Returner Avery Williams fuels optimism for Broncos on special teams
BOISE — For as much improvement as Boise State made on special teams last season, and it was substantial, the Broncos aren’t planning to sit back and just hope they are equally as good in 2018.
They are wanting them to be even better.
Boise State saw massive improvements in both kickoff return yardage as well as punt return yardage, and did much better in limiting opponents’ yards on punt returns as well. The Broncos also scored twice on punt returns, something they didn’t do the previous year.
“I’d like to see them all take another huge stride,” special teams coordinator Kent Riddle said. “We scored on two punt returns last year. I’d like to see us score on a couple kickoff returns. I’d like to see us get up to four punt returns (for touchdowns). I’d like to see us block more punts.
“I feel good about where we’re at, but we definitely still need improvement.”
Besides forcing more turnovers on defense there might not have been a bigger area needing improvement than the special teams heading into 2017. The Broncos struggled across the board in 2016 and needed nearly all of their units on special teams to be better. Making things even more challenging was that the Broncos lost multi-year starters at both kicker and punter heading into last season.
But barely a minute into the season they got the results they badly wanted as Avery Williams took the Broncos’ first punt return of the season 81 yards for a touchdown. They kept the momentum rolling throughout the season as both the kicking, punting and return teams all saw big improvements.
Boise State finished 12th in kickoff return yardage at 24.78 yards per return in 2017 after ranking 73rd the previous year at 20.48 yards per return. They also ranked No. 28 in punt return yards at 10.33 last season after finishing 86th in 2016 at 6.63 yards per punt return.
They also went from 85th in opponents punt return yardage at 9.25 yards per return in 2016 to No. 13 last season at just 3.71 yards per return.
“I just think last year we did a better job at emphasizing it,” Boise State coach Bryan Harsin said. “And our players seeing the results of when we go out there and perform on special teams and we win the field position battle how it translates into winning the game.
“They get it. If we’re not doing well on special teams then we’re probably not doing well in the game. That’s just who we are and that’s what showed up last year and we believe in it now.”
Williams’ emergence at returner certainly was a big reason for the increased success. He had 124 punt return yards in the season opener against Troy, and finished with 303 yards on 27 returns. His punt return average of 11.22 yards ranked No. 13 in the country last season.
In addition to the punt return touchdown against Troy, Williams also scored on a 53-yard punt return to help fuel an upset of No. 19 San Diego State. His two punt return touchdowns tied for No. 2 in the nation.
Williams, who earned second-team all-Mountain West honors at returner despite being a redshirt freshman, also had 15 kick returns for an average of 24.7 yards per return.
“Avery obviously showed to be very good as a punt returner,” Harsin said. “Catching the ball, making plays, scoring, he did a heck of a job…When you have a guy like Avery back there returning, somebody that touches the ball and makes something happen, that gets guys fired up. ‘We can actually score, we can actually go out there and make plays on special teams and make a difference in the game’ and I think he was a big reason why.”
Transfer Haden Hoggarth was also impressive at field goal kicker. He made 18 of 23 field goals for the Broncos after Tyler Rausa made just 9 of 13 attempts in 2016. Punters Quinn Skillin (41 punts, 40.4 average) and Joel Velazquez (22 punts, 40.6 average) also were solid in their first seasons splitting the punting duties.
One area the Broncos could look to improve upon is opponents’ kick return yards. They finished 84th at 21.97 yards allowed per return last season after finishing 85th in 2016 with a nearly identical average of 21.76 yards per return.
Boise State loses Cedrick Wilson at kick returner, but has several candidates to replace him including Williams, Sean Modster, DeAndre Pierce, CT Thomas, Robert Mahone and Drake Beasley. The Broncos also must find a way to replace Ryan Wolpin and Brock Barr, two special teams standouts that starred on multiple units.
Things look much brighter for the Broncos on special teams at this point in the spring compared to a year ago. But that doesn’t mean the Broncos are satisfied.
“I think we’ve made a good jump,” Riddle said. “But we can still get better.”