Solid is the word BYU coach LaVell Edwards uses to describe his special teams - especially his kickers and return specialists.
Though they'll miss the explosiveness of academic casualty Jaron Dab-ney, who returned a punt 83 yards for a touchdown against Hawaii and took a kickoff back 70 yards in the Utah State game, the Cougars may be able to fill the void with speedy Ronney Jenkins and freshman Junior Mahe. Jenkins, who is back for his sophomore year after sitting out last season because of an Honor Code infraction, will likely be relegated only to kickoffs when on special teams. He is BYU's starting tailback. Receivers Ben Horton and Margin Hooks are also slated to return kicks. Punt returns, meanwhile, will be handled primarily by senior receiver Aaron Roderick and Mahe."Both (return units) could be very good," Edwards said. "I feel very solid about that."
The blocking corps, however, may have a void to fill with special teams MVP Derik Stevenson earning a starting linebacker spot.
BYU's kicking game is good with senior J.D. Hartsfield and sophomore Owen Pochman returning as punter and kicker, respectively.
"They both did it last year and did very well," Edwards said.
Hartsfield averaged 41.3 yards per punt in 1997, while Pochman is considered an candidate for postseason honors after making 29 of 30 extra points and 9 of 15 field goal attempts as a freshman.
DEFENSIVE BACKS: Junior college transfers Brian Gray and Heshimu Robertson have every right to feel a bit tense. The newcomers are being thrown right into the fire as BYU's starting cornerbacks on an otherwise veteran defensive unit.
"If these guys come through we're going to be much improved from a year ago," Edwards said. "And I think to a large extent that'll determine how good we are on defense."
Pressure? You bet, but Gray and Robertson wouldn't have it any other way. Each is confident they can step in and get the job done. Edwards compares the duo to past greats Omarr Morgan and Tim McTyer, who went on to earn All-WAC honors.
Former Timpview star Doug Henstrom will back up Robertson on the right side, while fellow junior Rob Warcup is the No. 2 guy on the left.
At safety, Edwards returns three players who've seen a lot of action. Senior Chris Ellison played in every game of BYU's Cotton Bowl season but was sidelined with an ACL injury a year ago and was granted a medical redshirt by the NCAA. He then dislocated his shoulder in the first fall scrimmage, though trainers are optimistic he'll be ready for the Sept. 5 opener at Alabama. Ellison will be backed at strong safety by junior Tyler Nelson, who intercepted two passes in last year's Utah game. Senior Jason Walker is back at free safety where he started all 11 games in 1997. Redshirt freshman Jason Anderson, a former Deseret News 5A MVP at Skyline, waits in the wings.
DEFENSIVE BACKS: In the pass-happy Big West, a strong secondary is a must, and the Ags feel they will be much improved over last year's team that resembled a sieve in several late-season games.
Johndale Carty and Donald Dicko are back after starting every game at the safety positions. Carty's tackle total was down from 138 to 110 last year, but his interceptions improved from one to six. Dicko is an underrated but solid at the strong safety spot and known for his hard tackles.
The cornerback position looks solid with BYU transfer Greg White and Craig Miller, who has started 17 games over the past two years.
According to secondary coach Henry Miller, White brings "quickness and intelligence" to his position, while Miller "has the total package for a cornerback" and is a "man on a mission" for his senior season.
To show how strong the secondary is, Vashon Garmon, a starting cornerback and second-team all-league player, won't even start and will be a backup at safety, while playing a lot in the nickel and dime packages.
Backups at the corners are a pair of newcomers, JC tansfer Shaun Healy and Tony Walker, who may see more playing time than any "true" freshman on the team this year.
SPECIAL TEAMS: Last year at this time, the Aggies were worried about their kickers but felt good about the rest of the special teams.
This year the worries are reversed.
Both punter Jerry Arguello and placekicker Brad Bohn are back after solid, if unspectacular seasons. Arguello finished 11th in the nation in punting with a 44.8 average, although he was inconsistent with several short kicks mixed in with the boomers.
Bohn was the surprise winner of a wide-open race for kicker last year and set school records for PATS with 39 of 43. He made just 9 of 15 field goal attempts, however.
The Ags have no one to replace spectacular Steve Smith, who returned two punts for touchdowns and finished third in the nation. Coach Dave Arslanian may be searching right up until the kickoff of the Utah game for able return men. He's also concerned about having no adequate backups at both of the kicking positions. Another concern is the kickoff coverage team, which gave up major yards last year.
DEFENSIVE BACKS: Strong safety Robert Love, a Ute captain and among the best at his spot with two straight All- WAC second-team nods, leads a secondary that has the least experience on the defense but should hold its own, even with veteran Brandon Dart out indefinitely again (foot sprain). Love's a very hard hitter who's also started at linebacker in his three-year Ute career. "Consistent high-level play," says defensive co-or-di-na-tor Kyle Whittingham. Improving Jamal Allen's the backup.
Kimball Christianson started every game as a freshman at free safety and has improved leg strength. "He had an outstanding camp. He's really solid," says Whittingham.
Those three, says coach Ron McBride, "are real smart. They've played a lot."
Dixie transfer Sitivi Laulu should see action at backup. Utah recruited him out of high school, but he wanted to stay on the islands and play for Hawaii. He wound up at Dixie. "With Dart out a couple months, at least, we're very fortunate to have Sitivi," says Whittingham.
At the corners are veterans Teneil Ethridge and Dave Richards, backed by Ricks transfer Jay Hill, who participated in spring ball and has improved from there, Whittingham says, and the defensive Dyson, Andre, a sophomore with the best speed in the secondary. Colby Knight's also in the secondary mix after a strong season on special teams.
McBride says he likes the secondary "as a group - it's pretty solid across the board."
SPECIAL TEAMS: There's no question about the punting. Chris Hunter (43.7 average) enters his third season with second-team All-WAC credentials. Kicked 80 and 70+ yards last year, 13 punts of 50+ in two seasons. He adds great hang time to those distances.
There's experience at placekicker, but Cletus (formerly Tommy) Truhe has to show everyone his off-season strengthening program has helped. "Truhe's got to do a great job because he didn't last year, and he's got some kids competing against him," says special teams coach Sean McNabb. Truhe was second in the WAC in field goals per game (1.3) but made only 14 of 22; he did cinch the win at BYU with 1:39 left with a 32-yard make in '97. Was 25-for-29 on PATs. Kickoffs need to be longer; they were in spring ball.
All other specialists - long snapper, holder, punt and kickoff returners - are new, way more than usual. McNabb was grooming Sean Hagen as holder/punt returner, but Hagen left early to get married and get a job. Brian Bachhuber and Ed Ta'amu are snapping; Matt Comins, Chris Christensen and Colby Knight are holding. D'Shaun Crockett, Boo Bendinger and Patrick Dyson are vying for punt returns. Teneil Ethridge and Daniel Jones are likely kickoff returners, but Desmond Davis "caught my eye," says McNabb, and Crockett, Mike Anderson and Patrick and Andre Dyson are in the mix.
Courtney Richins, expected to be the No. 1 punt returner, is out for the year with an ACL tear.
Football report card
... BYU UTAH USU
Defensive line A B+ B
Linebackers B+ A B+
Defensive backs B B A
Special teams A- B- B-