<em><em>Editor’s note: This is the final installment of a nine part series that highlighted each position group of the USU football team leading up to the season opener on Aug. 30 against Southern Utah.</em></em>
<strong>LOGAN—</strong> With a national record 10 games decided by one score or less, the 2011 USU football team – and its fans – is well aware of the impact special teams can have in a game.
Utah State’s first two losses last season were direct results of special teams miscues. Had the Aggies now allowed a kickoff return for a touchdown and/or the recovery of an onside kick, they would have pulled off the biggest upset in the history of the program with a win at Auburn.
Similarly, in the Aggies second game of the season against Colorado State, the awareness of when to field a punt and the ability to cleanly field a punt cost USU that game.
The USU kicking game was also a cause of consternation last season as the Aggies were a combined 6-of-11 on field goal tries during the year.
In a 10-point loss at Fresno State, the Aggies went 0-for-3 on field goal tries. In USU’s one point bowl loss to Ohio, the Aggies were 0-for-1.
“We all know that’s another area of improvement that has to improve, really for the last three years, for us to be able to contend and win a WAC championship and get to a bowl game and win a bowl game,” USU head coach Gary Andersen said after the first scrimmage of fall camp. “Our field goal kicking has to improve as far as its percentage, and that’s what we’re looking for.”
Looking to help that position this year is one of the bigger surprises in camp, walk-on kicker Brock Warren. The former Sky View graduate impressed in fall camp with his power, and after slowing down his stroke and working on his accuracy, he has earned the starting job – at least for now.
“He’ll definitely kick the first (field goal). The kickoff, we’ll make a game-time decision whether it’s going to be (Jacob) Haueter or him,” USU special teams coach Bill Busch said. “The first field goal, first extra point will be Brock. He’s done a nice job and he’s earned the position in camp. He’s got a real live leg, which we love about him, and he’s kind of unflappable.”
Last year’s starter, Josh Thompson, will be the backup on field goals, while junior Nick Diaz has faded after having the lead following the final scrimmage of the fall.
While USU’s kicker has been a question mark all camp, the Aggies punting duties are in good hands. Senior Tyler Bennett has been nominated to the Ray Guy Award watch list (given annually to the nations best punter) after averaging nearly 44 yards a punt in 2011 – good enough for No. 16 in the nation.
“When Tyler is right, he’s probably a top three or four in the country type of guy,” Busch said. “He’s got a big-time leg and in the last few days he’s done very, very well for us, and he’s had a good camp.”
Behind Bennett, is sophomore Jaron Bentrude who has pushed Bennett and is a more than capable backup. Bentrude has made a name for himself as a special teams star, as he is also the holder on field goal attempts.
“Jaron Bentrude has done a nice job. A credit to that kid is finding a way to do something very important for this team,” Andersen said. “He’s the holder, he’s the backup punter, he can kick off, he can kick field goals, so he’s become a very valuable part of this football team over the past year.”
In the return game, the Aggies return a lot of weapons, including the dynamic Kerwynn Williams who compiled an amazing 1,444 return yards as a sophomore, and 1,131 return yards last year as a junior. Now the No. 1 running back, Williams will see his role in the return game drop dramatically, but still may be used on kickoff returns.
Senior receiver Chuck Jacobs will be the main returner for the Aggies in 2012, as he will handle the majority of the punt return and kick return duties.
“The guy that really stepped up for us last year and we’re counting on a lot is Chuck Jacobs,” Busch said. “He’s our main returner – punts and kickoffs – so we’re really counting on him to be able to get that done. He proved that he can do both, so we’re really excited about him.”
While the Aggies may experiment with some younger guys on the returns – including the elusive freshman JoJo Natson – Busch said ball security is the number one concern. If situations similar to last season’s Colorado State game arise, don’t be surprised to see the Aggies sure-handed receivers back fielding punts.
“We’re pretty cautious with the ball, that’s why sometimes you’ll see Matt Austin back there or you’ll see (Cam) Webb back there,” Busch said. “We want to make sure we secure the ball.”
With some experience and some lessons to learn from, the Aggies are hoping special teams can be positive difference maker on the field in 2012.