There were indications early on this season that special teams might be an adventure for Utah.
Midway through the first quarter of the opener against Weber State, the Utes gave up a 99-yard kickoff return for a touchdown. Then it happened again, a 100-yard kickoff return for a TD, a couple of weeks later against San Diego State.
“We shouldn’t have two kickoff returns for touchdowns in 15 years, let alone two in three weeks,” coach Kyle Whittingham said at the time.
Then, in October, Utah surrendered a blocked punt for a touchdown in a loss at Oregon State, which might have cost the Utes the game. And that happened again at Arizona, making the final score too close for comfort.
In between, Utah has had issues in the placekicking department as well.
But against then-No. 3 Oregon last Saturday, the Utes excelled in special teams, starting with Cole Bishop’s block of a 36-yard field goal attempt in the first quarter.
And then there’s Ute kick return extraordinaire Britain Covey, the school’s all-time leader in punt return yardage.
The 5-foot-8, 170-pound junior produced some magic in Utah’s 38-7 shellacking of the Ducks last Saturday night.
With 11 seconds remaining in the first half, Whittingham called timeout to give Covey a chance.
The Ducks, already trailing 21-0, decided to punt the ball to the Pac-12’s most feared punt returner. Covey darted, weaved and streaked 78 yards for a touchdown as time expired to put the Utes up 28-0 at halftime.
“Probably the biggest play of the game was Covey’s punt return,” Whittingham said. “That really was a huge momentum-builder going into halftime. If you had to pinpoint one play in the entire game as the key, it was that one. ... Covey’s a dangerous guy. I’d think twice about kicking to him.”
“I’m glad that coach trusted me enough to call timeout with 11 seconds left. We went for a block so we didn’t have a return set up,” Covey said. “But I knew if I could get outside the first wave, we’d have a lot of guys coming back. They were coming toward me so I had to point to them and say, ‘Go!’ They had some great blocks. ... I don’t score if it’s not for them.”
Covey is the first Pac-12 player with multiple punt return touchdowns in a season since 2017. He is also just the 10th known player since 1937 with multiple 70-yard punt return touchdowns in a single season and he stands atop the FBS with a 17.5 yard punt return average this season.
In the triple-overtime loss at San Diego State in September, Covey had an 80-yard punt return touchdown.
But his TD return against Oregon was probably the most important one of his career.
Covey was hoping the Ducks would kick the ball his way before the end of the half.
“I was looking to the north end zone like, ‘You think they’ll give us a shot?’” Covey recalled.
Oregon kicked the ball to Covey, who crossed to the opposite side of the field and sprinted down the sideline, followed his wall of blockers, broke a tackle, and raced into the end zone.
It was as if it was scripted.
“I’ve told coach Whitt before that if a team’s trying to run out the clock at the end of a half and we have some timeouts, call ’em so that we can get a shot. We had 11 seconds left,” Covey said. “What’s really cool is, you go look at that film and it looks exactly like practice. I have about six guys finishing through the goal line with me at full speed.
“I wouldn’t have had that for Micah Bernard’s block, Solomon Enis’ block, Kamo’i Latu had two blocks, Connor O’Toole turns around and goes for the punter instead of coming back. It’s just like practice. It’s not me, it’s that unit. That unit is special and it’s because we believe in what we can do.”
What made Covey’s return even more impressive, Whittingham said, was that the Utes were set up to try to block the punt.
“He did most of that on his own, Whittingham said. “He got some key blocks along the way but it wasn’t set up as a return.”
That return not only put the Utes up by four touchdowns, but it also made it clear, if it weren’t already by then, that this would be their night.
Not surprisingly, Covey was named Pac-12 Special Teams Player of the Week.
“I wish it could be special teams unit of the week,” he said. “The punt return unit executed all their jobs to a T.”
Looking at the season as a whole, that punt return for a touchdown compensated, in some way, for previous special teams blunders.
“We’ve had some big setbacks throughout the course of the season. We had kickoff coverage issues early in the year and then the ongoing punt protection,” Whittingham said. “I think we had a complete game with our special teams. I don’t know if you ever ‘arrive’ to where you want to be because you have to continue to work hard. But it was great to see them perform like they did Saturday.”
As he is wont to do, Covey waxed philosophical when analyzing the special teams performance this season.
“I think special teams is all about belief. I think we’re the No. 1 punt return unit in the country,” he said. “It’s because we believe and we’ve seen what we can do. It’s really the unit, not the returners. It’s the unit.”
Covey recalled arriving as a freshman at Utah in 2015. In 2014, Kaelin Clay had starred as the Utes’ punt return specialist.
“I remember it’s the first thing that I really understood when I got here with special teams was everyone talked about Kaelin Clay the year before,” he said. “But it was the unit that they would talk about. ‘People fear us. People are scared of us.’ It thought it was really cool that special teams was literally its own facet of the game. I think that it comes with some ownership. We’ve done that. We’ve owned up to our mistakes and it’s like another facet to the game. It’s like another team.”
The crowd reaction during, and after, his memorable punt return was the loudest that Covey’s heard since he’s been at Utah.
“During a play, your ears turn off. It’s like you don’t hear anything. Then when I was at about the 10-yard line, my ears turned back on and could not believe how loud it was,” he said. “I was thinking this week about the loudest times I’ve heard Rice-Eccles and that was No. 1, for sure. … That return was a cool scene.”