As fast as Kaelin Clay ran on his punt and kick returns for touchdowns, it was almost surprising he wasn’t still catching his breath after the game Thursday night.
Scoring twice on returns in Utah’s 56-14 romp against Idaho State, Clay said he wasn’t bristling from not starting on offense.
A closer look at U.’s special teams
Kaelin Clay » 46-yard TD punt return and 100-yard TD kick return (first Pac-12 player to do both since 1999)
Tom Hackett » placed two punts inside the five-yard line, the 11th and 12th of his career; 28-yard run for a first down
Eric Rowe » blocked a second-quarter field goal, his first career blocked kick
"I pride myself in special teams," he said. "It’s a unit that kind of goes unnoticed. I pride myself in that."
For a phase that goes "unnoticed," special teams made a lot of headlines in the victory. And Clay’s flying feet were just a small part of it.
When special teams coach Jay Hill departed this winter to take over Weber State, head coach Kyle Whittingham took on the role himself and divvied up a few jobs among assistants. It was a question: Could coaching by committee replace a valued coordinator?
Tom Hackett placed punts with great skill and care, twice landing inside the five-yard line. Andy Phillips booted a few touchbacks, and he didn’t miss an extra point.
The Utes blocked an Idaho State field goal that changed the momentum of the game, when the Bengals were threatening to tie it up
Coverage was strong. And in the return game, Clay flew.
Whittingham said afterward, "As you look back, I can’t really see anything we did wrong on special teams."
The headliner was Clay, whom Utah coaches have described as a "natural returner" and finally showed some of his junior college film highlights on the field at Rice-Eccles Stadium.
On his very first touch, he danced around on a return before sweeping back to his left and finding a field of blockers ahead of him. On the kick return, he broke a tackle and then turned on the burners to leave a host of Bengals lunging at his heels.
While Clay was initially set back by a late arrival to campus, Clay has purchased himself some more opportunity, Whittingham said.
"He’s still not quite in the shape he needs to be in," Whittingham said. "He’s still getting everything down from a scheme standpoint. He’s made a lot of progress, tonight was a good step for him."
But it was hardly just one man. On a night when the Utes’ offense and defense each had issues with sloppiness, special teams was sharp and smoothed away other units’ mistakes. Hackett helped a sluggish second-half offense get in gear with a run for a first down. Eric Rowe’s blocked field goal — hatched on a flaw he saw in the ISU kick unit — got a disorganized defense to rally.
"Oh yeah, tonight was a great start," Rowe said. "We’ve still got a lot of stuff to work on, but it was good."
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