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2023 UCLA Football Position Preview: Special Teams

Senior wide receiver Logan Loya runs out of the end zone with the ball during practice. Loya assumed punt returning duties last season and is expected to continue in that role in 2023. (Brandon Morquecho/Assistant Photo editor)

By Benjamin Royer

Aug. 16, 2023 6:07 p.m.

With the first snap of UCLA football’s 2023 season rapidly approaching, Daily Bruin Sports will be previewing each of the Bruins’ position groups before game day. Assistant Sports editor Benjamin Royer is kicking off the series with a look at the special teams.

Personnel

Coach Chip Kelly has new faces all around the special teams unit heading into the 2023 campaign.

Three-year starting placekicker Nicholas Barr-Mira – who also assumed punting duties last season – transferred to Mississippi State to close his collegiate career, leaving both starting roles up for grabs.

Redshirt sophomore Joseph Firebaugh Jr., the only returning Bruin to have converted an extra point last season, could make a case to take over field goal duties for Barr-Mira, but there is already a day-one shoo-in option.

Redshirt junior Blake Glessner, a transfer from Montana State, is likely the guy for the job.

Glessner converted 44 out of 56 field goal attempts and only missed five of his 124 PAT attempts during his two-year stint with the Bobcats. The right-footed kicker scored four 50-plus-yard field goals, topping out at 54 yards, and led kickoff duties as well.

Although Glessner is qualified, senior R.J. Lopez won’t see his new teammate overtaking kickoff responsibilities at the Rose Bowl.

Lopez is heading into his fourth season as UCLA’s kickoff specialist and has been nothing but consistent, leading the Pac-12 with 60 touchbacks last year.

Punting-wise, redshirt freshman Chase Barry and redshirt senior Will Powers are competing to start and could split duties as the Bruins figure out who should take the full-time job.

Powers played three seasons at Princeton and had a 41.4-yard average punt distance while earning All-Ivy honors each year. However, Barry provides steep competition as a former five-star punter and Barr-Mira’s backup in 2022.

Switching to the other side of punts, senior wide receiver Logan Loya took over returns last season and is expected to remain in the role.

On kick returns, it’s more unclear. Wide receivers redshirt freshman Jadyn Marshall, junior Titus Mokiao-Atimalala and senior Keegan Jones all returned kickoffs last season while under Kazmeir Allen on the depth chart. One of the three is likely to take the former Bruin’s spot.

Predictions

Special teams as a whole will be hit or miss.

Glessner will become the Bruins’ best placekicker since Kaʻimi Fairbairn, who now starts for the Houston Texans. The Montana State transfer is a consistent threat from 50-plus yards out – something UCLA has lacked in seasons past, when the Bruins were often forced to punt instead of scoring three points. Glessner also played in the FCS semifinals, adding high-pressure playoff experience to the squad.

And on kickoffs, Lopez will remain as durable and reliable as ever, launching the ball into the end zone on almost every attempt and rounding out a solid kicking duo.

Punting, however, is the weakest special teams group and is sorely missing Luke Akers, who transferred to Northwestern after the 2021 season. Powers will become the starting punter from experience alone – but don’t count out Barry, who is still growing into his 6-foot-4 frame and should start at some point during his time in Westwood.

Loya will be in his second season as a punt returner and could score his first punt return touchdown, but improvements must be in the cards for that to happen.

Allen was often the fastest player on the field and could dodge potential tackles with ease – his departure means UCLA’s kickoff return group is lacking that evasiveness in 2023. Jones has the agility to make an impact, while Marshall and Mokiao-Atimalala are pure speed threats who could emerge. Compared to the Bruins’ previous kick returners, the forecast is cloudy in Westwood.

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Benjamin Royer | Assistant Sports editor
Royer is the 2023-2024 Assistant Sports editor on the baseball, gymnastics and men's water polo beats and a reporter on the football beat. He was previously a staff writer on the baseball, football and gymnastics beats. He is also a fourth-year communication student.
Royer is the 2023-2024 Assistant Sports editor on the baseball, gymnastics and men's water polo beats and a reporter on the football beat. He was previously a staff writer on the baseball, football and gymnastics beats. He is also a fourth-year communication student.
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