#KickersArePeopleToo. Just as the Utes elected a special teams captain for the first time, you have to give the specialists their due. As Utah fans saw with King Louis Sakoda, a reliable place kicker and punter are weapons a team can use to add points to the scoreboard, and a kick returner like Reggie Dunn can change the entire game plan of an opposing team. For the Idaho State Bengals, the special teams outlook is as follows:
Kicking and Punting:
Last year's All-Big Sky second team kicker Brendon Garcia has graduated. Last season, Garcia went 18 of 24 on field goals (with a long of 51 yards) and 25 of 28 on PATs. He had two kicks blocked last season. Garcia was tied for most career made field goals for ISU with 41. He will be replaced by redshirt freshman Zak Johnson. As can be expected with a new kicker, Johnson has been a bit shaky at times during spring and fall camps. He can hit field goals regularly from 40 yards, but it is fair to say he will be a drop off from Garcia last season.
C.J. Reyes (a senior) returns as ISU's punter. The Bengals typically roll out on punts, and Reyes fits the style well. He averaged 38.5 yards per punt last season on 66 punts (with a long of 65 yards). Additionally, he only had one touchback last season and no blocked punts. In 2012, Reyes averaged 40.2 yards on 59 punts. He clearly has a decent leg and should be as good or better this season than in previous seasons.
Kickoff and Punt Returns:
Despite not having any kickoff return touchdowns, the Bengals were solid last season. They averaged 21.75 yards per kickoff return (31st). Aaron Prier (a former running back converted to wide receiver) was last season's leader in yards per return (24.9 on 12 returns). ISU's other top kickoff return man from last season, Cameron Gupton, has graduated. It will be interesting to see how Utah approaches kicking off to ISU, whether they will have Andy Phillips kick the ball deep to not allow a return or instead kick it high to the goal line like last season. Given that ISU did not have a kick return touchdown, I would expect Utah to allow for a return and hope to bottle up Prier.
Punt returns were the opposite of kick returns for the Bengals, who struggled mightily returning punts. On 15 returns, the Bengals only averaged 3.93 yards per return (110th). Last year's main return man, wide receiver Luke Austin, has graduated. This season, I expect ISU will probably again struggle to return punts. If the Utah offense performs as it should, Tom Hackett will not have to punt the ball too many times, so I doubt Utes fans will get much of a glimpse of the ISU punt return game.
Kickoff and Punt Return Coverage:
The Bengals were not great in kickoff coverage last season, giving up an average of 21.71 yards per return (79th) on 41 returns. The kick coverage team also gave up one kickoff return touchdown. With a new kicker handling kickoff duties, there could be additional struggles for the Bengals kickoff coverage. I would not be surprised to see them allow a fast player like Utah wide receiver Kaelin Clay to break a big return.
Idaho State was average in punt return defense last season, giving up an average of 8.35 yards per punt return (68th) on 23 returns, without surrendering a punt return touchdown. Idaho State does return their punter, but I expect he will be busy in this game since Utah's defense should stifle ISU's offense, forcing many punts. I would not be surprised if Utah got a big punt return due to the speed and talent of Utah's return men and the amount of opportunities they will have.
Special teams can often be the deciding factor in close games, but this game will not be close. Utah should dominate special teams against the Bengals in this game. This could be a good game for the Utes to get in a groove returning kicks and punts, allowing fans to see what players like Clay can bring to the table in the return game.