be the best non-receiver group on the team.

Along with Kinney, who is in his fifth year with the Buffs, CU returns junior place kicker James Stefanou, senior kickoff specialist Davis Price and senior snapper J.T. Bale. Each of them has been in their roles for at least two seasons coming into this fall.

“It’s awesome,” Kinney said. “First year, you’re kinda new into things. Now, I know what Davis is going to need almost every day, I know James and J.T.; I know really everyone on the special teams what they need and how they need it.”

Kinney wasn’t supposed to be here this fall, but a broken collarbone at Nebraska last September caused him to miss eight games and allowed him to take a redshirt year. He handled every CU punt from 2015 until his injury last year. He got progressively better as time went on and was hitting his stride last year before the injury.

“I’d say I’m back to where I was if not better,” said Kinney, who returned for the final two games of 2018. “I had so much time to work on the drops so it’s so much more consistent. Leg speed, at some point, it’s the same thing you’ve had for a while. It’s just hitting that A ball every single time.”

Stefanou, who came to CU in 2017, also dealt with injuries last year, but is healthy and feeling stronger than ever coming into the season.

Price has done a little of everything, including filling in as punter in Kinney’s absence last year, and has been very good in handling kickoffs the past two seasons.

Bale, meanwhile, isn’t well known among CU fans, but that’s because he’s so good. He has snapped the ball for every punt, field goal and extra point since the start of the 2016 season (383 snaps in all). Most of those have landed in the hands of Kinney, who doubles as punter and holder.

“He hasn’t had a single bad snap – knock on wood – in a game,” Kinney said. “If the snap is bad, that messes up the hold or messes up the kick. He’s just there to do his job and he does it perfect every time.”

It’s so common for good snaps, in fact, that Kinney and Bale always celebrate a successful kick with a chest bump.

“Oh yeah, it’s awesome,” Kinney said of holding. “That’s just fun. I’m not worried about it. I’ve done it 1,000 times and it’s so easy just to catch and put it down. That’s where I have fun. I’ll do some celebrations and I’m trying to get the holder of the year award. You have to celebrate and you have to make field goals to get that.”

The Buffs are hoping for a lot of celebrations this year from the special teams unit, which is one of the best in the Pac-12. Kinney can’t wait to see how good the group can be.

“We’re just more consistent,” he said. “We’ve been there. I’ve been through just about everything: wind games, snow games, everything … broken collarbone. It’s just that consistency.

“I’m real excited. I’m not going to break my collarbone again this year, hopefully, so I’m excited to finish out senior year.”

BOULDER, CO – August 3, 2019: Alex Kinney is interviewed by Mark Johnson during Colorado Football practice and Fall sports media day.(photo by Cliff Grassmick/Staff Photographer)

A quick look at each position on the CU special teams:

Kickers: James Stefanou is healthy again and ready to get back to the form that made him a Lou Groza Award semifinalist in 2017. He is 22-of-30 on field goals in his career. Davis Price has put 57 percent of his career kickoffs into the end zone for touchbacks and has also kicked field goals and punted. Redshirt freshmen Evan Price and Tyler Francis both filled in admirably for an injured Stefanou last year and provide good depth.

Punters: Alex Kinney had the best year of his career in 2017 and was putting together another strong year before breaking his collarbone last year. He’s a weapon on special teams because of his ability to pin the opponent inside the 20-yard line (73 times in his career). Davis Price serves as backup.

Returners: Last year’s top returner, Ronnie Blackmon, transferred. Redshirt freshman receiver Dimitri Stanley is slated to take over as punt returner – a role his father, Walter, filled for the Buffs in 1981. Receiver KD Nixon is listed as the top kick returner; he has averaged 22.6 yards on 17 career returns.

SNAPSHOT: CU special teams

Projected depth chart

Position      First team                                               Second team                          

PK              James Stefanou, Jr., 6-1, 190                   Evan Price, Fr., 6-1, 180

P                 Alex Kinney, Sr., 6-1, 205                      Davis Price, Sr., 6-2, 205

HOLD        Kinney                                                     Josh Goldin, Sr., 6-2, 190

SNAP         J.T. Bale, Sr., 6-2, 215                             James Townsend, Fr., 6-0, 215

KOR           K.D. Nixon, Jr., 5-8, 185                         Jarek Broussard, Fr., 5-9, 180

PR               Dimitri Stanley, Fr., 5-11, 185                Nixon

Five to watch

SNAP J.T. Bale, Jr.: Has handled all 383 snaps for punters and kickers the past three years and is one of the best snappers in the country.

P Alex Kinney, Sr.: Enters his fifth year as the Buffs’ punter and is healthy after breaking his collarbone last year.

K Davis Price, Sr.: During the past two years, he has handled all but one kickoff for the Buffs, sending a majority of them into the end zone for touchbacks.

PR Dimitri Stanley, Fr.: A dynamic play-maker who will also start at slot receiver, he is expected to handle punt returns.

PK James Stefanou, Jr.: Had a good season in 2017 (17-for-22 on field goals) and an injury-riddled 2018. He’s got potential to be an all-Pac-12 kicker.

2018 Statistics

Rankings                    Avg.                Pac-12             National

Field goal %                68.8                 9                      87

Punting avg.                39.3                 11                    104

Kickoff returns           20.8                 6                      57

Kickoff return def.     18.3                 1                      21

Punt returns                 7.9                   8                      77

Punt return def.           4.7                   1                      20

Top returning individuals

Kicking

James Stefanou: 6-for-8 on field goals (41 long), 30-for-30 on PAT

Evan Price: 4-for-5 on field goals (37 long), 5-for-5 on PAT

Tyler Francis: 2-for-2 on field goals (48 long), 5-for-5 on PAT

Punting

Davis Price: 48 for 1,842 yards; 38.38 gross; 36.8 net

Alex Kinney: 16 for 670 yards; 41.88 gross; 41.6 net

Kickoff returns

K.D. Nixon: 6 for 123 yards (20.5 average)

Punt returns

K.D. Nixon: 1 for minus-1 yard (minus-1.0 average)

Numbers to know

3 – Kicks blocked by the Buffs last year, the most by a CU team since also having three in 2012.

41.17 – Career punting average for Alex Kinney, ranking 12th in CU history.

70 – Special teams points accumulated by Beau Bisharat in his career. He ranks seventh in CU annals and is on pace to finish second.

73 – Career punts landed into the 20-yard line for Kinney. That’s second in CU history behind Darragh O’Neill (95).

132 – Career points for James Stefanou. He currently ranks 10th in CU history for kickers and 30th among all players.