Bowl season continues across college football, but for Utah, the 2015 campaign is in the books. Following a 10-3 season, which set the high watermark for Utah in the Pac-12, let's take a look back at the most valuable position group for the Utes this season.
While the offense was mostly unimpressive, all three defensive groups could make a case for themselves. The defensive line provided the base for the Pac-12's no. 1 ranked run defense. The linebacking group was anchored by All-Pac-12 linebackers Gionni Paul and Jared Norris, and the secondary led the conference with 22 interceptions, seven more than any other team in the Pac-12. The most valuable position group was neither on offense or defense however. The honor goes to the punt team and Tom Hackett's leg.
Utah relied on field position perhaps more than any other team in the conference this past season. The offense finished 11th in the Pac-12 in long scrimmage plays. Of Utah's 923 plays from the line of scrimmage, only 247 went for ten yards or more. That means only 5% of Utah's offensive plays this season went for more than 10 yards. In comparison the Pac-12's leader in long scrimmage plays, Oregon, produced ten yards or more on 46% of their plays from scrimmage. In yards per play, Utah was dead last in the conference, averaging 5.11 yards per play, below even lowly Oregon State and Colorado. Needless to say, short fields were a premium for an offense that struggled to move the ball as much as Utah.
Tom Hackett has been great at flipping field position for Utah since 2012 when he was just a freshman. This year was his best effort however, as he averaged 47.95 yards per punt, a career best. Hackett booted the fourth longest punt in the country this season with his 76 yarder against Oregon. He won his second consecutive Ray Guy award for best punter in the country, was named first team AP All-American and was the only Utah player named to the Pac-12 All-Century team.
The ability of Hackett to accurately punt the ball inside the opponent's ten yard line, while giving the coverage team time to get down field was unmatched this season. By making opposing teams drive the entire length of the field, the stout Utah defense was able stop opponents from scoring, and create turnovers, giving the offense a short field and thus better chance of scoring.
Without such a dominant punter and coverage unit, Utah would not have won ten games this season. The punt team's field flipping ability was crucial in games against Cal, Arizona State, Colorado and BYU. It's not often a punter receives as much praise as Hackett, but punter's like him are rare. Tom Hackett leaves Utah as the best punter in not just Utah history, but in conference history. He will be missed on the field next season and next year's punter will have giant shoes to fill.