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Special Teams Play Helping to Mold Utah into Pac-12 Contender

Britain Covey

Britain Covey

No touchdown stood out more in Utah’s 62-20 victory over Oregon back on Sept. 26 than Boobie Hobbs’ 69-yard punt return for the Utes late in the third quarter. Hobbs had a clear path down the sideline to the end zone after Britain Covey drew most of the defenders to the other side of the field while pretending to field the punt. Covey’s acting skills were good enough to fool the Ducks, the fans in the Stadium and the FOX TV cameras following the action.

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It offered a dramatic example of how Utah puts the special in special teams.

"We hold our special teams to a high standard,” said junior defensive back Cory Butler-Byrd, who returns kickoffs for the Utes. “You got to come out and you got to be aggressive every play because that's what Utah is."

Special teams have played a huge role in Utah’s rise in the Pac-12. It has been a game-changing element for the Utes since joining the league.

Utah boasts one of the nation’s best punters in Tom Hackett. The senior won the Ray Guy Award and was named a consensus All-American last season after leading the Pac-12 and ranking third in FBS in punt average (46.7 yards per punt). Hackett has picked up where he left off in 2014. He is averaging a Pac-12-best 47.8 yards per punt this season. Utah, as a team, ranks third in the nation in net punting (43.87 yards per punt).

Andy Phillips is a quality kicker for the Utes. Phillips, a junior, has made 45-of-55 (.819) field goal attempts in his career and is 105-of-106 in career PAT attempts. He set single-season school records in field goals attempted (28) and made (23) last season.

As good as Utah is at kicking and punting, the Utes are equally adept at turning punt returns and kickoff returns into big play opportunities. Utah is one of only three teams in the nation with two punt return touchdowns five weeks into the 2015 season. The Utes are ranked eighth in the nation and first in the Pac-12 in punt return average (21.80 yards per return). Utah also leads the Pac-12 and ranks ninth in the nation in kickoff return average (29.60 yards per return).

“Special teams here are a high priority,” Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham said. “If you don't get it done on special teams, you won't be playing on offense or defense. Special teams are where it starts. Our guys understand that. They take a lot of pride in what they're doing and it's an honor to be on special teams. It isn't a second-class duty or anything like that. It is what we feel is the most important thing we do."

Participating on special teams is a badge of honor for the Utah players who do it. They are aware of the reputation created by past special teams units and do their best to live up to those expectations.

What are those expectations? It all starts with finding a way to make a play. Utah isn’t afraid to open up the playbook and dust off fake punts — or even fake punt returns — when the occasion calls for it.

“I feel like everyone in the crowd gets excited when you get an opportunity to return a punt or return a kick because we have a history of being great on special teams,” Covey said. “We execute it perfectly — our whole unit. I feel like we're going to be a dangerous unit."

As long as Utah remains dangerous on special teams, it will mean plenty more anxious moments for Pac-12 opponents this season.

Written by John Coon,who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Coon has more than a decade of experience covering sports for different publications and outlets, including The Associated Press, Salt Lake Tribune, ESPN, Deseret News, MaxPreps, Yahoo! Sports and many others. Follow him on Twitter @johncoonsports.