Indeed, poor special teams play was the reason the Cougars lost a number of games in the past, but that changed under coach Paul Tidwell, the special teams guru during Gary Crowton’s ongoing tenure. Tidwell was assigned this unit in 2001 and things have been looking up since.
With Crowton and defensive coordinator Bronco Mendenhall’s support, the special teams unit over the last two years was comprised of first and second teamers in positions where the Cougars are deep and by skilled specialists. Look for this to continue this fall.
Any discussion of special teams must begin with its senior All-American kicker candidate, Matt Payne. Payne has provided the Cougars with excellent field goal and punting for over three seasons and should improve his final season. Payne will continue to handle kick-off, punting and field-goal kicking responsibilities for BYU, making his contribution even more valuable and appreciated.
Bigger than the average kicker, Payne also provides solid kick coverage and he’s not reticent in laying a hit on opposing kick returners that reach him.
Meanwhile, defensive end John Denney mans one of the most overlooked positions on the team at deep-snapper. You only notice them when they mess up. Denney has emerged one of the better deep-snappers ever to pass through the program. His absence early last season because of injury was immediately apparent with bad snaps by unprepared backups.
If something happens to Denney again, look for defensive tackle Daniel Marquardt to fill in for him.
B.J. MATHIS ANTWAUN HARRIS
Two freshmen newcomers figure to bring back a renewed level of excitement in the Cougars’ kick-off and punt return game. Shifty speedsters B.J. Mathis and Antwaun Harris, both Texans, are the preseason favorites to become immediate special teams starters. JC wide receiver transfer Michael Morris has also been mentioned as another possible contributor.
Mathis was an interesting signee because he was recruited primarily as a kick and punt returner. A track and field speedster, Mathis has shown the elusiveness and explosiveness seldom seen in Provo. His high school coach, who has sent dozens of players to Div. 1 schools, noted that Mathis was the “most explosive player” he’d seen in almost 20 years coaching in the metro Dallas area.
What will make or break Mathis will be his ability to catch punt consistently under pressure. Mathis is such an offensive threat that he will get looks in fall camp at the wide receiver and running back positions.
Sophomore Brett Cooper, who has converted to defensive back from wide receiver, fared well last season handling kick-offs, averaging 24.2 yards per return. He may also see some action this fall.
Harris, who only played one spectacular year of varsity football in Texas, is the other speedster expected to play a starring role on special teams this fall. Harris, like Mathis, possesses the game-breaking, playmaker explosiveness seldom seen at BYU.
Other possibilities include BYU track star Cody Fonnesbeck, arguably the fastest player on the team. He’s healthy again after sitting out last year because of injury and may get a look as well.
Nathan Soelberg was another possibility, but his importance on the otherwise thin cornerback ranks will keep him focused on defense.
BRYCE MAHUIKA MICAH ALBA
Finally, Bryce Mahuika and Micah Alba, two very athletic reserves, may also get a look returning kicks during fall camp.
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