At times, Kentucky experienced precarious snafus in the third phase a year ago. From surrendering a two-point conversion in the season opener at Auburn to errant snaps against Alabama and Mississippi State, the Wildcats’ special teams were somewhat inconsistent. 2021 brings on new opportunities at punter, holder, and in the return game. Zach Johnson captains the Cats’ special teams and is an invaluable contributor in all phases. Wan’Dale Robinson could infuse juice into the return game. Let’s take a closer look at the phase of the game that is often overlooked:
Starters Lost: 0
Returning Starters: 2, Matt Ruffolo and Chance Poore
Spring Practice Focus: Improve field goal range
Much like starters on offense and defense, kicker Matt Ruffolo announced his return for an additional year of eligibility. Ruffolo’s missed extra point and field goal vs. Ole Miss was well documented and overplayed. Thus is the life of a kicker. However, the native of Centerville, Ohio was consistent down the stretch and developed into a team strength. Ruffolo hit 22 out of 23 PATs and 12 of 14 field goals in 2020. Percentage wise, those numbers make him a top returner in the conference. There are numerous unknowns on the Wildcat’s depth chart going into spring practice. Kicker is not one of them. Chance Poore returns as the kickoff specialist and also provides depth at the position.
Starters Lost: 1
Returning Starters: 0
Spring Practice Focus: Establish comfort and familiarity with new punter Wilson Berry
Sadly, the Max Duffy era has come and gone. Duffy is the most prolific punter in program history after posting a career average of 46 yards per boot. There isn’t enough space in this post to highlight all of the popular Australian’s accomplishments. Duffy led the nation with a 48.1 yard average in 2019. That season also saw him earn the Ray Guy Award which recognizes the nation’s top punter. Wilson Berry will take over for Duffy in 2021. Punting runs in the Berry family. Wilson’s brother Jordan is the punter for the Pittsburgh Steelers. From all indications and via Duffy’s seal of approval, UK will continue to be strong in this category.
Starters Lost: 0
Returning Starters: 2, Zach Johnson and Josh Ali.
Spring Practice Focus: Improve explosiveness and identify additional returners in both phases.
Here’s where it gets interesting. Josh Ali led the Cats in receptions a year ago and also served as the team’s primary punt returner. Enter Nebraska transfer Wan’Dale Robinson. It’s uncertain if Robinson will return all kicks and punts, but rest assured he could be situationally utilized in a similar role that Lynn Bowden occupied in 2018 and 2019. Robinson is special and should be the preseason frontrunner for the Paul Hornung Award.
2020 kickoff returns mainly consisted of fair catches and allowing the football to go into the end zone. Zach Johnson was the principal returner and decided to come back for an additional season as a Wildcat. Johnson is steady and a reliable special team’s player. There are speedsters such as Wan’Dale Robinson that could join Johnson in the kick return game.
Starters Lost: 1, Max Duffy.
Returning Starters: 1, Long-snapper Cade Degraw.
Spring Practice Focus: Competition at kick/punt snapper and find a new holder. Synchronize timing and increase consistency.
Cade Degraw served as the long-snapper for both kicks and punts in 2020. Degraw had issues at times but remains as the Cats’ designated starter. That position could see competition in spring practice. UK must replace holder Max Duffy. Colin Goodfellow is slated to step into that role.
WHAT DOES ALL THIS MEAN?
While not often mentioned unless something goes south, players such as holder Colin Goodfellow and long-snapper Cade Degraw are as important as Chris Rodriguez Jr. and Josh Paschal. Specialists are a vital part of the Wildcats’ football operation. Take the time to become familiar with Zach Johnson. The senior captains UK’s special teams and is an unselfish role player that often sets the game’s pace with explosive plays in the third phase. Kentucky has efficiently recruited athletes that have the ability to made a difference on coverage teams. Vito Tisdale and others possess high-end speed to get down the field in a hurry. Punt and kick returns are becoming rare occasions. Directional punting and deep kickoffs that frequently go into the end zone have limited return opportunities. But, Wan’Dale Robinson could change that in a hurry. It’s not a stretch to project the Cats to have at least one punt/kick return for a score in 2021.
Matt Ruffolo recovered from a tough outing against Ole Miss to become one of the most accurate kickers in the Southeastern Conference. He’s poised for another consistent season. All-American punter Max Duffy approves of the newcomer Wilson Berry. Duffy’s endorsement should suffice.
As of today, UK does not have a designated special team’s coordinator. Kentucky’s staff collectively coaches its special teams which is the norm more so than an exception in college football. Quality control coach Louie Matsakis’ emphasis is special teams. He’s talented and knowledgeable. Matsakis worked closely with Dean Hood in previous seasons.
Spring practice is a time in which younger players can separate from the pack through want-to, effort, and intensity. All three traits are prerequisites for a solid special teams contributor. UK has a plethora of defensive backs and linebackers that will become the backbone of the third phase. I’m going to miss Max Duffy. Wilson Berry has enormous punting cleats to fill.
Spring practice is close. I’m ready for some actual football.