If Washington’s kickoff coverage doesn’t improve against Oregon, it won’t be for lack of trying.
The Huskies’ No. 1 kickoff team during the early portion of Wednesday’s practice featured several defensive starters, including Marcus Peters, Sean Parker, Shaq Thompson, Will Shamburger, Princeton Fuimaono, Cory Littleton and top reserve linebacker Travis Feeney.
That aligns with what UW coach Steve Sarkisian said earlier this week about playing the best players on kick coverage despite how often they’re on the field otherwise. Stanford receiver Ty Montgomery’s 99-yard kickoff return for a touchdown — plus a 72-yarder later in the game that set up another Stanford score — was the impetus for the change.
The Huskies might use Travis Coons on kickoffs this week, too, because kickoff specialist Cameron Van Winkle is still bothered by a lingering back injury.
“It’s been very positive,” Sarkisian said of the changes. “I think some of the things that we’ve done on our kick coverage unit has been positive. We worked it again today extensively after working it Monday. We’ll do it again tomorrow. Because we just don’t want that to be the deciding factor in a ballgame for us, our inability to go down and cover on a kickoff. I think that was one of the disappointing things coming out of that game last week was how well we played on offense and defense and really some of the phases on special teams, but the kick coverage unit was a real factor and it affected the ballgame.”
It could again Saturday. Oregon has been notoriously outstanding on kickoff returns during its recent dominance of the Pac-12 (the Ducks rank 82nd nationally in kickoff return average this season — on 12 tries — but they’re No. 3 in punt return average).
“I think they’re well coached. I think they do a good job,” Sarkisian said. “I think their kids take pride in being on special teams, they embrace the opportunity to be on special teams and they do a good job.”
As for UW’s kicking situation: “Cameron’s still a little banged up. and Travis, ideally, do we want him doing all three? No. But we’ve been able to get to this point, going into game six, he hasn’t had to kickoff, his leg is fresh, we haven’t exactly attempted a bunch of field goals. So I feel good about him going into this game kicking off for us.”