The 2014 season marked a banner year for Utah's special teams. Coached by head coach Kyle Whittingham, Utah fielded arguably the best special teams unit in the country, headlined by kicker " Automatic" Andy Phillips, punter and Ray Guy award winner Tom Hackett and Kaelin Clay returning kicks. Heading into 2015, the special teams unit is under going a few changes, namely the transition to being under the watchful eye of new special teams coordinator Morgan Scalley and the departure of dynamic return man Kaelin Clay.
Morgan Scalley was considered by many to be a top candidate for the defensive coordinator during the offseason but to many people's surprise, John Pease came out of retirement and took over as the new defensive coordinator. Scalley was instead rewarded with what could very well be a coordinator "tryout" of sorts, by being named as the new special teams coordinator. Head coach Kyle Whittingham stepped away from the coordinator position after a year in which he over saw perhaps the best special teams unit in the country. Whether or not Scalley is able to have success coordinating special teams will likely factor into if he will be promoted to the defensive coordinator position once Pease decides to retire again. Scalley of course has experience with special teams having been a member of the unit during his playing days, as he was all Mountain West honorable mention as a punt returner in 2001 and 2002.
Speaking of kick returners for the Utes, the question of who will replace Kaelin Clay is probably the single biggest question for this unit currently. Clay was electric in his one and only season returning kicks for the Utes and he leaves behind big shoes to fill for whoever emerges as Utah's next returner. Early on in spring practice it appeared Troy McCormick's expanded role with the team would include returning kickoffs, however his recent knee injury derailed those plans. McCormick had to undergo surgery to repair the damage and is looking at an 8-9 month recovery.
In his place Monte Seabrook and Bubba Poole have been seeing time returning kickoffs. Seabrook, a sophomore, has been all over the field this spring as a defensive back, receiver and running back. Seabrook has speed to burn at the returner position as evidenced by him holding the 300 meter hurdle record at his alma mater Newbury High in Newbury Florida with a time of 40.8 seconds. Poole is a familar face for Utes fans, having led the team in rushing in 2013 with 607 yards. Poole, now a senior, is currently making the transition to slot receiver in addition to returning kicks. He has decent speed and experience carrying the ball, which should translate well into returning kicks. Poole did return two kickoffs in 2013 against Utah State for 38 yards. In addition to kick returns, Poole is also in the running to return punts, where he returned five punts for a total of 82 yards in 2013.
In addition to Poole returning punts, Boobie Hobbs has been getting some looks at the punt returner position. Hobbs is entering his sophomore season with the Utes. His most memorable play up to this point in his career, might be the block in the back that wiped out Clay's potential game changing kick return against Arizona last season. He should get an opportunity to make more positive impressions for Ute fans with an expanded role this season. Hobbs is athletic and fast, being named first team all state cornerback in Louisiana in addition to lettering in track his senior year of high school. At 5-10 175 lbs. Hobbs should be able to combine his speed with being elusive, and make some noise returning punts. The final decision on the return game won't come until Fall camp, but Utah looks to have a stable of promising candidates even with McCormick's injury.
In the kicking game what more can be said about Utah's dynamic duo of Andy Phillips and Tom Hackett? Phillips will enter his third year as the Utes place kicker. All he did last year was finish first team all Pac-12 and be named as a semi finalist for the Lou Groza award. His 23 field goals last year were best in the Pac-12 and tied him for fourth in the nation while setting a Utah record for field goals made in a season. He was 12-15 from more than 40 yards and 2-2 from over 50 yards, best in the nation for kickers with more than 13 attempts.
In the punt game, Ray Guy award winner Tom Hackett will enter his senior season. Hackett is the best punter in the nation and one of the most beloved players on this team with his wit and laid back attitude. Last season Hackett broke the school record for most punt yards in a season (3,736) as well as total punts (80). Hackett is one of the best punters in the nation at pinning opponents deep, having placed 78 of his181 career punts inside the opponents 20 yard line. That's nearly half of his total career punts 43.1% pinning opponents deep on their end of the field. That's not to say life is always a bed of roses for Hackett....
In all seriousness though, without Hackett last season, Utah loses a couple games they ended up winning. Reports out of spring camp are Hackett looks to be in good form and is poised for a monster senior season.
Overall special teams looks to be in good hands once again for the 2015 season. The kicking game should continue to be the best in the country. If a dangerous return man can emerge, Utah is in a great position to have the best special teams in the nation yet again in 2015.