The Utah State football team didn't improve enough between Dave Arslanian's first and second seasons to save his job. But give Arslanian credit for one thing. After an abysmal performance by his special teams, outside of kicker Brad Bohn, in his first year, Arslanian was determined to improve the special teams in 1999.
And he did. The Aggies improved dramatically, finishing in the top 25 in the country in three special teams categories — kickoff returns, punt returns and net punting, one of a handful of teams to accomplish that feat. Ironically, the worst thing about the special teams in 1999 turned out to be Bohn, who had an off-year after an outstanding season the year before.
This year, the Aggies should have the best special teams in the Big West. Bohn will be back for a fourth year, determined to return to his 1998 groove, punter Steve Mullins returns after earning freshman all-America honors, while Emmett White, who ranked high in the nation in both punt returns (10th) and kickoff returns (26th), also is back.
"We're real excited about the special teams," said Craig Dickenson, one of the special teams coaches. "With the lack of depth we have, special teams will be really important this year."
As good as White has been the past two years as a kick returner, he may not get to play there because he's penciled in as the starting running back, and Aggie coaches may not want to risk an injury on the special teams.
However, Dickenson insists: "The best players will play. You'll see a lot of starters on the special teams. A lot of guys will play every down."
Tony Walker, who set a school record with 42 punt returns as a freshman, will likely be used as a return man both on kickoffs and punts again this year.
Regular center Junior Pututau will be the snapper on placekicks, while quarterback Jeff Crosbie will be the holder. The candidates for long snapper on punts include Ryan Duncan and K.C. Littlewood.
The defensive backfield will be anchored by Walker, who started five games as a freshman and nine as a sophomore and is an all-Big West candidate this year.
"He's got the best feet of anyone I've ever coached," said secondary coach Derrick Odum. "He has great size for a cornerback (6-0, 190) and has a savvy for the game. He's also our best cover guy."
The rest of the defensive backfield, while talented, is untested. The other corner position will be manned by Adebola Jimoh, a 6-1, 185-pound sophomore who saw limited action last year.
Aminifu Johnson takes over the strong safety position for Donald Dicko after playing a lot in 1999 when he made 36 tackles and recovered a fumble. Scott Goss, a junior college transfer from Riverside, Calif., got off to a quick start in camp but injured his thumb and underwent surgery earlier this week. He may not be ready for the opener.
Two players, sophomore Maurice Caraway, a converted linebacker, and junior Desmond Watson are battling for time at the free safety spot, while sophomore Jamar Glasper will back up at the strong safety spot.
Others who will play reserve roles in the secondary include senior Shaun Healy, who missed half of last season with injuries, JC transfer Malcolm Moore and freshman Derrek Shenk.