UCLA’s specialty division is a winner
On Mondays this fall, four of UCLA’s least imposing football players occasionally gathered on a golf course. “We’re very strict on rules,” said junior Danny Rees, the holder for UCLA’s field goals and extra points. “There is no picking up the ball on the green. You putt everything out.”
Then there are the competitive video games, where long snapper Christian Yount and punter Jeff Locke tangle.
“Yount thought he was the best at ‘Call to Duty,’ ” said Locke, a redshirt freshman. “Then I showed up.”
Rees, Locke, Yount and kicker Kai Forbath give the stereotype of laid-back special-team players a beat-down. That intensity, though, seems the secret to their success.
The one rock-solid area the Bruins have leaned on this season is their kicking game. And that falls on Forbath, Locke, Rees and Yount, who are standouts in their specialties.
Forbath leads the nation in field goals with 26, and has made 35 consecutive attempts from inside 50 yards. He is also six for nine from beyond 50 yards in his career.
Locke ranks ninth nationally, averaging 44 yards per punt. He had a punt against Arizona that netted 61 yards, but only because it lost 20 when the ball went into the end zone for a touchback.
“Those guys work together and play together and hang out,” said special teams coach Frank Gansz Jr. “They push each other and are always working with each other.”
On fourth down, Locke said, "[Yount] is a technician. He’ll come to the sideline and tell me, ‘That hit your left side, right?’ He knows just by how the snap feels. I’ve never known anyone who can do that.”
UCLA has needed such meticulous behavior from the core of its special teams. The Bruins have scored points 30 of 35 times they have moved the ball into the red zone, tied for 29th nationally. Yet only 12 of those scores have been touchdowns.
Yount was named a preseason Playboy All-American, though this was the first year the team was not invited to the Playboy Mansion. Yount has trained as a long snapper since he was a freshman at Rancho Santa Margarita Tesoro High. He studied how-to tapes and attended camps, and has developed a highly marketable skill.
“When the snap comes back, the laces are up nine times out of 10,” Rees said. “I don’t have to spin the ball, that’s huge.”
Rees, a punter and tight end at Lake Forest (Ill.) High, was encouraged to walk on at UCLA. Yet, there seemed to be little future in it with Locke around.
“First and foremost my goal was to be the punter,” Rees said. “But Jeff, as everyone has seen, is very talented. I decided the best way for me to get on the field was to hold. So, Christian and Kai, I kind of planted that bug in their ears.”
The two spent the off-season putting their friend through drills.
“We’d be on the field four times a week, doing 30 kicks,” Yount said. “Danny was driving down to Orange County during spring break so we could go work out. That’s how committed he was to it.”
The hardest part, Rees said, is finding a spot on the field, “which is easy on turf, but it gets difficult on grass. Stanford was the worst.”
Forbath hit three field goals against Stanford and swears by Rees as a holder.
“One little thing goes wrong, and it’s a miss,” Forbath said. “Danny has been great. You have to trust your holder.”
Forbath’s approach to kicking borders between science and superstition.
The cleat on his kicking shoe is three sizes too small. The one on his left shoe is 1½ sizes too small. To prevent slipping, he says. The ball has to be tilted a bit toward Rees, but not too much.
“You will be on the sidelines talking, and it will be like a regular conversation, then third down comes,” Locke said. “Boom, snap, he’s in a zone.”
Forbath has made 70 of 82 field-goal attempts in his three seasons at UCLA. His range? Warming up before the Arizona game he made two from 70 yards. “You have to have a routine that you do every single time,” Forbath said. “It has to be that way. In practice, if I get lazy on a kick, it’s a miss.”
Forbath, who ranks third nationally among kickers with 99 points, said he is mulling whether to declare for the NFL draft.
One day during training camp, a Locke punt was in the air for more than six seconds.
Locke’s mammoth kicks are based on more than just physical strength. He chose football because “it was going to be easier to get a scholarship than in soccer.” At Phoenix Mountain Ridge High he was ranked second among punters nationally by Rivals.com.
“You watch on film and he drops the ball in the same place every time,” Rees said.
Locke’s ability allows the Bruins to use punting as a weapon.
“When you have a team as young as we have, you almost do it like you do in the NFL,” offensive coordinator Norm Chow said earlier this season. “You play field position and you get to the fourth quarter in the game.”
That plan does not always work out. Against Oregon, Locke averaged 50 yards per kick and Forbath nailed a 52-yard field goal. The Bruins lost, 24-10.
Yet, it has also worked to the Bruins’ advantage, in victories over Tennessee, Kansas State and Arizona State.
“I think we’re good at what we do,” Yount said. “We’ve all bonded and connected. We hang together. It makes it easier to get the job done.”