PROVO For BYU, special teams have been an adventure this season.
In the opener against Arizona, punter C.J. Santiago, a junior college transfer, was booed early in the game by the crowd at LaVell Edwards Stadium after a couple of poor punts. Redshirt freshman placekicker Mitch Payne missed an extra point. There have been other shanked punts and botched extra points and kickoffs that have sailed out of bounds.
But coach Bronco Mendenhall was encouraged by the way the special teams played in the victory over Air Force and last week's win at New Mexico.
"The main thing is, our special teams continued to improve. The last two weeks, they've taken significant jumps," Mendenhall said, adding that special teams have made the most improvement of any area in the program. "In that game on Saturday, our punting and our punt coverage in and of itself might have been enough to change the game. Other
than the turnovers, I think that was the next most significant factor. That part has become much more solidified than it was early. I'm optimistic with that."
In the first half, Santiago boomed a 75-yard punt (Lee Johnson has the longest punt in school history, 80 yards, in 1983) that pinned the Lobos deep in their own territory. For the game, he averaged 46.2 yards per punt on 10 attempts. Mendenhall not only enjoyed that performance for his team's sake, but for Santiago personally.
"He and I had a nice talk after the first game because I was booed in my first game in that stadium as well," Mendenhall explained. "We had that in common. We kind of view it as a partnership, so to speak. When you have 58,000 to 64,000 calling you names, it's hard to understand what that feels like."
Payne is still recovering from an injury that has given Smith an opportunity for playing time. The kicking game has received plenty of emphasis during this bye week. On Monday, senior safety Quinn Gooch got the chance to practice kickoffs.
"I was hoping (Gooch) wouldn't pull something when he was kicking," Mendenhall said with a chuckle. "I don't know whose idea that was, but he looked pretty good."
All in all, Mendenhall is feeling better about his special teams."We're covering kickoffs and punts better," he said. "The only area now that needs a little more emphasis is punt return."
RETURN TO PRACTICE: Running back Ryan Love, one of six freshmen suspended from practice last week for violation of team rules, returned to practice Wednesday. Love completed 20 hours of community service and met other requirements."Once they each finish their community service hours, I meet with them to determine if I feel like they're ready to come back," Mendenhall said. "Ryan was the first to be done with the 20 hours. It's great for me because I gain an understanding of how much the team means to them."
ROBBED? BYU tight end Andrew George appeared to haul in a diving touchdown catch late in the New Mexico game. It was initially called a touchdown, but later was overturned by replay officials. The review took several minutes to complete.
After seeing replays, George still believes he scored a touchdown. "(Quarterback) Max (Hall) put the ball in the back of the end zone, in a place only where I could get it," George said. "I dove for it. I thought I caught it. I didn't even think they'd review it. I didn't think they'd overturn it. You feel a little robbed, but that's natural."Because the review took so long, George felt the officials would rule in his favor. "If it takes you that long to review a play," he said, "it can't be conclusive."