PROVO — Special teams often get the short end of the stick when it comes to attention, priority and recognition.
This fall, however, the BYU football coaching staff has been giving the Cougars' special teams some special attention.
"I think we're making progress," BYU coach Bronco Mendenhall said after Thursday's practice. "That's been a real emphasis in terms of the culture that we're trying to create."
What Mendenhall means is that hustle, energy and playing hard begins with special teams. The way a team responds on kickoffs and kick returns often translates to the level of intensity displayed on both offense and defense.
"I like the athleticism of our coverage units. Again, we haven't seen them execute collectively yet, so I think you might see some of the same mistakes you see offensively and defensively by youth and inexperience. But I think you'll see it happening really fast because the kids are athletic," Mendenhall said.
Despite Mendenhall's concerns over the youth and inexperience, the reason for his optimism is the experience in the kicking and returning portions of the special teams. Placekicker Mitch Payne is back, as is punter Riley Stephenson. Both have proven to be reliable and clutch performers.
And even if Payne goes down, as he did for a few early days in camp, the coaches are confident that Stephenson can step in and fill the role if needed, despite his struggles at kicking extra points in camp.
"Riley will be fine," special teams coach Patrick Higgins said. "Every kicker goes through their spurts, but he's performed well in the past. He did last year, and he'll do it for us again."
Junior O'Neill Chambers will again return punts and kickoffs. JD Falslev will be the backup at returning punts and kickoffs, with JJ Di Luigi joining Chambers on kickoff returns. Ross Apo and Cody Hoffman might also return kicks. The Cougars have several return-game threats who possess speed and quickness.
"We have more depth at the return spots than we've had the past few years," Higgins said.
Another element to the prospect of stability in BYU's special teams is holder Matt Marshall, who worked with Payne last season and is even more comfortable in the role this year. The snapper, both on field goals and punts, is a new face in Reed Hornung, a transfer from Snow College.
"We feel pretty comfortable with those guys," Higgins said.
Because the Cougars have so much depth, speed and athleticism in the skill positions, at linebacker and defensive backfield, there are plenty of candidates fighting for spots on both the return and kick teams.
"I think we have more guys who fit the roles that we're looking for compared to last year. It makes the depth and hopefully makes the competition for starting spots a little more active than it has been in the past. And that's one positive we've seen in this camp," Higgins said.
As Higgins points out, however, it's often more than skill and technique that earns a guy a spot on special teams.
"Mostly, it's just a matter of wanting to and not getting beat," he said.
Other than wanting to contribute to the team in any manner, those fighting for special-teams jobs also have a little added incentive. A special-teams role means a coveted seat on the airplane.
"A lot of them know that if they get on special teams, they'll travel," Higgins said.
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