PROVO — While BYU placekicker Justin Sorensen's status for next week's season-opener remains unclear, Riley Stephenson just keeps kicking.
Stephenson is the Cougars' starting punter, and Sorensen's backup on kickoffs and placekicking.
Is Stephenson planning on handling all the kicking chores against Washington State?
"I think it's still too early to tell," said the senior from St. George. "But if I'm the guy to do field goals and kickoffs, I feel like I'll be ready. My practices the last few weeks have been awesome."
Sorensen underwent offseason back surgery and hasn't been able to do much during fall camp.
"Justin still isn't back all the way," coach Bronco Mendenhall said after Tuesday's practice. "The sooner the better. But once he is able to kick, then I'll assess how accurate he is, how comfortable is, and what his range is."
Throughout the offseason, meanwhile, Stephenson has been honing his placekicking skills.
"If you can do both punting and kicking, you need to be doing both, even if you just punt or kick, because you never know if the other guy is going to go down and you're going be called upon to do punts or field goals or whatever it might be," Stephenson said. "It's definitely something I've been working on. It's unfortunate that Justin's messed up his back. But I feel like I'm ready if called upon."
As a sophomore in 2010, Stephenson booted 64 kickoffs. But in his three seasons at BYU, he hasn't attempted a field goal or point-after touchdown in a game. It wasn't until BYU's first scrimmage of fall camp at LaVell Edwards Stadium a couple of weeks ago that Stephenson kicked his first PAT at that venue.
"After I kicked that first PAT, I got that monkey off my back," he said. "It was a little nerve-wracking. Once I got that first one down, that's all that I needed. I feel like I'm good to go now."
At Pine View High, Stephenson did all of the punting and placekicking.
"My specialty then was kickoff, not so much punt," he said. "I feel like I'm kind of equally good at all three now. It's a lot of hard work in the summer and it's starting to pay off."
Stephenson played a big role in BYU's last game, a victory over Tulsa at the Armed Forces Bowl last December. He boomed eight punts for 335 yards, including seven punts that landed inside the 20-yard line. He had two punts over 50 yards. The Cougars' special teams also recovered a muffed punt to set up one touchdown.
"That just devastates a team when they have to start inside the 20," Stephenson said. "Their percentages of scoring are so much lower than if they start at midfield or something. It's definitely a tool we like to keep in our back pocket. Whenever we get in trouble and we can't convert, hopefully we can get our job done and get them inside the 20, or better yet, get them inside the 10."
It was a measure of redemption for Stephenson, who, a couple of months earlier, experienced a dreadful night in a loss to TCU. In that game, four botched punting situations — a poor deep snap, a muffed snap, a blocked punt and a shanked punt led to four Horned Frog touchdowns.
"That was probably my worst performance at BYU. I get reminded almost every day about that game by players and coaches," Stephenson said. "They do it so we can focus on being our best every game. We want the Tulsa game every game. We hope for that. I'm not saying (the TCU game) was a good thing, but it was a good reminder, to show us how much it hurt our team when the punt team wasn't doing its job. The big thing is, don't get down about it. At the end of the day, your team has your back. I'm over it, that's for sure."
Now, Stephenson's role could be expanded, depending on Sorensen's status.
Quarterback Riley Nelson said he's not worried about the kicking game — he's focused on touchdowns, not field goals.
"We love Justin, but we want to score touchdowns," he said. "As long as we can get a PAT through the uprights, we feel okay. We're not playing for field goals."
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