Boise State’s special teams unit is set with the players who kick the ball. Who will return it when the Broncos force a punt or take a kickoff, and who will tackle opposing returners? That is not yet set in stone.
When coach Bryan Harsin pondered key questions about his team that needed to be addressed in fall camp, it wasn’t the defensive line or defensive backfield or new offensive options.
“What are we doing special teams wise? ... We’re going to have some new guys out there on special teams,” Harsin said.
Who are going to become those special teams demons?
Bryan Harsin, Boise State head coach
Special teams coordinator Kent Riddle said with senior kicker Tyler Rausa and senior punter Sean Wale at his disposal, it’s let him “really focus on the other 10 guys on the field.”
There is no shortage of willing candidates, with a few freshmen stepping up along with more experienced players like sophomore receiver A.J. Richardson, senior receiver Taylor Pope, sophomore linebacker Leighton Vander Esch and junior linebacker Blake Whitlock.
Ask the Broncos’ current special teams demon, senior linebacker Darren Lee, who has carried out The Hammer seven times, and he’s like a proud big brother.
“There’s a lot of them; that’s what I love about every year. The freshmen come out, you’ve got those scrappy kids that are just looking to throw everything they can into it,” Lee said. “It motivates me because I’m old and tired and I feel worn out, and I see these young guys coming in, trying to blow people up.
“It’s great to see. ... Guys that are looking for that spot, that want to contribute to the team, you can find it on special teams.”
The primary returners last season graduated. Terrell Johnson averaged 23 yards per kickoff return, and Donte Deayon had 52 yards on 16 punt returns. Junior running back Jeremy McNichols had five kickoff returns for 89 yards last season, and he’ll likely add more of that duty, which fits his skillset in the backfield.
“I think you’ll probably see (McNichols) get more than five,” Riddle said. “Tight windows, gotta hit it full speed, a lot of similarities.”
Junior receiver Cedrick Wilson will also see some kickoff and punt return work, Riddle said, adding that “he’s done an excellent job for us.”
Sophomore receiver Akilian Butler, senior cornerback Jonathan Moxey and senior Chaz Anderson also are capable. Boise State has one punt return touchdown since 2010 and hasn’t scored on a kick return the past 29 games. Riddle said this offseason, “We’ll make it happen.”
“We think of it as a chance to score points,” Riddle said. “Once we have the ball, it’s an offensive play. It’s a huge deal for us. We’re going to go after it, put the best guys out there to protect the returner, give him a chance to go make plays.”
Though there is some unknown, the known portion gives the Broncos plenty of confidence. Rausa is coming off one of the best years ever for a Boise State kicker, during which he made 25 field goals and scored 134 points. His 56 touchbacks on kickoffs were tied for fifth in the nation. Wale averaged 42 yards per punt, with 77.4 percent going inside the 20 and/or being fair caught.
“I expect them to continue where they left off last season and really even improve from that,” Riddle said. “One thing I always talk about with those guys is you’ve got to be perfect, you get one shot, that’s it. We can call the same play and run it again, try to get it right.”
Wale had two punts blocked last season, part of why the Broncos want to find the best they can at those 10 other spots. One is set with junior long snapper Matt Cota, who was put on scholarship during fall camp. The group has embraced the quirks of the job, knowing praise isn’t common and criticism comes more quickly, but is more than happy to be a part of it.
“We know how it goes, but hopefully we can keep doing what we have, keep people cheering for us and make a difference in the game,” Rausa said.
Special teams (projected)
- K: Tyler Rausa, 5-9 189, RSr.: Hit 25-of-30 field goals last season, scoring a MW record 134 points for kickers
- P: Sean Wale, 6-2, 193, RSr.: Averaged 42.0 yards per punt past two seasons, has 30 punts of 50-plus yards in career
- LS: Matt Cota, 6-1, 196, RJr.: Eagle High grad put on scholarship this fall, has been consistent in No. 1 role
- PR: Cedrick Wilson, 6-3 183, Jr. or Akilian Butler, 5-10 183, So.: Wilson has impressed with consistency catching ball and speed/size combo; Butler is speedy option who had four punt returns last season
- KR: Jeremy McNichols, 5-9, 212, Jr., and Wilson: Team wants to get the ball in McNichols’ hands even more, big potential when he’s full steam; Wilson’s father was returner in the NFL