SALT LAKE CITY — Amid all the talk about whether Utah's offense can move the ball against the stingiest defense in the country or whether the Ute defense can put enough pressure on quarterback Andy Dalton to disrupt his team's offense, Saturday's Utah-TCU game may ultimately come down to Shaky Smithson and Jeremy Kerley.
Which team's outstanding punt returner will have the biggest impact on the game?
TCU's Kerley is a two-time Mountain West Special Teams Player of the Year, while Smithson has the inside track for the same honor this year after leading the nation in punt return yards for much of the season.
Utah coach Kyle Whittingham believes there are no better returners in college football than Smithson and Kerley.
"We think they are the two best returners in the country," Whittingham says. "That's going to add a huge dynamic to the game, how they handle Shaky and how we handle Kerley."
"They're both really good," adds TCU coach Gary Patterson. "They both can make a guy miss. They're both really strong and have great awareness. And it's very obvious they both love to play the game."
The Utes are well aware of Kerley's talents, having watched him the past three years.
"He's as good as I've ever seen," says Utah's special teams coach Jay Hill of Kerley. "He's very elusive and quick and he's got a great burst."
When asked if he's better than his own player, Hill quickly said, "He's the same guy. They're a little different in their strengths and weaknesses but are the same caliber of talent."
Not only are both players great punt returners, both are versatile, all-around players that help their teams in a variety of ways.
Both are starting receivers with Kerley leading his team with 35 receptions for 364 yards and seven touchdowns. Smithson only has 13 catches, but averages 18 yards per catch compared to 10.3 for Kerley.
Also, both Smithson and Kerley are former quarterbacks, who can throw the ball well. Both players are 1-for-1 this year with Smithson completing a 32-yard touchdown pass to DeVonte Christopher against Iowa State, while Kerley completed his only pass for 11 yards.
Kerley has also rushed the ball 14 times this year for 99 yards and two touchdowns. Smithson has just one carry this year, but last year he rushed the ball 27 times for 99 yards with three touchdowns.
However, punt returning is where the two players are the most dangerous.
Last year, when Kerley was named to three all-American lists as a returner, he returned two punts for scores, for 71 yards against Colorado State and 69 yards against SMU.
Smithson has two returns for touchdowns this year — 77 yards against UNLV and 73 yards against New Mexico. Perhaps his most spectacular return came against Iowa State when he weaved his way up the field 78 yards before stumbling at the 2-yard line. He leads the nation with his 23.3-yard average.
Says Smithson: "I go into every game feeling like I can break it," but he's been frustrated in recent games when opponents have kicked away from him. He's also well aware of Kerley and respects what he does for the Horned Frogs.2 comments on this story
"He's a good player," says Smithson. "He's agile and very similar to me in that he does whatever the coach asks him to do to help the team win, either special teams play or at receiver."
"He's not only a fantastic returner, but he's a fantastic receiver," Whittingham says of Kerley. "He's their go-to guy."
The question is, will either player get a chance to show off their talents as returners or will the opposition kick the other way?
Of course, the coaches won't reveal their plans, but we asked anyway if the Utes would give Kerley a chance to return punts. Hill said "no comment," while Whittingham just smiled and said, "We'll find out."