Constant turnover has defined the past three seasons for the Bruins, but there is one thing that has remained the same through it all.
Johnny Den Bleyker snapping the football for kicker JJ Molson.
“I’ve been very lucky to have a very stable group of specialists,” Den Bleyker said. “I came in with (Molson), I even came up with (redshirt junior) Koby Walsh, the backup snapper – it’s been a group of guys that’ve been together since day one, we compete together every day. It’s been really nice having that consistency.”
Despite having a different placeholder in each season, the pair of seniors have been starters at their respective positions since joining UCLA football in 2016 and are entering their final year with the program this fall.
Molson said that although there seems to be a stigma around the idea of specialists being the leaders on a football team, he has made it his goal to be just that in his farewell campaign.
“One of the things I wanted to focus on this year was kind of pushing our culture and setting the standard,” Molson said. “And – even though I’m the kicker – lead by example and show the young guys, ‘Ok, this is what the older guys are doing.’”
On the field, Molson took a step back in terms of his kicking percentage last season. After connecting on 17-of-21 attempts as a sophomore in 2017, Molson converted just 14-of-19 tries a season ago.
However, Molson said he attributes the slight dip in percentage to the increased number of long-range field goals he attempted in 2018 compared to the 2017 season. He also added that he has been working on improving his consistency on kicks between 50 and 65 yards this offseason.
“Last year did a lot of positive things for me as a kicker even though the percentage was down,” Molson said. “My first two seasons didn’t really have that many (long-range) field goal attempts, so last year it was kind of cool to see how I would react in those situations, and even though I didn’t make all of those, I think that I was pretty calm in those situations and I trusted my stroke.”
One of the reasons for Molson’s spike in longer-ranged attempts was due to penalties. On a number of occasions, the Bruins were tagged with a false start or holding penalty, pushing Molson’s attempts further back several times against Arizona State, Stanford and others.
Den Bleyker, however, said special teams coordinator Derek Sage has been doing his best in training camp to help the team avoid those mistakes this season.
“I think coach Sage has done a great job in implementing a correct scheme and getting guys in positions where we’re going to succeed,” Den Bleyker said. “I think the specialists have been stepping up into their roles and we’re seeing a lot more depth, not only at specialist positions, but on special teams as well.”
New kid on the block
Following the graduation of punter Stefan Flintoft this past offseason, UCLA found itself in the market for an experienced replacement.
The Bruins got their replacement in 31-year-old graduate transfer punter Wade Lees. The Australia native spent the past three seasons as the starting punter at Maryland, but decided he wanted to move out west after sitting down with the Terrapins coaching staff following last season.
Lees, who is set to become the Bruins’ starting punter and placeholder, said he does not mind the significant age gap between himself and his teammates, but acknowledged that it could be weird for some of the players.
“When we turn professional back home, we’re actually straight out of high school – so 17 turning 18,” Lees said. “So when I turned pro back home, I was playing with 37, 38-year-olds. For me it’s normal, but for these guys I understand that culturally it’s a little bit different.”
While Lees’ age may come as a shock to some, he is not the oldest player in college football. That honor belongs to 32-year-old Colorado kicker and fellow Australian James Stefanou, with whom Lees said he is good friends.
“I’ll gladly leave that record to him,” Lees said. “Keep my name out of the record books.”