In the final days leading up to the 2014 season, Utah State football is anxious, excited and ready to show the country what it is made of. A huge part of the success the team expects to see lies in the hands of the special teams and running backs.
Dave Ungerer is in his second season at the helm of these two groups. He is using the returning experience and the developing talent of the newcomers to find strength and balance in his phase of the game. We sat down with him to discuss fall camp and the preparations he has made with his players heading into Neyland Stadium.
Overall, how was fall camp for the special teams?
“It was good. I think we have some experience coming back at the specialist positions in Jaron Bentrude, Nick Diaz and Jake Thompson. That’s very helpful and we have a lot of game experience there. We have a new long snapper, Salanoa Galea'i, who is doing well, but hasn’t played in a game yet. Return wise, JoJo (Natson) is quite a weapon back there. On kick return, we have a lot of good candidates in Kennedy Williams, Hunter Sharp, LaJuan Hunt, Kelvin Lee and Rashad Hall. Ronald Butler has also been doing a nice job as well. We’ve got a lot of nice guys back there on kickoff return. I think schematically, we are trying to get the young guys caught up with what we do and understanding our schemes. They are all giving good effort. We have some seasoned veterans back that are really good special teams players who will be sprinkled into the mix.”
Of the newcomers, who has stood out to you or shown the most promise at this point of camp?
“Damoun Patterson has had a nice camp as a newcomer. Anthony Williams is doing some good things. Jentz Painter is doing a nice job. Tyler Floyd, Bryant Hayes, Deshane Hines, they’re all guys that have been factoring in on special teams.”
Has there been a specific area or focus of special teams work during fall camp?
“Not really. We try to give even time allotment to each phase. We work especially hard at punt and our field goal operation and field goal block. Those get a lot of time every day in getting our protection and timing down. As far as our big four, I think we really try and put a lot of work into the punt return. We try to give JoJo (Natson) his space to work in because of what a weapon he is.”
We have a strong tradition among running backs at Utah State. What have you seen from them at this point and do you expect someone to reach the 1,000 yard mark?
“First of all, when Joe Hill went down last year, we didn’t feel like we rushed the ball as well as we thought. With Joey DeMartino getting 1,200-plus yards, I think it was a real compliment to the O-line and our scheme and to Joey stepping up. Joe Hill is getting better each and every day. He’s running fast and hard, showing his old self, which is very encouraging. The next group of guys are all guys who haven’t played in a game yet, in Rashad Hall and LaJuan Hunt. They’ve been showing some flashes of good things. Kennedy Williams has had a really good camp. That’s the group right now that we’re going to go to Tennessee with.”
What are the strengths of the special teams groups?
“We had a very good year last year on coverage. Last year we were ranked really high on kickoff coverage, so hopefully we can set a standard that is very high there. Jake Thompson is a really good kickoff guy, so hopefully he continues to get better and give us some touchbacks like he did a year ago. Punt coverage was also really good a year ago. Jaron Bentrude has gotten better. He had a really good summer of training. We want to keep those where they were last year or even improve on them. In the return game is where I want to pick up our production. Punt return had some really big plays, but we want to be more consistent there. On kickoff return, we want to get the ball out a little bit further from a drive-start standpoint to help the offense have a shorter field. We’ve really tried to hone in on that.”
How is the depth looking among both of your groups?
“From the kicking game standpoint, we’ve got a good group of young guys which really helps. Right now we have good depth. We’re trying to work a lot of guys in so we don’t have to use as many starters on special teams. From a running back perspective, we definitely have a lot more depth than we did a year ago. I really like our depth right now. We’ve got four guys we are working into our game plan and two who are kind of in reserve. We’re in better shape than we were a year ago at this time, so we feel good about that. They all got a lot of good work in during camp and all have their own unique skillset.”
What will it take for special teams to be effective and successful this season?
“We feel like special teams is a table setter for the offense and defense. Of course we want to hold the opponent to as little yardage as we can in the return game. We want our coverage teams to really set the table for the defense. That’s a really big emphasis that we have. It’s a combination of the kickers doing well and the coverage guys being able to make plays and open the field. In the return game, we want to gain as many yards as we can and make the field as short as possible. The expectation there is very high. We’ve tried to really emphasize our punt return game. We have a special returner back there, so we want to give him the time and space to be able to use his skills.“
What are your impressions of the team as a whole heading into the last week of practice before the Tennessee game?
“I feel really good. We’ve had a good, energetic camp. I think all three phases have gotten a lot of really good work in. We’re excited about the opponent, playing Tennessee. It’s a great environment. Getting to play the SEC on the road in a 102,000-seat stadium will be a really good experience. Our kids are excited about the opportunity and the challenge. I think they’re ready to go.”
Doug Hoffman is the associate athletic director for Utah State University Athletic Media Relations.