Scott G Winterton, Deseret News
SALT LAKE CITY — It struck like a thunderclap on a sunny day. Ute kick returner Reggie Dunn fielded the ball four yards into the end zone and started up the field.
One cut and he was in open space.
Utah's Erroll Tucker, who led the nation in both kickoff and punt returns in 1985, didn't do this. Nor did former Utes Del "Popcorn" Rodgers or Steve Smith. For that matter, Notre Dame's "Rocket" Raghib Ishmail, Miami's Devin Hester, Michigan's Desmond Howard, Oklahoma State's Barry Sanders and Southern Cal's Anthony Davis didn't either.
Nobody has turned in a flashier, splashier year as a return man than Dunn, whose 100-yard sprint on Saturday gave him a record three return touchdowns in a season and four in a career.
Touchdowns — prodigious ones — have become a foregone conclusion.
"Every time. Every time. Every single time," said assistant coach Sharrieff Shah. "Not one single time do you look and say, 'So, he'll probably get me 25 (yards).' You're like, 'This could be massive' every time."
Dunn and done.
In a season that began badly for the Utes, two things have changed the viewing climate. First, they awoke from a four-game losing streak by beating Cal 49-27 and followed with Saturday's 49-6 win over Washington State. Second, there is Dunn, who has seized not only the day, but the season.
His first 100-yard return was in 2010 against Iowa State, when he became the first Ute to do so in 25 years. Two other returns followed last week, when he joined Sanders and Georgia's Brandon Boykin in the three-in-a-career club.
Nobody else has four, nor has anyone done three in a season.
Curiously, Dunn's performance last week didn't draw much attention, even though he also became the first player in history to go 100 yards twice in a game. School publicists were nonplussed when his accomplishment went nearly unnoticed. But it was a late game, and with a 2-5 record the Utes hadn't exactly been highlight material earlier in the year.
What does a guy need to do to get some attention, carry the ball to ESPN's offices in Connecticut?
On Saturday Dunn fielded the second-half kickoff inside the end zone and cut sharply to get in the clear. He was quickly on the freeway and covering ground, without a speed cop in sight.
"I feel every time I touch the ball I can score," Dunn said.
Touching the ball has actually been a problem area. Earlier in his career he had problems hanging on. Shah said he worked with Dunn during the off-season and "multiple, multiple times" this fall on the mental aspects of catching before carrying.
"I knew if he caught it, he would be electric," Shah said. "He would absolutely decimate coverage teams."
The breakthrough nearly happened against Oregon State, when Dunn produced a 35-yard return. Only a desperation lunge by the Beavers' kicker kept him from winding up in the end zone on his first coast-to-coast flight of the season.
The Utes wrapped it up in the early moments of Saturday's game; they led 31-0 at the break. So it wasn't as though Dunn's play was a game-changer.
This one was for entertainment, rather than survival.
"He's so quick with changing directions, and so pronounced, that when he goes right and back left, you're breaking ankles try keep up with him," Shah said.
It would be wrong to say Dunn stole the show or even decided the outcome. That happenedlong before his record-setting return. But it would also be wrong to dismiss his effect on the Utes' confidence, both in the moment and out.
"I knew if he got the chance on that kickoff return," said receiver Dres Anderson, "he was going to the house."
Dunn admitted his recent success has been "so crazy." Having four 100-yard returns wasn't something he expected.
At the same time, somewhere along the line he decided it would be nice to make the house his home.
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