Editor’s note: This is the ninth and final entry in our series of position previews for the Boise State football team.
In most aspects, Boise State’s special teams has nowhere to go but up.
Without assuming natural progression, there is another reason to think the Broncos will fare better in the kicking and punting arenas.
“Because we’ve been working our butts off on it,” special teams coordinator Kent Riddle said. “The effort, the technique, we’ve done a lot of research on using new techniques, how to practice it better, and we’ve got a ton of experience back.”
Boise State’s struggles were frequent: three onside-kick recoveries allowed (including back to back against Colorado State); a kickoff return allowed for a touchdown; a blocked punt returned for a touchdown; multiple fumbles on punt returns; 9-for-13 on field goals. Football Outsiders ranked Boise State 109th nationally in special teams efficiency.
It wasn’t pretty a lot of the time.
“We’ve got to be way better in the return game and in the coverage game,” Riddle said. “I think more than anything, you can’t have the screw-ups. You can’t get a punt blocked, can’t drop a punt.”
Two of the players who had the unit’s biggest highlights are back again: junior defensive tackle David Moa blocked BYU’s attempt at a game-winning field goal, and senior wide receiver Cedrick Wilson averaged 13.2 yards per punt return after taking over the role in October. Wilson also is the team’s No. 1 receiving threat, which may put him in harm’s way more than most would like. But Riddle said he is the Broncos’ best option, and Wilson is happy to be involved.
“I’m definitely ready to do some more returning ... hopefully I can get good at it this year,” Wilson said.
Experienced players on coverage units abound, while the team has mixed in sophomore safety DeAndre Pierce, redshirt freshman running back Robert Mahone and redshirt freshman cornerback Avery Williams with Wilson on returns. Long snappers Nicholai Pitman (kicks) and Brock Barr (punts) were pressed into duty Nov. 12 at Hawaii after Matt Cota did not make the trip, and both performed well.
“You typically think about who are your best special teams guys, it’s linebackers and safeties,” Riddle said. “We were pretty thin at those positions, especially towards the end of last year. We have a lot of depth at tight end, we have guys who can run, we have more returners than we’ve had.”
The biggest question marks on special teams may be filled by the same guy, one who has yet to play in a game.
Redshirt freshman Joel Velazquez is the likely candidate to be the placekicker and punter, after Tyler Rausa and Sean Wale graduated. The 6-foot, 228-pound Velazquez is built more like a linebacker, but that translates into a strong leg capable of handling both.
“We feel great with him,” senior tight end Jake Roh said. “He’s been great in practice, obviously in games it’s a whole other level, pressure and all that, but I have no doubt in my mind that he can handle it.”
The team also added walk-ons Haden Hoggarth and Quinn Skillin, at kicker and punter respectively, to help push Velazquez. Both played at Football Championship Subdivision programs.
Riddle said Velazquez, if needed, could have played either role last season. He also noted that what has impressed him most is the freshman’s ability to rebound from a subpar kick.
“(It’s) a major bonus for us,” Boise State coach Bryan Harsin said. “He accepts it. He has a good mindset. You like him because he’s competitive.”
With a good amount of experience outside of the kicker/punter role, Boise State is optimistic it can win the hidden yardage battle that special teams carries with it.
“We know it’s an area we have to improve,” Harsin said. “But we had a lot of guys work hard on it, getting better, willing to do what they can to help. I think that’s a big step in how you turn it around.”
Projected depth chart
46 Joel Velazquez, 6-0, 228, RFr.: Hit all 35 extra-point attempts as a high school senior, made 6-of-9 field goals
1 Cedrick Wilson, 6-3, 188, Sr.: Top receiver stepped in as punt returner last October, averaged 13.2 yards on 10 returns
26 Avery Williams, 5-9, 194, RFr.: Ran for 1,175 yards and 14 touchdowns as HS senior, also plays cornerback/nickel
89 Brock Barr, 6-3, 204, Sr.: Never had snapped in a game before being needed vs. Hawaii; receiver is focusing on punts
50 Nicholai Pitman, 5-11, 230, So.: Strength coach’s son; snapper on field goals/PATs, walk-on came into game vs. Hawaii