There's no getting around the fact Utah State struggled considerably on offense and defense during the 2020 college football season.
The one big bright spot for the Aggies a year ago was their play on special teams. USU was rock solid in all phases of special teams last season and most of those key contributors are back in 2021.
Indeed, the Aggies should be able to count on their special teams units once again, starting this Saturday night on the road against Washington State.
"I mean, the guys have been great," USU special teams coordinator Nick Paremski said. "Just getting our new schemes implemented and the things that we do has been good. They're attentive, they want to do exactly what you want them to do, which is always good. They're trying to be coachable, so it's definitely good to have some guys that are experienced. Our philosophy, coach Anderson's philosophy at Arkansas State is not going to change. We're going to put the best players on special teams and it's not just an afterthought or anything like that. It's definitely a third of the game, so we're going to make sure we've got the right guys on those units."
The Aggies have a handful of proven performers on special teams, none more so than All-American kickoff returner Savon Scarver, who is the preseason Mountain West Special Teams Player of the Year. The Las Vegas native is a three-time all-conference selection as a kickoff returner and has brought back at least one kickoff to the house in each of his first four seasons as an Aggie. Scarver, who have averaged 28.7 yards on 80 career returns, is one kickoff return for a touchdown away from tying the NCAA record with seven.
Like many collegiate kick returners, Scarver, a consensus All-American in 2018, was a standout in track & field in high school. What ultimately sets him apart from others who also have explosive speed?
"It's really a fearlessness (that he has)," Paremski said. "... It's kind of like running back (in that) you've got to trust that where we tell you the hole's going to be, it's going to be there, and you've got to be willing to hit it full speed. There's plenty of guys that can run really fast, but will get a little timid in the hole, and Scarver doesn't do that. You know, he's going to hit it full speed. He's got great vision and, like I said, he uses his speed from the get-go and trusts that where we say (the hole's) going to be, it's going to be."
Utah State's other primary kickoff returner is also back in speedy sophomore John Gentry, who averaged 23.6 yards on five returns a year ago.
Opponents must also be leery of the Aggies' ability to make big plays in the punt return game, inasmuch as they have two proven weapons in sixth-year senior Jordan Nathan and fellow senior Deven Thompkins. Like Scarver, Thompkins and Nathan have also earned a spot on USU's two-deep at the wide receiver position.
Nathan, who is currently working on a second bachelor's degree, was a second-team all-Mountain West selection by Phil Steele Magazine as a punt returner in 2018, and a third-team honoree at that same position in 2017. No. 0 has averaged 8.1 yards on 59 career punt returns, with his career long being a 74-yarder for a touchdown as a redshirt sophomore against Tennessee Tech.
Thompkins has also returned a punt to paydirt during his time as an Aggie --- a 45-yarder against Stony Brook in '19. No. 13 has averaged 14.3 yards on seven punt returns.
"You know, any of those guys can change the game at any given time just by one touch of the ball, so we're confident that if they touch the ball something good's going to happen," Paremski said. "We've just got to make sure we've got the other 10 guys doing exactly what they need to do."
Paremski also stressed that while those other 10 players on the punt and kickoff returns units won't be "getting as much credit as Scarver and those other guys get, we'll celebrate them in our room and make sure they get the attention that they deserve."
Not only have the Aggies been dangerous returning kickoffs and punts over the past few years, they have prevented the opposing return specialists from making those kind of plays during that same timespan. USU excelled in those areas a year ago as it only allowed 17.36 yards per kickoff return and a measly 13 total yards on nine punt returns.
Punter Stephen Kotsanlee was certainly a huge reason why opponents were unable to make any plays in the punt return game last fall. For starters, No. 63 only allowed nine of his 37 punts to be returned. Of those 37 punts, 17 were downed inside the the opposition's 20-yard line. Kotsanlee averaged 40.7 yards per punt a year ago as a true freshman en route to garnering honorable mention all-league accolades.
"You know, we had an Australian punter at Arkansas State by the name of Cody Grace who was unbelievable," Paremski said. "I think we set the NCAA record two years ago for the least amount of return yardage in a season, and Stephen is very similar to Cody other than both of them obviously being Australian. But he has control of the ball, has a big leg, (he's) athletic. All of the things we had in Cody, we have in Stephen, so we're really excited to have him for the next four years. Geez, he can probably be one of the best to do it."
Kotsanlee is also atop USU's depth chart as the holder on PATs and field goal attempts. Arkansas State transfer Elliott Nimrod is the backup holder, and he is also the third-stringer when it comes to booting field goals and PATs, plus he will handle kickoff duties.
Utah State's backup punter is sophomore Sam Hogan, who was with the program a year ago but didn't play in any games. Hogan, who is also the Aggies' second-string placekicker, redshirted at Cornell in 2019.
The Aggies also welcomed back their starting kicker in super senior Connor Coles, who was successful on all three of his field goal attempts last fall. Coles, who went 8 for 9 on PATs, booted field goals of 27, 38 and 44 yards. No. 59 has been an Aggie since 2017, but 2020 was his breakthrough season.
USU has another pretty experienced kicker in sophomore Joey Roully, who was called upon to kick the ball off 19 times last season.
"Some guys have definitely stepped forward on field goals and kickoffs," Paremski said. "We created a little bit more competition there and I really feel good about where we're at with our kickers. You know, we have a couple of guys doing a couple of different things, but they're really been solid through camp, so I'm pretty pleased with those guys."
The Aggies will be breaking in a new long snapper this season, but starter Jacob Garcia, a freshman, and backup Jesse Vazquez, a sophomore, were both highly touted prospects. Garcia, a class of 2020 recruit, was recently put on a full-ride scholarship.
Utah State's primary gunners on its kickoff and punt coverage units will be defensive backs Xavion Steele, Zahodri Jackson and Cam Lampkin, Paremski said.