Utah Utes football: Special teams play key role in success

Published: Thursday, Oct. 8 2009 12:00 a.m. MDT

Most football fans focus on the offense — how well the quarterback passes or how much yardage the running backs pick up — or the defense — how many sacks the defensive line gets or how well the defensive backs shut down the opponent's passing game.

Often overlooked, but just as important, is the play of the special teams, which includes kickoffs, kickoff returns, placekicking, punts and punt returns. Over the years, the special teams have been a big part of the Utah football success.

"Special teams are one-third of the football game, and we place a huge emphasis on it," said Utah coach Kyle Whittingham. "We spend a lot of time on special teams, both in the meeting rooms and on the practice field. It's something we pay attention to. If you don't get it squared away, it can hurt you."

The play of the special teams has hurt the Utes at times this year — a punt return for a touchdown proved to be the difference in a loss at Oregon, and poor field-goal kicking kept the game at San Jose State closer than it should have been. But on the whole, the Utes are thriving on special-teams play.

"We've won the special-teams battle every game, but we've got to do better overall," says special-teams coordinator Jay Hill. "In the individual games, we've played well, but our overall statistics are not that good."

Hill says the Utes have 10 different goals for the special teams each game, and they've hit six of them once, seven twice and eight one time. It's been more of a challenge for the Utes this year because they had become so accustomed to relying on the foot of Louie Sakoda for placekicking and punting. Early in the year, that's where the Utes struggled.

Ben Vroman, who is handling kickoffs for the second straight year, missed three field goals against San Jose State and was replaced by Joe Phillips. Freshman Sean Sellwood was inconsistent as the punter, with some too short and some too low.

Sellwood had his best game against Louisville with a 44.9-yard average on seven punts, including a long of 63 and one inside the 20. Phillips, since taking over in the second game, is a perfect 5-for-5 on field goal tries and 8-for-8 on PATs.

"We've been consistent with everybody but the specialists, but they're starting to come around," said Whittingham. "The return teams and people on the coverage units have been doing a nice job most of the time."

The Utes have three blocked kicks this year, which is "huge," says Hill.

One special-teams player who has a special knack for blocking kicks is Aiona Key, who blocked three last year and ran one back for a touchdown, and got his hand on one at Oregon this year.

"I usually go through the middle and try to go as hard as I can," Key said when asked about his talent for blocking punts. It also doesn't hurt that Key is a 7-foot high jumper.

One disadvantage for the Utes' special teams this week is the loss of Eddie Wide, who has been a stalwart for nearly every special-teams unit for the past three seasons.

Whittingham said that now that Wide is the Utes' starting tailback, his role will be "limited" from here on out.

"That's an ongoing thing, working on the special-teams depth," he said.

Utes on the air

Utah (3-1)at Colorado State (3-2)

Saturday, 4 p.m.

TV: The mtn.

Radio: 700 AM

e-mail: sor@desnews.com

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