Avery Williams, Haden Hoggarth, Quinn Skillin, Nicholai Pitman and Brock Barr walked onto the Boise State football team. Joel Velazquez was a scholarship recruit. Before this year, only Pitman and Barr had appeared in a game.
They remain a largely anonymous bunch this season — Williams, with two punt returns for touchdowns, is the exception — but they have helped transform the Broncos’ special teams units from last year’s greatest weakness into perhaps the biggest reason the team has won four of its first six games this year.
“We knew that that hurt us last year and tried to work our butts off to change that around and make that a positive for us this year,” special teams coach Kent Riddle said.
Williams (return specialist), Hoggarth (kicker), Skillin (punter/holder), Velazquez (punter/kickoff specialist), Pitman (short snapper) and Barr (long snapper) have performed their roles nearly flawlessly this season, which allowed the Broncos to dominate field position and overcome a sluggish offense to upset No. 19 San Diego State last week.
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Last year, the Broncos ranked 116th (ESPN) and 109th (Football Outsiders) in special teams efficiency — a weak spot in a team that was ranked in the top 30 in offense and defense by ESPN. They allowed a kickoff return and a blocked punt for touchdowns and three onside-kick recoveries.
This year, the Broncos are ninth (ESPN) and 10th (Football Outsiders) in special teams.
“We’re striving to be the best in the country,” Hoggarth said.
The Broncos averaged a 9-yard better start in field position against Troy, and Williams returned a punt for a touchdown, to set the tone for the special teams turnaround. They held advantages of 18 yards vs. New Mexico, 14 vs. BYU and 12 vs. San Diego State, which doesn’t account for another Williams punt-return TD.
In the two losses, the Broncos were minus-4 in average field position against Washington State and minus-13 against Virginia — the latter heavily affected by the one special teams gaffe this season, a fake punt that failed when tight end Alec Dhaenens dropped the snap. Even in the Washington State game, Hoggarth excelled with two field goals and a PAT in three pressure-packed overtimes.
“The games where we’ve been really dominant in special teams are the games we’ve dominated as a team,” Williams said.
Wrapped within the special teams success are some terrific personal triumphs.
Skillin and Hoggarth were out of football a year ago after leaving Football Championship Subdivision schools.
Skillin, a junior, leads the team with a 43.1-yard punting average and has stuck nine of his 20 punts inside the 20-yard line. He has boomed seven punts of at least 50 yards. He also developed into the Broncos’ holder despite arriving on campus in July and never having held in a game.
He spent two years at Wagner College in New York, where he rarely played. He went home to California and played basketball for a year at Grossmont College against the advice of family members who told him he might never get another chance to play football. He savors the little things at Boise State, like free snacks and flamethrowers for the team entrance.
Hoggarth started his career at Bethune-Cookman in Florida. The junior spent two years away from the game before enrolling at Boise State in January and showing up for spring practice essentially for a tryout. He’s 6-for-6 on field goals and 22-for-22 on PATs since beating out Velazquez in a tight competition in fall camp for the starting job.
“Quinn always says, at BYU or San Diego State: ‘Look around. Look at this. It’s awesome. We’ll never get to do this again,’ ” Hoggarth said.
Skillin, a lefty, shares the punting job with Velazquez, a righty. The ball comes off their feet spinning in different directions, which can confuse returners and allows Riddle to use them based on the situations that suit each best. Velazquez, a redshirt freshman, averages 41.2 yards per punt and has produced touchbacks on 19 of 31 kickoffs. Opponents average just 18.8 yards on kickoff returns.
Skillin, Velazquez and Hoggarth competed with each other for playing time all summer but grew close. They spend much of practice working on the side by themselves and held their own 8 p.m. workouts in Albertsons Stadium during the summer.
“We get out there during games and we count on each other,” Hoggarth said.
They also count on their teammates on offense and defense, who have bought into the need to improve kick returns and coverage. Riddle and the coaching staff simplified the teaching points for the players this season and handed out cards with reminders of the various techniques for each special team.
“They’ve just done a great job making it easier for us, knowing our simple but important job,” Williams said.
He has three copies of the card for return specialists — one for his locker, one for his home and one for his notebook. The five-item list covers the fundamentals, from body position to “attack the return.”
“Those are the things that I need to do every single return,” Williams said.
Williams, who also has developed into a starting cornerback on defense, somehow was overlooked out of high school. He has played like a future standout since he arrived last year and was awarded a scholarship this past summer before ever playing a game.
“They gave me a chance,” he said of the coaches. “I’m going to give them my all.”
And the winner is ...
It’s a clear and weird trend: Boise State has played better on the road than at home this season. The Broncos have led by at least 17 points in the fourth quarter in games at then-No. 20 Washington State, BYU and then-No. 19 San Diego State. At home, they’ve led by that much just once — for 2 minutes late in the game vs. New Mexico — despite playing a less-impressive trio of opponents.
The Broncos entertain Wyoming on Saturday night, the first appearance on the Blue since a 42-23 loss to Virginia on Sept. 22. In the month since, the Broncos have embraced a game plan you’d expect to see from the Seahawks. Control field position with special teams, emphasize the run while protecting the football on offense and dare the opponent to score enough against a stout defense to win. In two games with that approach, the Broncos outscored BYU and San Diego State by a combined total of 55-21.
“We’re playing to our strengths right now,” Riddle said, “and I think that’s smart football.”
In walks Wyoming, which plays a similar style — but not as well. The Cowboys have allowed more than 24 points just once (to Oregon) and scored more than 28 just once (against Texas State). If the Broncos can avoid turnovers, they should avenge last year’s devastating loss in Laramie.
Boise State 24, Wyoming 10
College football spotlight
National game of the week — No. 19 Michigan at No. 2 Penn State (-9.5), 5:30 p.m. Saturday, ABC: Penn State hasn’t been truly tested yet this season. Not sure Michigan’s offense makes the Wolverines a test, either. Penn State 16, Michigan 6
Pac-12 game of the week — No. 11 USC at No. 13 Notre Dame (-3.5), 5:30 p.m., NBC: The Notre Dame chatter is oddly subdued this season. That’ll change Saturday. Notre Dame 31, USC 24
Mountain West game of the week — Fresno State at San Diego State (-7.5), 8:30 p.m., CBS Sports Network: Fresno State — yes, Fresno — can take control of the West Division race with a win. The surprising Bulldogs are 3-0. San Diego State 27, Fresno State 24
On TV: Panthers at Bears (11 a.m. Sunday, CBS), Saints at Packers (11 a.m., Fox), Seahawks at Giants (2:25 p.m., CBS), Falcons at Patriots (6:20 p.m., NBC), Redskins at Eagles (6:15 p.m. Monday, ESPN).
Broncos in the NFL: Former Boise State tailback Jay Ajayi of the Miami Dolphins broke out of a slump last week with 130 rushing yards in an upset win against the Atlanta Falcons. Ajayi had accumulated just 139 yards total in the previous three games. He still is looking for his first touchdown of the season. The Dolphins play the New York Jets on Sunday.
Chadd Cripe is the Idaho Statesman sports editor. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org, 208-377-6398 or @chaddcripe on Twitter.