SALT LAKE CITY — The play of the special teams for the University of Utah football team this year has been, well, special.
While the Ute offense has been dominating and the defense suffocating, the special teams play has been lights out. At least for the past four games, it has.
After getting off to a shaky start in the opening game against Pitt with a punt blocked and fumble on a punt return, the Ute special teams have been simply outstanding.
The latest NCAA statistics show the Utes are leading the nation in kickoff returns and punt return yardage and are third in punt return average. Shaky Smithson is third individually in the nation in punt return average, 18th in kickoffs and 21st in all-purpose yards.
Also Ute placekicker Joe Phillips is tied for first in the nation in field goal accuracy at 100 percent (7-for-7), one of a dozen kickers in the nation who has yet to miss a field goal this year, and one of many who hasn't missed a PAT kick either. Punter Sean Sellwood leads the Mountain West Conference and would rank sixth in the nation if he had a few more punts.
"The special teams are playing well," said Utah coach Kyle Whittingham. "We haven't put any more emphasis on it this year — it's always been an emphasis for us. Shaky's playing with a lot of confidence and has a great feel for punt returning. Reggie Dunn (who returned a kickoff for a touchdown last week) may be the fastest guy on the team with the ball in his hands and that's a big plus."
Whittingham gives credit to special teams coordinator Jay Hill, the former Utah defensive back who is in his sixth year as a Ute coach.
It certainly helps to have guys like Smithson and Dunn, whose speed and athleticism, make it tough for defenders to stop them. Smithson has returned two punts for touchdowns and just missed getting a third one last week when he stumbled and fell two yards short of the end zone.
But there are several other unheralded guys on the special teams who make a difference.
Greg Bird, who plays on three of the four special teams units — both kickoff teams and the punt return team — has made some memorable blocks this year to help spring Smithson on his punt returns. Mike Honeycutt has blocked a punt and been a mainstay on several special teams units as has Dallin Rogers. Whittingham praised true freshman Michael Walker for his outstanding kickoff coverage last week at Iowa State.
"Ever since the first week, we've been on a roll," said Bird, a junior from Arizona. "Most people are buying into what we're doing and focusing on doing their job and not trying to do too much."
Bird plays the "safe" guy on kickoffs to make sure nobody gets past him for a touchdown. On kickoff returns he tries to seal off his opponent to open a hole for the returner. On punt returns, he's the "spy" guy, who checks for fakes and then drops back to block for the returner.
"I try to set up Shaky so he can do his thing," Bird says. "I like to try and hurt people. I know which way the returns going, so I try to help set up the wall. I'm just there to block, just doing my job. It's my favorite thing to do."
Smithson certainly appreciates what Bird and others on the special teams do for him.
"They make it so easy for me," he says. "The coaches make the calls and they just set it up so perfectly. They set the walls up and make great crack-back blocks. I just have to get the ball and react off of them."
When asked why the special teams are playing so well this year, Hill doesn't have a definitive answer.
"I don't know, we just go about our business and stress the importance of special teams," Hill said. "We've made some plays that statistically put us at the top right now. It seems like each year the players buy in a little bit more, and this year, they're fully bought in to the importance of special teams. The last four games we've annihilated our opponents on special teams."
The Utes will try to keep up their terrific special teams play this week when they take on Wyoming at Laramie Saturday at 4 p.m.
"In our meetings we're always talking about being the best in the nation and right now in kickoff returns and punt returns, we lead the nation," said Bird. "We definitely take pride in that. We're at the top of our game. As much as we can do on special teams will lead to a lot of victories."
Utah's "special" special teams
— 1st in the nation in kickoff return average (31.17)
— 1st in the nation in punt return yards (469)
— 3rd in the nation in punt return average (21.32)
— One of two teams in nation with 3 TDs on kick returns
— T-1 in the nation in field goal percentage (1.000)Utes on the air
No. 11 Utah (5-0, 2-0) at Wyoming (2-4, 0-2)12 comments on this story
Saturday, 4 p.m.
War Memorial Stadium, Laramie, Wyo.
TV: The mtn. Radio: 700 AMHeady