“We stunk,” said linebacker and kickoff return unit captain Bryan Kehl. “We flat out stunk on special teams last year and we wanted to change that. Coach Mendenhall thought it was unacceptable, and we’ve made changes, and so far they’ve paid off.”
Kehl hit the nail on the head. The numbers for last year’s special teams coverage and return units were lackluster. Opposing were better than the Cougars by 5 yards per kickoff return and 3.5 yards per punt return. Those numbers may seem minimal, but they are very significant in regards to winning the field position battle within the game.
“Field position is huge,” said linebacker and punt coverage captain Cameron Jensen. “We were consistently giving up more yards than we gained last year on special teams, and that’s unacceptable. So far this year, we’re doing better, but we need to get better. We’re not satisfied yet with how we’re doing on special teams.”
Through six games, the Cougars raised their kickoff return average by 2 yards to 19.5 per return. BYU increased its punt returns average by 4 yards to 11.2 yards per return. The punt return average is also 4 more yards than Cougar opponents, who are averaging 7.1 yards per return—the Cougars’ return average from 2005.
“I think we’re second in the conference right now in just about every special teams category, which is good, but we want to be number one in all areas of our special teams,” said receiver and punt return captain Nathan Meikle. “Our goal is to be not only the top offense and defense in the conference, but also the best on kick coverages and returns. It’s just as important to our team’s success that we are.”
Ownership and Accountability
Just below “invested” and “highest level” on BYU Head Coach Bronco Mendenhall’s list of most used words are “ownership” and “accountability.” The terms are synonymous and are what Mendenhall strives to instill in his players in all facets of the game. Mendenhall made changes just prior to this year’s spring practice to help develop greater ownership and accountability in his players on special teams.
“Coaches have always talked about us as players taking ownership in everything we do and this was the idea to help do that with special teams,” said Meikle. “The coaches decided to put a player in charge of each unit. I got punt returns, Cameron got punt coverage, Bryan got kickoff returns and Kelly Poppinga got kickoff coverages.”
“Coaches gave me returns, which I wasn’t familiar with all that much being a defensive player,” said Kehl. “Nathan was obviously involved with punt returns before. Cameron wanted punt coverages. They gave Kelly the return coverage, so through process of elimination I got kickoff returns, which I didn’t expect, but it’s something I’ve been very thankful for. I love being in charge of the return team. It’s a lot of fun.”
The four captains mentioned by Meikle and Kehl sit down with a coach for several meetings each week to formulate a game plan for their special teams unit. The game plan includes everything from what types of returns they will mount, to what coverages they will run, to what players will be on each special teams unit.
“It places a lot of accountability on us as players,” said Jensen. “If your unit doesn’t perform well, then it’s on us. It definitely makes us more accountable as players, and we have no one to blame if things go wrong but us. Because of that, I think all the players on each unit have stepped up their play.”
Not only does the new system increase the burden placed on the player captains in terms of in-game performance, it also saddles them with the responsibility of picking teammates among friends.
“We have guys fighting to get on each unit,” said Meikle. “ I remember when we first decided who would be on the punt return unit, I had some players, two in particular, Andrew Stacey and Matt Smith, who really wanted to be on the unit. Seeing that they did, we decided to put them on, and they’ve been great.”
“Almost every starter is on one of the teams,” said Jensen. “It hasn’t been that way before. It just speaks well of how much they want to be good in all areas. Not just on offense and on defense, but in all areas.”
The competition and petitioning to be on each unit has reached all time highs this season. In previous years, players tried to get out of special teams duty. Now, there are not enough spots on the four units to satisfy player demand.
“Oh, everyone wants to be on one of the units at the very least,” said Kehl. “The most competitive position is obviously returning kicks. Everybody wants to return kicks. I’ve probably had half the team approach me trying to convince me to return kicks. Hey, even I want to do it. Maybe I’ll put myself back there to return next year.”
The special teams overhaul seems to have done the trick. The statistics show a steady improvement for each unit. Another major factor in the turnaround is increase attention to special teams in practice. The Cougars do extensive special teams work every day in practice, and the results are being manifest on the field.
“We’re happy with what we’ve accomplished,” said Jensen. “The focus players and coaches have put on special teams has definitely paid off, but we can’t be satisfied. We can get better.”
“The enthusiasm on each unit has definitely increased,” concluded Meikle. “It’s our role as captains to keep everyone motivated, and so far, everyone is responding great. Special teams play has become more of something players are excited to practice and perform well in, and I don’t think it’s been that way in the past here.”