PROVO — BYU's punting competition is too close to call.
It's an unusual time of year for players to be battling for a starting job — especially at punter — but that's the situation the Cougars are facing as they prepare to host Idaho on Saturday (7:15 p.m., MT, ESPN2).
Coach Bronco Mendenhall opened up the competition between starting punter Riley Stephenson and backup Brian Smith during the bye week and it has continued this week.
Asked if he knows which one will handle punting duties Saturday, Mendenhall said, "Not yet. Probably won't make that decision until you see who runs out there to punt on game day. We're going to let it go as long as we can."
How will the starter be determined?
"Not only the distance (of the punts), but consistency — it determines trust," Mendenhall said. "Brian will have to do really well because he's overcoming an entire season worth of work."
So why is it that the Cougars are trying to identify their most effective punter with three regular-season games remaining?
The explanation is simple: four horribly executed punting situations led to four TCU touchdowns in a 38-28 loss in Arlington, Texas, on Oct. 28. Since then, BYU has placed extra emphasis on the punt game.
Against the Horned Frogs, the Cougars had a poor deep snap, a muffed snap, a blocked punt and a shanked punt. TCU capitalized on each of those miscues.
"Why we had troubles, I wish I could tell you," Mendenhall said during the bye week. "But we did. And it hurt us in the game, especially in terms of field position."
Also, Mendenhall has been evaluating starting deep snapper Reed Hornung.
"The very first thing that happens on a punt is a perfect snap. Right now, those also have to be consistent," Mendenhall said. "We've worked hard on it. We're addressing it probably more than any other special team right now … When there hadn't been an issue at all prior to this game (against TCU), it puts me in a pretty unique place. But when it happened not once or twice but three or four times in the same game, obviously there's an issue. So we've got to get it ironed out."
Aside from Stephenson and Smith, quarterback Riley Nelson can also punt, giving the Cougars some options.
"I'm trying to assess now if that's going to be a continuing problem or just a one-time thing," Mendenhall said. "That's hard to predict."
Stephenson, a junior, has punted 30 times this season, with a 42-yard average, booming a career-long 67-yarder against Central Florida. Nine of his punts have traveled at least 50 yards and eight have been downed inside the opponents' 20-yard line.
Mendenhall said Stephenson has been doing "really well" in practices. "He's competing well as is Brian Smith. Maybe more importantly, or as equally importantly, the snaps have been on target as they have been for most of the year."
Smith, a sophomore, last played in 2007 as a true freshman walk-on placekicker. Smith hit 4-of-6 extra points and had 31 kickoffs that season.
Speaking of kickoffs, Mendenhall is concerned about placekicker Justin Sorensen, who returned home from a mission last winter. In his first five games this season, Sorensen recorded eight touchbacks. Since then, in the last four games, he's had just three.
"He complains that his leg feels tired. I'm not sure it's overuse. We monitor the number of kicks in practice to where it wouldn't be overuse," Mendenhall said. "But there's also a mission effect that's always hard to gauge what that's going to be. The easy answer to give you is maybe there's a mission effect. Whether that's the right answer or not, I don't know. He's a very good kicker, a skilled kicker. But has been a drop-off. Maybe the week off has helped. We'll see."
Still, the news isn't all bad on the special teams front for BYU.
The Cougars enjoyed their first kickoff return for a touchdown since 1997 when Cody Hoffman accomplished the feat, a 93-yarder against Central Florida. Against TCU, J.D. Falslev returned a punt 67 yards for a TD, the first time a BYU player had done that since 2006.
"There are some things that are showing positively on special teams that haven't happened in a long time," Mendenhall said. "We've returned a punt and a kickoff for a touchdown and blocked a punt all in the same year. It was unfortunate that in the game against TCU (mistakes) that showed up out of blue and hurt us in terms of field position."
Cougars on the air
Idaho (2-7) at BYU (6-3)
Saturday, 7:15 p.m. MT
Radio: 1160 AM, 102.7 FM
Copyright 2016, Deseret News Publishing Company