While much of the focus in football is centered on the offense and defense, Colorado head coach Karl Dorrell has always believed in the value of having a strong special teams unit.

During his first year with the Buffaloes, Dorrell had a fairly reliable kicking game, but the Buffs’ head coach is hoping it’s even better this year.

Leading up to fall camp, which starts Aug. 5, BuffZone.com is previewing each position group for the Buffs. In this installment, we look at the specialists.

In 2020, the Buffs ranked 54th nationally in special teams efficiency, per ESPN. Within the Pac-12, the Buffs were seventh in punting average (41.34) and tied for last in field goal percentage (60.0%, 6-for-10) – although two of those misses came from James Stefanou, who was hobbled in the opener and then medically retired. The kicking game certainly has room for growth.

One spot that is seemingly solidified is at punter, where Josh Watts is the returning starter. The Australian native played his first season of football last year, and the growing pains were evident at times, but he wound up with a successful season.

“It was sort of a baptism of fire,” Watts said this spring. “Going through those things I think helped me. Towards the back end of the year I started to feel more comfortable but I feel like I definitely still haven’t punted my best in games and I’m looking to do it this year for sure.”

Watts said it wasn’t until the Valero Alamo Bowl – the final game of 2020 – that he truly started to feel comfortable. By then, the season was over, but Dorrell was pleased with how Watts carried that over to the spring.

“I think he’s doing a better job of taking care of himself,” Dorrell said. “He’s doing a lot of good things in the weight room that’s helping him to be more consistent in his play.”

As the lone punter on the roster, Watts is pretty much locked into a starting role and his offseason has been focused on having a better season. He’s even worked with former CU Buffs and Denver Broncos great Tom Rouen.

Watts might be secure in his job, but the placekickers are not. There should be plenty of competition this fall. Dorrell, in fact, said in spring he was happy with the daily battles between incumbent starter Evan Price and Mac Willis, last year’s kickoff specialist.

“That’s been very competitive every day because we kick field goals at the end of practice every day,” Dorrell said. “I think Evan Price has had a good spring. He’s been our most consistent kicker. Another one of those guys he is taking advantage of the opportunity he gets. It’s competition really across the board everywhere. I know that right now we’re not settling on who’s going to be the starter in the fall.”

Price has proven capable of handling the job. Although he’s never held the job for a full season, he filled in for an injured Stefanou each of the past three years. In his career, he’s 15-for-18 on field goals (with two blocked) and 26-for-26 on extra points. He was 6-for-8 on fields after taking over the job when Stefanou retired.

“It was good to know that I was going out there and being the starter for a year, but even when James was ahead of me, I’m just kind of ready at all times,” Price said in sprint, “just because you never know what’s gonna happen.”

Price will battle for the job again, this time with true freshman Cole Becker – the lone scholarship place kicker on the roster.

Position: Special teams

Returners (2020 statistics)

  • P Josh Watts, Jr., 6-4, 200 (35 punts, 1,447 yards, 41.34 average; 11 inside 20)
  • PK Evan Price, So., 6-1, 180 (walk-on; 6-for-8 field goals, 16-for-16 PAT; 10 kickoffs,  4 touchbacks)
  • PK Mac Willis, Fr., 6-2, 190 (walk-on; 19 kickoffs, 7 touchbacks)
  • SN James Townsend, So., 6-0, 215 (walk-on)
  • SN Derek Bedell, Fr., 6-3,  235 (walk-on

Additions

  • PK Cole Becker, Fr., 6-4, 215
  • SN Cameron Warchuck, Fr., 6-0, 235 (walk-on)

Losses

  • PK James Stefanou, 6-1, 195 (Medical retirement; 0-for-2 field goals, 5-for-5 PAT)
  • SN Travis Drosos, 6-1, 205 (Transferred to South Alabama)
  • PK Tyler Francis, 5-11, 170
  • P Paulison Fosu, 6-0, 185

2021 outlook: Watts, an Australian native, got better as the 2020 season went along and expects to be better in his second season of American football. At place kicker, Price and Becker are both ready to compete. Price has been a reliable kicker for the Buffs, but has never displayed long-range ability. Becker was one of the nation’s top 2021 recruits and has a big leg. Willis will hope to handle kickoff duties again. Townsend and Bedell will battle for snapper duties.

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