SALT LAKE CITY — For years now elite special teams have been the defining feature of Utah football.
Yes, the defense has historically been strong, but special teams have consistently been the facet of the game that has truly set the Utes apart.
Utah has and does boast award winners throughout the special teams ranks, including punters (Tom Hackett and Mitch Wishnowski), kickers (Matt Gay) and return men (Reggie Dunn, Kaelin Clay or Britain Covey). All of them and countless others have made special teams great over the years.
Head coach Kyle Whittingham put it best when he said that “special teams are usually an advantage for us week in and week out.”
That hasn’t been the case so far this season.
Utah’s special teams have been a hindrance, rather than a boon.
Gay has missed multiple field goals (two blocked and one sent wide left). The Utes have turned the ball over twice on punt returns. Wishnowsky hasn’t looked his award-winning best and Utah has yet to even attempt a kickoff return.
As eye-roll inducing as the pun is, Utah’s special teams have been anything but special.
“Our special teams was disappointing, again. Second week in a row,” Whittingham said during his Monday afternoon press conference following Utah’s 17-6 victory over Northern Illinois. “We had the same exact issues (that we had against Weber State), another blocked field goal and another punt recovered by the opponent. The two exact things that happened in game one happened in game two. That is something that has to be corrected.”
When it comes to the missed field goals, correction seems inevitable. That is what happens when you have the reigning Lou Groza award-winner attempting kicks, the same player that connected on 30 of 34 attempts in 2017.
It also helps that the Utes are well aware of what went into each of Gay’s three misses so far this year. The first, a blocked kick against Weber State, was the result of a breakdown in protection. The two against Northern Illinois? Swirling winds and a low kick trajectory were to blame. Either way, Gay is ready to bounce back.
“There is nothing you can do about it, what happened on those kicks happened,” said Gay. “Worrying about the last kick is not going to make the next one good. I just have to stick with what I have been doing. It worked all last year and it worked all year coming in. Sometimes things just don’t go your way and you have to have the right mindset to not let it affect you and continue to work forward rather than backward. I am just going to keep with my process and continue to get better.”
The turnovers on punt returns are more of a worry for Whittingham and the Utes, despite their fluky nature.
“I would say those turnovers have been bad luck, the ball bouncing off our returners was more misfortune than anything else,” Whittingham said. “Still, it’s another turnover there and we have to get that fixed.”
Again the Utes know what they need to correct — Whittingham noted that players need to peek and find the football while it is in the air, they need to get in the correct position for the punt returner and, most importantly, they need to actually locate him on the field.
All of those corrections are greatly aided by the actions of the punt returner himself — signaling a fair catch and the like — something Britain Covey, the Utes primary return man, knows well.
“I’ll take the blame for those miscues,” Covey said.
He went on to elaborate on the ins and outs of a punt return, noting again that the Utes’ recent turnover woes on his shoulders.
“I have to do a better job in giving the fair catch signal more elaborately,” said Covey. “Once I give that signal my guys should give a quick peek, see me and clear out. Or, if I point and yell out ‘Peter, Peter’, that means I can’t catch the ball, it is too low. Whenever they see and hear that they are supposed to get out of the way. I just have to do a better job at signaling those things.”
That would apply to kickoffs as well, except the Utes’ haven’t attempted a single one this season.
The reason? “We did extensive research when they changed the rule in the offseason, Whittingham said. “We looked at every kickoff return that was brought out, either out of the end zone or in an area that was near the end zone, and some 80-plus percent — this is not just us but everyone we studied — did not reach the 25-yard line. We’ve been playing percentages. As a general rule it makes sense to fair catch it and that is what we are going to do a great deal of the time.”
As far as actual punting goes, Whittingham isn’t worried.
“Our punt game is alright,” he said. “We are second or third in the Pac-12 in net punt and that is without Mitch really getting into a groove yet. It hasn’t been all disaster, but it is just not what we are used to.”
No aspect of special teams has been what the Utes are used to, but there is optimism for the future.
“We know we have corrections to make,” Whittingham said. “They’ll be made.”