Derrek Richards didn't start the season as the Utes' main punt returner. And after making a key fumble in last week's loss at UNLV, he was in danger of not keeping the job he'd held for just a couple of weeks.
However, after Richards' sparkling performance Saturday in a win over Utah State, the Ute punt returner job looks to be in good hands.
Richards, the senior ex-walk-on from American Fork, returned four punts for 134 yards, including an electrifying 75-yard return for a touchdown in the second quarter that turned the game in Utah's favor for good. It was the first Ute punt return for touchdown since Steve Smith the Carolina Panthers' star did it in the 2000 season.
"D. Richards' return for a touchdown obviously was huge," said Ute coach Kyle Whittingham. Of Richards' 134 yards, he added, "That's a whole season's worth for some players."
Richards was more than happy to make up for his error a week earlier when, while making a fair catch, the ball bounced off his shoulder pads and was recovered by UNLV, leading to a Rebel field goal.
"When you have a fumble, you don't know if the coaches still have trust in you," Richards said. "I wanted to come out and show that I could get some things started."
Whittingham said the coaches never considered benching Richards over his miscue the week before.
"Derrek wasn't sharp last week, but no one was," said Whittingham. "I'm not going to get down on a fifth-year senior just because he makes an error in a ballgame."
Richards started off with a 14-yard punt return and followed with a 33-yard return, which put the Utes in USU territory. However, an interception stopped that drive.
Then after the Utes tied the score at 7-7, Richards got loose for his 75-yard return the seventh longest in Ute history after catching the ball near the Ute bench at the 25.
He beat a couple of USU defenders, then went left and up the sideline and, helped by a couple of key blocks from Eddie Wide and Terrell Cole, sprinted up the sidelines and dove in the end zone at the pylon.
"I saw a little crease, so I took it and then it kind of opened up for me," he said. "I credit my teammates because they made some good blocks and allowed me to get outside, and I used my speed upfield to outrun everyone else."
The Utes tried Marquis Wilson and Brian Hernandez at the position early in the season and were going to use Brent Casteel, but he was injured early in the Air Force game.
"We've been searching all year to find the guy," said Whittingham.
He said the main thing the coaches look for in a punt returner is someone who can be relied on to catch the ball."We feel very comfortable with him catching the football," Whittingham said. "If you can get some dynamic returns on top of that, it's a plus."