Early in the fourth quarter of his third collegiate game, Britain Covey lined up at his own 31-yard line on the right hash mark, awaiting a punt from Fresno State’s Garrett Swanson.
Swanson let loose a booming kick that sent Covey back eight yards to the 23. Then a true freshman in 2015, Covey fielded the kick cleanly. After a quick burst to his left, Covey began moving upfield. He caught a block at his own 40, another around his own 45 and after beating Swanson around the Fresno State 40, he was gone, down the left sideline for a 77-yard touchdown run.
Following a redshirt year in 2019, the byproduct of his surgically-repaired right ACL not allowing him to go full speed following injuring it in the 2018 Pac-12 championship game, much has been made of Covey’s return as a slot receiver and what it could do for the Utah offense. He led the Utes in receptions in 2015 and 2018, and offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig has already indicated during fall camp that he expects to use the Provo native in a variety of ways, not just out of the slot.
Covey’s value to Utah’s offense is significant, but so too is his value as a return specialist.
During that 2015 season, Covey was second in the Pac-12 and 17th nationally in punt return average at 11.7 yards per game. The only Pac-12 player with a better average that season was Washington’s Dante Pettis, then a sophomore, who graduated with nine career punt-return touchdowns, most in a career in NCAA history.
“He adds a bunch, and not only to the offense, but to the return game and special teams,” Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham told reporters on a Zoom call Wednesday morning. “His value there is tremendous for us. He was, in our opinion, the best return guy in the country his freshman year, at least in punt returning, and we think he’ll be just as good this year, if not better. That’s a huge positive for us.”
Whittingham, who coached special teams as part of his first collegiate job at Idaho State from 1988-91, is notably hands on when it comes to Utah’s special teams. In the early days of spring practice in March, before the COVID-19 pandemic wiped out the remaining 75% of it, Whittingham was asked about Covey and how he was looking in his return from the injury.
Whittingham cracked a smile, and noted that Covey was beginning to look like his old self after playing only the first four games last season before taking the redshirt. He went on to say that while those who replaced Covey in the return filled in admirably, the unit was missing something big without Covey being back there.
For what it’s worth, senior Demari Simpkins did fill in admirably for Covey as the primary punt returner, averaging 9.1 yards on 16 returns, which included his famous 66-yard touchdown return on Senior Night against Colorado.
“When you come to Utah, you put your best players there, your starters, and if you loaf on special teams, Coach Whitt says you’ll never see the field anywhere else,” Covey said Wednesday afternoon as part of a Pac-12 media webinar. “It’s a different mentality, it’s a different paradigm when you come here, so I think that’s what makes it good is the expectation, what we do here on special teams.”
UTAH VS. ARIZONA
At Rice-Eccles Stadium
When • Nov. 7, TBD
TV • TBD
For his career, Covey is averaging 9.7 yards for his career on 55 punt returns. The redshirt junior is also penciled in as a kickoff return man, where has averaged 21.5 yards per return, but only 17 opportunities.
As far as returning punts goes, Covey is the first option, but depth at the position was lost when backup return specialist Jaylen Dixon, a redshirt junior, entered the NCAA Transfer Portal on Oct. 12.
Whittingham said Wednesday that freshmen Ty Jordan, Money Parks and Clark Phillips III, as well senior Samson Nacua, are among the players currently getting second-team reps.
“You can never have too many returners,” Whittingham said. “We try to develop a whole stable of returners so we don’t get caught shorthanded there. Right now, the decision has not been made, but those are the guys that are battling for No. 2 and 3. We’ll see how that shakes out, but hopefully, Britain stays healthy and we don’t have to get to that point.”