Arizona looking for special teams to be difference makers

Cayleb Jones scores a touchdown while returning an attempted onside kick by Washington State.

James Snook/James Snook-USA TODAY Sports

TUCSON, Ariz. — They are always in the spotlight, and if things are going well, then no one really notices. When it goes bad, well, stuff happens. Not good stuff.

 It’s life on the special teams in football.

"You can’t hide," said Charlie Ragle, UA’s special team’s coach. "There are days when I wish I could."

One of those days happened just recently (more later).

Arizona coach Rich Rodriguez said earlier this week that he had been on his special teams a bit because they hadn’t been up to par, but he was encouraged by what he saw in Saturday’s victory at Washington State. More of the same would be appreciated this weekend at UCLA, as the 6-1 Wildcats try to keep pace in the ultra-tight Pac-12 South against the preseason division favorites.

"We’ve been solid in a lot of games, but I don’t know if it’s been the difference," Rodriguez said in evaluation of special teams. "In the last game, it was one of the differences when we scored two touchdowns out of it. We were solid in coverage. I thought the effort and focus has been as good as it’s been all year."

Every little bit helps in a season that has the potential to have lasting memories. DaVonte’ Neal went 81 yards for a touchdown to get the party in last week’s 59-37 victory, and Cayleb Jones put the icing on the cake by returning an onside kick for a touchdown in the second half.

"We have guys who have the ability to make big plays," Rodriguez said. "We’ve seen it in practice. DaVonte is an excitable guy. He’s always the life of the party, so you knew his energy is always going to be there … hopefully it gives our guys a shot to where they think, ‘hey, we’ve got some guys that can take it the distance.’ We just need help on the blocking part."

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The place-kicking part of the equation also returned to positive territory in the Washington State victory. Kicker Casey Skowron, who missed three field goals in Arizona’s loss to USC, connected on a 31-yarder and eight extra points. Skowron leads the conference in scoring at 10.6 points per game.

"We’ve done well with the extra points, but I don’t want to jinx it," Ragle said. "That’s a big deal (because) they are not always automatic. You need the long snapper to be good, and Chase Gorham has been. You need the holder to be good, and Drew Riggleman has been. Sometimes that’s overlooked."

When Skowron missed his game-ending 36-yard attempt that would have been the game-winner vs. USC two weeks ago, it was more the exception to the rule. Skowron had made 11 of 13 going into the game. USC called time just prior to his attempt — and Skowron’s first effort that split the uprights didn’t count. After getting more time to think about it, he missed badly on the next try.

"The first time I hit it was solid," Skowron said. "People asked me if I was nervous. I might have been too calm. The first (kick) I was very relaxed, seeing me make it. I was thinking, ‘I got this.’ Maybe I was way too calm. And I lost focus as a result."

But Skowron said there were no lingering memories on as he lined up on his 31-yarder early on in the Washington State game.

"I was locked in," he said. "The kick vs. USC had nothing to do with Washington State."

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"I can’t go back in time to change (the outcome). I look forward to making the rest of my kicks."

That’s an essential attitude on special teams, Ragle said. Every play has the potential to impact the outcome. And although the miss against USC was "gut-wrenching," Ragle was impressed that  Skowron didn’t "go boo-hoo."

"He was good about it. He’s going to get better because of it," Ragle said. "When you have a guy with that kind of mentality, he won’t put his head in the sand or shy away from the social stuff. He’s a tough kid. He’ll have the opportunity to (win one) before he leaves here. I know when, and if, he gets the opportunity, he’s going to capture it."

There have been other positive developments as well. Freshman Tyrell Johnson has emerged as a potentially dangerous threat on kickoff returns after taking over those duties from Jared Baker.

"He’s our fastest guy, so hopefully we’re going to get him some opportunities and more (touches)," Rodriguez said.

Perhaps the most consistent player of the special teams has been Riggleman, who is averaging 47 yards per punt with a 37.5 net average. He leads the conference in average.  No team has returned a punt for a touchdown.  He averaged 41 yards a kick last year.

"The job Riggleman has done from a punting aspect from one year to the next is astronomical," Ragle said.

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