USU special teams units loaded with talent

Editor’s note: This is the eighth in an eight-part series profiling Utah State’s football team by position.

During Utah State’s annual Media Day, head football coach Gary Andersen did not hesitate to gush about the potential of his special teams units.

“I feel great about the specialists, great about them,” he said. “Like I said, they’ll win us games. I believe that.”

Indeed, the 2019 season could be a special one for USU’s special teams units. For starters, the Aggies return a consensus All-American in kickoff returner Savon Scarver, placekicker Dominik Eberle is a legitimate NFL prospect, and punt returner Jordan Nathan is one of the premier athletes as his position in the Mountain West.

Additionally, the NCAA granted a sixth year of eligibility to Aggie punter Aaron Dalton, who has started ever since he was freshman and was sorely missed with a season-ending back injury in 2018.

Simply put, the Aggies are committed to excellence when it comes to special teams.

“(We take) a lot of pride,” Eberle said. “I mean, every day we come out and we’re focused on the little details. We want to be perfect in punt, kickoff, kick return, everything. We were the best kickoff return team in the country last year, and that’s the goal again this year. And we really feel that we can be No. 1 in all of the (special team) categories.”

Indeed, Scarver and company ranked first among all FBS programs with a kickoff return average of 30.3 yards a year ago. As a sophomore, Scarver was the NCAA leader with a kickoff return average of 33.7, which ranks second for a single season in program history. The speedster from Las Vegas has brought back three kickoffs for touchdowns in USU’s last 14 games.

“Savon’s doing a great job,” said USU special teams coordinator Stacy Collins, who also coaches the running backs. “He’s gotten continually better and better from when he started really being a big return guy for us in 2017, to what he did last year for us. He’s continued to improve, but then we’ve got some other guys back there that can return also. So, that gives us a lot of different options, but we’re certainly excited to see Savon mature and continue to do what he’s been doing.”

Those other guys Collins is referring are senior running back Gerold Bright and sophomores Deven Thompkins (slot receiver) and Andrew Grayson (cornerback). Like Scarver, Thompkins, who will likely also return some punts, has explosive speed. Although Bright has never busted out a really long return, he has four touchdowns of 70 or more yards — two rushing and two receiving — during his time in Logan.

Nathan is a proven punt returner for the Aggies. The junior averaged more than eight yards a return as a freshman and sophomore, and exploded for returns of 70 and 59 yards. No. 16 scored on his 59-yarder last season against Tennessee Tech.

USU finished 63rd nationally last season with a punt return average of 9.1.

Eberle is primed to have a big senior season after ranking first in the conference and fourth nationally in scoring (10.8 points an outing) as a junior. No. 62 was successful on 40 of his 52 field goal attempts the past two seasons and nailed 15 of 24 from 40-plus yards, including 4 of 6 from 50 or more yards.

Eberle’s backup will be sophomore Connor Coles, who saw limited playing time a year ago and showed some good promise during fall camp. Coles was a first-team all-state kicker as a senior at Bozeman (Montana) High School.

The Aggies were inconsistent punting the pigskin last fall, and they struggled at times late in the season. USU finished 110th nationally in net punting with an average of 35.2.

Fortunately for the Aggies, they should be much improved in that department with Dalton back in the lineup. The muscular 6-foot-4, 215-pounder averaged 42.0 yards per punt in 2017 and he looked very sharp during fall camp. No. 89 has 210 career punts as an Aggie.

“He’s going to be the man,” Eberle said of Dalton. “I mean, the experience that he brings is something else. He’s started every single game since his freshman year. Coming off the back injury, there’s been no signs of him being slowed down by that. He’s punting better than ever and I feel like his maturity and experience is really going to help us in the punting game.”

Dalton will also serve as Eberle’s holder on extra points and field goals.

Backing up Dalton will be junior college transfer Christopher Bartolic, who was rated as a five-star punter following his sophomore season at Orange Coast (California) Community College.

USU welcomes back a veteran long snapper in junior Brandon Pada, who started all 13 games in 2018. The native of Glendale, Arizona, did a great job for the Aggies as a sophomore.

“Brandon’s been steady,” Collins said. “You know, he walked on here, earned himself a spot a year ago and he’s done a great job. His snap times have gotten better and he’s only continued to improve, so we’re excited to have Brandon here.”

The Aggies have excelled at blocking punts and kicks over the past few years, and 2018 was no exception. USU got a hand on four punts/kicks last year — one apiece by Tipa Galeai, Jacoby Wildman, Baron Gajkowski and Deven Thompkins — and all of those players except Gajkowski are back this season. Thompkins’ blocked punt against UNLV was scooped up by Gajkowski and returned for a TD.

Conversely, USU only had one kick or punt blocked in ’18.

The Aggies will definitely be looking to improve with their kickoff return coverage in ’19. USU allowed 21.7 yards a return last season, which ranked 92nd nationally. Opponents also averaged 13.0 yards on 10 punt returns a year ago, but that average drops dramatically when you take away the season-long 41-yarder.

USU’s primary gunners in its coverage units this season will be Thompkins, fellow slot receiver and Logan High product Taylor Compton and Grayson, and those athletes “have done a great job,” Collins asserted.

Eberle singled out Thompkins, Compton and Wildman, a defensive end from Logan “that always gives 100 percent effort, 100 percent detail” in his special teams duties.

“Those are guys that don’t always get a lot of credit in the media, but they are essential to our team and we really need them,” Eberle said.

When asked what other players will have meaningful special teams roles for the Aggies this year, Collins said Wildman, Compton, cornerback Jarrod Green — “he does just an unbelievable job for us every day” — and another former Logan standout in Chase Nelson. Nelson is also the team’s No. 2 holder. USU safety coach Mike Caputo referred to Braxton Gunther as “a special teams demon.”

“There are so many unsung heroes that are allowing these things to happen and allowing us to have success, and it’s been fun to be around,” Collins said.

In addition to ranking high nationally in all of the major special teams categories, what are USU’s other primary goals in that aspect of the game?

“You know, at the end of the day our goals are real simple (and that’s) we need to find a way to help this team win, and that’s the way to make sure we find the hidden yardage that’s out there, the hidden yards between the return units, our coverage units, putting points on the board when we have a chance to put points on the board and giving our offense and defense field position, so they have the best opportunities to be successful on their side,” Collins said.

jturner@hjnews.com Twitter: hjtrebek

Jason Turner is a sports reporter for The Herald Journal. He can be reached at jturner@hjnews.com or 435-792-7237.