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PROVO -- Always noticed but not always praised, the special teams unit often times can be the quiet distinguishing factor between a win and a loss. Players on the special teams work hard to pin the opposing offense deep in their own territory, or to be a threat and take the ball up the field. Whether kicking the ball or receiving, the special teams unit is king in the chess match of field position and is essential in giving the offense or defense momentum when starting a drive.
BYU punter Riley Stephenson, who is known for his big leg, has struggled with consistency during his first two seasons as a Cougar. A booming kick would often be followed by a shanked punt or a kickoff out of bounds. But recently the sophomore has been doing a better job and has punted the ball 42 times in nine games, racking up a total of 1,716 yards. He is currently averaging 40.8 yards per punt. That places him 60th in the country and fourth in the Mountain West. However, only 13 of his 42 kicks have been returned, including seven touchbacks.
"I feel like we've dominated so far this year, better than last year," said Stephenson. "For me personally I think that it's been taking the training more serious. We all just want to play the best. I think that we need to take this season and continue to build off it. We need to continue to build and we'll have a great season."
Supporting Stephenson's efforts is a strong BYU punt coverage team which is currently ranked 32nd out of 120 teams in the NCAA. Opponents have gained just 90 yards on the 13 punts they've been able to return (6.9 yards/return) and BYU's special teams unit has not allowed a touchdown all year.
After freshman Cody Hoffman and JD Falslev took over the return duties, BYU's offensive special team has become a threat with big play potential. In his first major contribution as a punt return, the fearless Falslev had 42 yards on four returns and has looked close to breaking free for a big return. Falslev, who played running back at Sky View High School in Logan, applies the same mindset to punt returning.
"In high school I was moved all over, but my main position was running back," said Falslev. "As a running back you have to be fearless. I think that helps me a lot in punt return. I've tried to carry my past experience over to college."
"I love JD," commented Head Coach Bronco Mendenhall. "He has no fear and makes great decisions and helps us with field position. He has great heart and the team loves him. He is a completely trustworthy player. He's not tall but he plays big."
In all but one of BYU's four wins the special teams advanced the ball over 20 yards in punt returns and over 50 yards in kickoff returns. In last week's game, BYU scored a touchdown off of every punt returned; an indication that the special teams was able to put the offense in a good starting position.
"I think we've done an adequate job at this point," said special teams coach Patrick Higgins. "We have not made a big play but we haven't given up a big lay either so that's always a plus. The return teams are doing better. Overall we're happy with the performance. You can create momentum or destroy momentum, you can create field position or you can lose field position so it's a very intricate part of the game."
Falslev is looking forward to the last three games and hopes to take one back before the season's end.
"I hope some time close we take one to the house. We're close, one guy away here, one guy away there. But close doesn't count. We have some work to go but I think we're prepared and should be ready. We need to make sure we do everything right. "