- Kevin Gemmell, ESPN Staff Writer
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Sandwiched between the Pac-12’s explosive offenses and backfield-terrorizing defenses is a collection of special-teams players and units that -- like the other two aforementioned phases of football -- was the best in college football in 2014.
Besides claiming the nation’s top punter in Utah’s Tom Hackett, the Pac-12 led all conferences in combined kicks/punts returned for touchdowns, and its kickers were the most accurate in the country. With a combined 21 returns for scores last season, the conference trotted out some of the most dangerous return men in the nation.
“Fearless,” Oregon coach Mark Helfrich said when describing his perfect return man. “To be a returner you have to be a fearless guy. Obviously speed and elusiveness and all that other stuff. But up front you have to have some guts.”
Oregon would know. Over the last five seasons the Ducks have taken 16 punts or kickoffs to the house, tied with Oklahoma State for the most in the FBS over that stretch.
But it’s not just the returners who are lighting it up. Last season the Pac-12 boasted the nation’s highest field goal percentage at 77.8 percent. And the conference's kickers can bomb, too, converting 67.5 percent of their kicks of 40-plus yards; for perspective, the ACC was second at 59.5 percent.
For a program like Utah, special teams has been the great equalizer as it continues to adjust to life in the Pac-12. As the Utes worked to bolster their previously Mountain West roster with more depth and speed, they relied heavily on special teams to keep them competitive.
“I think that special teams, last year in particular, was a huge reason why we were able to win nine ballgames,” Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham said. “With Tom Hackett being able to flip the field and pin opponents inside 10, and (Andy) Phillips with his uncanny accuracy in field goals, that's been a big part of our transition into the Pac-12 and being able to get to where we are now.”
The Utes swept three of four specialists categories on the Pac-12's all-conference team last season, with Hackett and Phillips taking first-team honors and the departed Kaelin Clay earning first team as a returner. In 2012, it was Utah’s Reggie Dunn who led the nation with four kickoff returns for touchdowns. Clay had a trio of punt returns and one kick return for touchdowns.
“We’ve had a good run of returners,” Whittingham said. “It’s probably the missing piece on special teams right now. ... Anybody can return a kickoff or a punt when it's all blocked up. It's the guy that can make people miss and still make something out of not a very good situation there, the guys that really are special at that.”
Arizona State has one of the top kickers in the country in Zane Gonzalez (81.5 percent on field goals last season), though their return game has been inconsistent since Todd Graham took over in 2012. The Sun Devils led the league in kickoff return average last season but were last in punt return average. They have just one kick return for a touchdown in three seasons under Graham and were one of just three Pac-12 teams not to score on a return last season (Colorado and Washington State).
“All you have to do is hit one,” Graham said. “Once you do that, kids block a little longer. You create that monster. I can look a guy in the eyes and he wants the ball or he doesn’t want the ball. You gotta want it. You gotta believe you can take it to the house. It’s almost reckless. You look at the kid who went to the Packers from Stanford (Ty Montgomery). He just knew.”
Montgomery is gone. So are Nelson Agholor and Clay. But several explosive returners are back, including USC’s Adoree' Jackson, UCLA’s Ishmael Adams and Cal’s Trevor Davis. And those are just the ones we already know about.
“Every team has someone, as far as the return game is concerned, who can take it to the house,” said Utah’s Phillips. “It’s Adams at UCLA or Jackson at USC. There is so much talent from the return game that as far as we’re concerned, we have to step up our game and increase our accuracy on kickoffs and punts and make sure we execute exactly what we’re trying to do.”
To which a slew of eager returners say, good luck with that.