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CU Buffs’ special teams among nation’s best

Unit graded best in the country by Pro Football Focus

BOULDER, CO - Nov. 6, 2021: ...
University of Colorado Boulder’s Cole Becker (36) kicks the winning field goal to beat the Oregon State Beavers.(Cliff Grassmick/Staff Photographer)

Cole Becker had yet to play in a college game and Colorado head coach Karl Dorrell was already calling the freshman kicker the “Iceman.”

“I think it’s pretty funny,” Becker said. “I definitely don’t think I lived up to it the first part of the season, but I think I’ll get there at some point.”

It’s certainly better than the only other sports nickname he’s had.

“I used to play soccer and I used to be called Charlie Brown because I had a big head and I got a lot of header goals,” he said.

Last Saturday, Becker looked much more like the Iceman than Charlie Brown when he booted a 43-yard field goal to beat Oregon State, 37-34, in double overtime.

“(The phone) was blowing up,” Becker said of the reaction. “Somebody actually got my mom’s reaction on tape and posted it to Twitter. It was pretty cool. My family ended up on the field with most of the fans. It was really awesome. I had a bunch of people here and it was a really awesome environment to see everybody celebrating with me.”

Becker’s game-winner was one of many highlights for what has been a talented special teams unit for the Buffs (3-6, 2-4 Pac-12), who will visit UCLA (5-4, 3-3) at the Rose Bowl on Saturday (7 p.m. MST, TV: Pac-12 Network).

While the offense and defense have been up and down this year, CU’s special teams unit is graded as the best in the country by Pro Football Focus – slightly ahead of No. 1 Georgia’s special teams.

“All of our special teams other than one area – our field goal team – is among the top two or three in the conference,” Dorrell said. “So we feel good about the progress that’s been made there.”

BOULDER, CO – December 12, 2020: CU punter, Josh Watts, in Utah game. The Colorado Buffaloes and the Utah Utes played at Folsom Field in Boulder on December 12, 2020. (Cliff Grassmick/Staff Photographer)

Junior punter Josh Watts, in his second season with the Buffs, ranks fifth nationally in gross average (48.33), which is on pace to set a school record. Watts’ average is 7.43 yards better than last year – also on pace for a school record.

“It’s funny,” he said. “Everyone sort of says it’s been a huge difference, but I just don’t really think about it. I really just think about doing my job. Don’t really think too much about the techniques; I don’t think about last year, sort of just one punt at a time. I don’t really feel like I’m a much better punter this year than last year. I think it’s just happened more in games this year and I’ve been able to showcase what I can sort of do more in games.”

With 22 punts of 50-plus yards, Watts is in range of that record, too, and he’s landed 13 of his 51 punts inside the opponents’ 20-yard line.

An Australian native, Watts was new to American football last year and was actually recruited to CU by former head coach Mel Tucker to be a rugby-style punter. He’s been asked to be more of a pro-style punter under Dorrell but has performed well.

“I wasn’t sure how I would fit into a pro punt scheme and even at times this year, I’ve hit some great balls that have been returned,” he said. “I just do my best to try and sort of flip the field. If (leading the Pac-12) is the results that come from it, I’ll take it, but I’m sort of more focused on the process, rather than the results.”

The results have been very good for Watts, who has been leaned on quite a bit. For several weeks, the offense struggled to score and Watts was called upon to punt several times a game.

“Sometimes they get overshadowed because of the lack of success as a team and in this case he’s been really, really steady,” Dorrell said. “He has been a big-time performer in critical moments.”

Becker is starting to do the same. Highly touted coming out of high school this summer, he missed his first three field goal attempts with the Buffs, but all of them were from at least 46 yards.

“It was definitely a disappointing way to start, but I just kept in my mind that I was still young and I still had a lot of room to grow,” he said.

Since then, he’s been 8-for-9, including 3-for-4 against Oregon State. He’s also 20-for-20 on extra points, leads CU with 44 points scored, and has put 22 of his 34 kickoffs into the end zone for touchbacks.

With Brenden Rice excelling on kickoff returns and Dimitri Stanley and La’Vontae Shenault producing results on punt returns, the Buffs have been solid in that area, as well.

Dorrell carries confidence in his special teams units and is hopeful the Buffs can play well on offense and defense in the final three games, too.

“We know that the down the stretch these last few games, and this week with UCLA, we’re gonna need all three phases of our football team to play well for us to be successful,” he said.