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Rethinking BYU’s Approach to Special Teams

15 August 2013 Brett Richins
BYU Head Coach Bronco Mendenhall. BYU PHOTO/JAREN WILKEY

BYU head coach Bronco Mendenhall may have to rethink his approach to special teams. BYU PHOTO/JAREN WILKEY

The season-ending injury sustained by BYU cornerback Jordan Johnson while returning a kickoff in practice early this week begs an answer to the question, “Why in the world was he back there returning kicks in the first place?”

If there was one player that BYU could not afford to lose for the year, it was its starting field corner. Johnson’s loss could dramatically change how the BYU defense does things. It could be the difference between once again fielding one of the nation’s best defenses and one that struggles to defend the pass.

Given that the Cougar corners have been dropping like flies, why put your only defensive back that has the ability to go man-to-man on the outside at such risk?

The answer, which may be baffling to some, lies in the fact that Bronco Mendenhall has informed his players that if they want to start on offense or defense, they better earn a starting position on special teams as well.

In the case of Johnson, his best opportunity to start on special teams was as a kick returner. As a speedy redshirt freshman, he showed flashes of brilliance as a return man but was benched because of a propensity to cough up the ball.

The head-scratching thing about putting Jordan at risk is that the Cougars had already found their primary kick return man last year in the form of J.D. Falslev. The slot receiver averaged 26 yards per return in 2012 after being tabbed as the lead kickoff returner midway through the season. In fact, he just may turn out to be better at returning kickoffs than he has been at returning punts.

BYU has other intriguing players to put back there with Falslev to return kicks as well.

One in particular is freshman Michael Davis, who was one of the fastest high school track athletes in the state of California the past couple of years and has great promise as a return man. Paul Lasike is player that could fill a role similar to the one Mike Hague has played in the past, someone who could be a great lead blocker for Falslev while possessing enough speed to make something happen in the event that the ball were to end up in his hands.

With the increased number of reps in practice and games that BYU’s new fast-paced offense does and will create, perhaps requiring offensive and defensive starters to also play key roles on special teams is asking a little too much from these guys. Discretion is the better part of valor when it comes to protecting players who are vital to your on-field success.

It’s one thing to show a lack of judgement when it comes to replacing players’ names on jerseys, but it’s an entirely different thing when it comes to decisions that could affect results in the win-loss column.

The loss of Johnson not only negatively affects the field side of the secondary, but it also weakens the boundary corner spot as well, with Rob Daniel having to move over from boundary to field, leaving walk-on Skye PoVey and true freshman Dallin Leavitt as the two current options at boundary.

Problems at the corners dramatically lessen a defense’s effectiveness. Safety blitz packages can go out the window because the safeties have to be concerned about helping out more in the passing game. Linebackers may also have to be more involved in coverage, rather than being able to pin their ears back and get after quarterbacks.

In BYU’s case it could mean more employment of the 2-5-4 alignment. That defense can be effective against the pass, but it could also struggle to consistently shut down the run.

BYU’s defense could go from elite to somewhat susceptible.

The sad thing is that Johnson went down needlessly. He wasn’t injured in a game, or even while practicing at his cornerback position. His injury could be a game-changer, especially in some of the Cougars’ bigger contests this season against the likes of Texas, Utah, Utah State, Boise State, Wisconsin and Notre Dame.

As Proverbs explains: Wisdom is the principal thing; therefore get wisdom: and with all thy getting get understanding. Perhaps it would be wise for BYU to rethink its approach to special teams and not expose other key players to additional risk of injury.

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