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Marcio Jose Sanchez, AP
Washington's John Ross, left, returns a kickoff for a touchdown against BYU during first half of the Fight Hunger Bowl NCAA college football game Friday, Dec. 27, 2013, in San Francisco. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)
Last year when we got near the end of the season, with the tempo and the depth, we lost a lot of guys injury-wise, and our depth wasn’t great at the end of the season. —BYU assistant coach Kelly Poppinga, on the Cougars' special teams

PROVO — In the moments after BYU’s 31-16 loss to Washington in the Fight Hunger Bowl in San Francisco last December, coach Bronco Mendenhall tersely identified his team’s glaring miscues.

“The turning points (of the game),” Mendenhall said, “were our kickoff cover team.”

BYU outside linebackers coach and special teams coordinator Kelly Poppinga hasn’t forgotten what happened that night eight months ago.

The Huskies’ John Ross recorded a 100-yard kickoff return for a touchdown and Jesse Callier had a 47-yard kickoff return that set up another TD.

“In my opinion, it cost us the game,” Poppinga said of his team’s kick return defense. “If that doesn’t happen, we have a really good chance to win that game.”

Those mistakes in the bowl game prompted the coaching staff to focus on strengthening its special teams during the offseason.

“Last year when we got near the end of the season, with the tempo and the depth, we lost a lot of guys injury-wise, and our depth wasn’t great at the end of the season,” Poppinga said. “Coach Mendenhall and I, that’s been one of our emphasis in the offseason, making sure that when it comes down to the kickoff team and the punt team, we have our best athletes out there. That’s what you’re going to see. You’re going to see a lot of starters or guys who are really good athletes out there running down. That’s what happened in the Washington game. We were playing a lot of guys that, first of all, didn’t have much game experience, and, second of all, weren’t the best of athletes. We got exposed … I feel like we have a bigger pool than ever on special teams to choose from. We’re anxious to get those guys out there to make some plays for us.”

SPECIAL TEAMS DEPTH CHART: The good news for BYU is it has special teams experience with Scott Arellano, who returns as BYU’s punter; Adam Hine, who finished No. 12 nationally in kickoff returns; and deep-snapper Kevin O'Mary, who was granted an extra year of eligibility.

On the other hand, the Cougars are breaking in a new place-kicker — and more than one. Trevor Samson is the favorite for the job, while Moose Bingham and Andrew Mikkelson are also vying for playing time.

“I’d say Trevor Samson would be our kicker if we had to go today,” Poppinga said. “He’s kicked the ball consistently really well. Moose Bingham is right behind him, the percentages are very close, but Trevor has a little stronger leg and has been a little more consistent over time.”

Mendenhall said Mikkelson, an Oregon State transfer, “is our best kickoff guy.”

On kickoff return, Hine will be joined by either Jordan Leslie or Devon Blackmon, Poppinga said.

Keanu Nelson will likely return punts for the Cougars, but Leslie and Michael Shelton are also expected to be in the mix.

“These guys are all very capable of making one guy miss and taking the thing to the house,” Poppinga said. “They’re all capable of making an explosive play.”

BIG BLUE BASH: Mendenhall and quarterback Taysom Hill are among those who will celebrate the upcoming season with fans for the ninth annual Big Blue Bash.

The event, which will take place Saturday from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. at the Sheraton Hotel in Salt Lake City, is held for all Cougar fans and hosted by the BYU Cougar Club’s Salt Lake chapter.

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Admission is $5 if paid in advance and $10 at the door.

The reception starts at 7 p.m. and includes door prizes, light hors d’oeuvres, autographs, music, trivia, a silent auction of memorabilia, Cosmo, and the BYU Cheer Squad. Following the reception, Mendenhall and players — Hill, Jamaal Williams, Craig Bills, Bronson Kaufusi, as well as former Cougar and NFL player Lee Johnson — will speak, and video highlights will be shown.

For more information or to RSVP, please call the Cougar Club Office at 1-800-426-4298.