The New Guys: Special Forces

The New Guys: Special Forces

Not many coaches can lay claim to two Ray Guy Award winners. Only one can say that he's coached the same punter to that prestigious award twice in a row. That coach is new California special teams coordinator and inside receivers coach Mark Tommerdahl.

This past season, Mark Tommerdahl's punter for Louisiana Tech -- Ryan Allen -- took home his second straight Ray Guy trophy, after leading the nation in punting with a 48.04-yard average, with 21 punts of 50 yards or more and 20 inside the 20-yard line.

This past year, with Tommerdahl in his fourth season as special teams coordinator, the Bulldogs were 29th in the nation in kickoff coverage and first in net punting. Last year, Louisiana Tech was 10th in the Football Bowl Subdivision in kickoff return yardage defense, and in new California head coach Sonny Dykes's first season in Ruston, the Bulldogs were 53rd in that category. In 2010, Cal was 83rd in the nation in kickoff coverage. In 2011, the Bears were 37th and this season, 118th.

Times are changing in Berkeley, and for Tommerdahl, that change starts with special teams. And it started roughly 72 hours ago.

"I don't think I ever took that for granted," Tommerdahl says of whether he knew he was going to come with Dykes to Berkeley. "We had talked about the fact that we would like to continue to work together. We get along -- as does our whole staff -- and this is just the logical move. You get to play in a great league, I'm familiar with this area and I'm more than excited to get out here to the Bay Area. It was just a no-brainer."

No-brainer. If Tommerdahl's philosophy on special teams can be boiled down to one descriptor, that's it.

"As far as our overall special teams philosophy, I just really think it's important to be really fundamentally sound and to play fast," says Tommerdahl. "If you were to ask Tony Franklin his philosophy on offense, it would probably be the same thing, because we're going to have good athletes, we're going to use good players on special teams, and I think it's important that they're allowed to play as fast as they can. I think it'd be easy for me to sit in my office and draw up every scheme imaginable, but I would prefer to look at technique first, and that's what we're going to do. We're just going to become extremely fundamentally sound. That's our goal."

In just his first three days on the job, Tommerdahl has watched a mountain of tape, both in his function as special teams coordinator and inside receivers coach.

Having coached Allen for three years, and special teams for a total of 18 years, Tommerdahl knows what makes a good unit. He's seen it. He's molded it. He's coached it. He's learned it. Why was Louisiana Tech so good on special teams last season?

"I think that's a pretty easy answer: I was affiliated with a coaching staff and players that bought in," Tommerdahl says. "Everybody on our staff coaches special teams, except the offensive coordinator and the offensive line coach, and when you come to practice now, you're going to see middle-aged men running right down behind the kickoff team, coaching their tails off."

Tommerdahl isn't a guru. He's not a savant. He is, however, very perceptive, and humble enough to learn from his charges, as he did with Allen.

"I think you never stop learning. Whether it's Ryan Allen or anyone else, I think I try to learn something from every player I've been affiliated with for 28 years," Tommerdahl says. "Ryan Allen, I think the reason he was so successful was that he worked extremely hard at his craft. He was into it, and during the summers, he would actually go away to -- for lack of a better term -- a kicking boot camp. He became completely engrossed in punting. He would come in during the season not only to watch film, but he would drill on his own in the mornings, and we would practice in the afternoon. He set a very high standard for himself. He was extremely well trained, technically, and that had nothing to do with me. When he watched film, he would break down the angle of his drops. I'm not exaggerating. He just worked very, very hard at being the best."

Now, Tommerdahl will set his sights on Cal sophomore Cole Leininger. In his true freshman season, Leininger booted 60 punts an average of 39.9 yards, including 13 inside the 20. Leininger routinely launched 60-plus yard missiles during fall camp, but during the season, he was rolled out on rugby punts several times per game, lowering his average and effectiveness. The same goes for Steffan Mos, the well-muscled junior-to-be who crushed a 57-yarder against Ohio State last season.

Despite having Leininger's big leg, Cal was ninth in the Pac-12 in net punting (37.0 yards), with the fifth-highest punt return average of yards allowed (2.5).

"As far as our [punter] here is concerned, I think he's very athletic, which is important at that position, and he appears to be quite fundamentally sound in what he does," Tommerdahl said of Leininger. "On Saturday, I charted every one of Cole's punts. I feel like I know him very well, even though we've just talked on the phone ... I've been really fortunate to be around some great, great punters. I think you just have to play to their strengths."

As with Franklin and the offense, Tommerdahl is determined to get the best players on the field for not only punt coverage, but kickoff coverage, as well, and all of the different phases of special teams.

After Dykes said as much during his introductory press conference, one former big contributor on special teams -- safety Avery Sebastian -- was chomping at the bit to return to the role that made him an instant fan favorite as a true freshman, when he recorded nine special teams tackles.

"I hope I could be on special teams," said Sebastian, who recorded 56 tackles -- sixth on the team -- in 2012, notching 1.5 tackles for loss, one pass break-up and one QB hurry. "It's my life. Special teams, it's one-third of the game, and sometimes it can get overlooked. It's definitely huge, and we need to get all of our best players on it next year, once again. We're going to get great coaching. We don't know who's going to be coaching special teams for us yet, but we have a lot of skilled people also coming back in that aspect, and a lot of the freshman guys that redshirted are going to step up -- Michael Barton , Damariay Drew, Hardy Nickerson -- those are just a few who were huge on scout team last year, and they're going to step up this year and really play an important role."

Improving kickoff coverage will be paramount to winning the field position battle. Last year, opposing teams receiving Cal kickoffs started their drives -- on average -- at their own 31 and a half-yard line. Of the 60 opponents' drives that started with kickoffs, 19 ended in touchdowns.

"I'm not really in position to evaluate what's been done here in the past, nor do I really think that's necessary," says Tommerdahl. "I would say that any time you're coaching kickoff coverage, it really becomes more of a mindset. Any team is going to have good players covering kicks, and I think you need to instruct them in such a way that they can play fast and as uninhibited as possible. It all comes together. There's responsibility on the kicker, and there's responsibility on one through 10 -- the guys on the cover. I think that the kickoff coverage is often over-coached and over-complicated. That's not saying anything about what was done here in the past. It will be our intent -- number one -- it will be extremely competitive to be on the kickoff coverage team. We want guys fighting and clawing just to be on that unit, because that unit is the calling card of your organization. It's my job to make sure that they play on special teams."

As for the starting kicker job, there will be a competition between the incumbent Vincenzo D'Amato and early-enrollee Matt Anderson, who Tommerdahl cannot refer to by name, as Anderson has not yet officially enrolled.

"They both know, because I've told both of them that, that we will compete every day, and if it's close, we'll go with the older guy, so the younger guy can redshirt," Tommerdahl says. "But, the younger guy -- who I cannot address because he's not enrolled in school -- has been told that he is not coming here to redshirt. If he redshirts, then so be it. Everybody in this organization will compete every day."

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