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Provo • It is not written in stone and there are a few exceptions, but BYU football coaches have adopted the philosophy that players have to play on special teams before they can earn starting spots on offense or defense.
They also placed a bigger emphasis on special teams play this past offseason after losing several games last year due to subpar play in the kicking game, mostly shoddy place-kicking. The results mostly have been positive through seven games.
Look back to last week's 47-46 win over Houston for proof; BYU kicker Justin Sorensen was 2 for 2 on field-goal attempts, while UH kicker Richie Leone was 1 for 3, including a missed 40-yarder that BYU's 6-foot-6 jumping jack Mitch Mathews got a finger on.
"The thought was that you can earn your stripes on special teams, and that's how you earn your starting spot on offense or defense," BYU special teams coach Kelly Poppinga said Tuesday as the Cougars (5-2) continued preparations for Friday's showdown at LaVell Edwards Stadium against Boise State (5-2).
"It was probably a little overreaction by me when I took over special teams," Poppinga said about the philosophy. "But it's OK. That's me just being a young guy. It is probably unrealistic, but yeah, the fact is we do have better players on special teams now, and we are using our starters more on special teams."
Houston's Demarcus Ayers did return a kickoff 95 yards for a touchdown in the first quarter to greatly alter the game's course, but Poppinga and coach Bronco Mendenhall chalked up that more to a great effort by Ayers than to a missed tackle by Kaneakua Friel at the 23-yard-line and Alge Brown being outside his coverage lane.
"The kickoff coverage team had been really great until that big one we gave up against Houston, which was super frustrating," Poppinga said. "I believe, my opinion, without that play, that game is not a [close] game."
Said Mendenhall: "That guy was really good is what it was. Sometimes really good players make plays, and that's what happened."
Poppinga said the kickoff return team has been nothing short of sensational. It ranks eighth in the country in yards per return (27.8), and sophomore Adam Hine is second in the nation with a 32.8 average per return, second only to Stanford's Ty Montgomery. Both players returned kickoffs for touchdowns against Utah, but Hine's was brought back by a holding penalty away from the ball.
"It is the strongest I have seen because we have the best players doing it," Mendenhall said. "So that is not only emphasized by how we meet and which coaches are in charge, but by which players we are sending out there."
BYU's Riley Stephenson was one of the best punters in the country last year, and junior college transfer Scott Arellano (34.7 yards per punt) has struggled to fill his shoes so far. The Cougars are 104th in net punting (34.74) and have had two blocked (Virginia, Georgia Tech). The flip side is that their punt coverage unit has been outstanding, led by senior safety Daniel Sorensen.
"He is probably the best gunner in the country," Poppinga said. "I would like to find a guy that is better than that guy, because I don't think there is one."
The punt return team has been better than average, aside from some punts that senior JD Falslev probably should have fielded that ended up pinning the Cougars deep in their territory. Falslev fumbled three punts against Middle Tennessee State, but is still 27th in the country, averaging 10.4 yards per return.
The biggest improvement has come from Justin Sorensen, who finally is healthy after playing with a bad back last season. The prep All-American from Bingham High is 11 of 13 on field-goal attempts and 25 of 25 on PATs. He said his leg finally is as strong as it was in 2008 when he signed with BYU.
"Yeah, I feel similarly to how I did then, just in the sense that I have no restrictions on what I can do," he said. "I don't go to practice and talk to the trainers beforehand and say, 'OK, what can I do today?' I go out and do what I want to do."
BYU special teams rankings
Category Rank Stat
Net Punting 104th 34.74
Punting avg. 57th 41.4
Punt returns 39th 10.39
Kickoff returns 8th 27.8
FG % T36th .846
Boise State at BYU
O Friday, 6 p.m.
TV • ESPN