Can Big 12-bound Cougars borrow a page from Adam Hine’s playbook?
The Cougars haven’t returned a kickoff for a TD since Hine did so in 2014, which is something special teams coach Kelly Poppinga looks to remedy
It’s the moment of Zen for a speedster — that split second when the blockers collide with the kickoff coverage team and an opening develops revealing a clear track to the end zone.
For a fast guy like Adam Hine, the dream of a lifetime lasted just a few seconds, but it left a mark he hasn’t forgotten, nor has BYU. Not only was his 99-yard kickoff return for a touchdown against Virginia in 2014 dramatic, but it’s also the last one the Cougars have had.
Nine years later, Hine still smiles when he looks back while current special teams coach Kelly Poppinga wipes the sweat off his brow as he moves forward — charged with restoring some electricity to the return game.
Khalek Shepherd’s 9-yard touchdown run pulled Virginia (2-1) within striking distance, 34-26, with 8:06 to play in the fourth quarter, giving the No. 21 Cougars (3-0) and the capacity crowd (63,470) a jolt of anxiety.
Without a cloud in the sky, the September sun baked down on Dylan Sims as he put the ball on the kicking tee. There wasn’t any lightning in the forecast, but it came anyway.
“I was excited. A lot of the kicks that year had been kicked away from me,” Hine said. “I saw it coming at me. I caught it and looked at (lead blocker) Paul Lasike and I started running.”
In addition to playing football at Snow Canyon High in Santa Clara, Utah, Hine was also on the track team, where he won multiple state championships in the long jump and high jump and still holds the state record high jump at 7 feet, 2 inches.
“Running track really helped me,” he said. “It set a great foundation for my speed and jumping.”
By the time Hine reached the 30-yard line the Cavaliers were converging. It took a block by Lasike to catapult him into the open field.
“I saw a guy coming at me, so I wanted to set Paul’s block up,” he said. “So, I faked like I was going one way to push the defender into Paul. Once he set his block I was on my way.”
The adrenaline rush that a kick returner gets when he sees pay dirt, even from 70 yards away, is like rocket fuel that pushes a spacecraft into orbit.
“I was thinking, ‘I’ve had so many close ones during the season and the year before where I would get tripped up or caught.’ I knew I had to take the right angles,” said Hine. “Once I got out in front, I looked up at the Jumbotron and saw where everybody was, and I knew they weren’t going to catch me.”
Seconds later, Hine was celebrating in the end zone and the outcome of the game was secured.
“It felt so good to know I did my part, and we were winning,” he said. “That’s what you practice for.”
Hine in history
Hine just missed from turning BYU’s “Group of Five” into the “Spectacular Six.” James Dye (1996), Tyler Anderson (1993), Eric Mortensen (1988), Dave Lowry (1974) and John Betham (1974) all have 100-yard kickoff returns.
Sadly, a technicality kept Hine from joining them, even beating them.
Hine returned a kick 101 yards for a touchdown against Utah in 2013 only to have it called back by a controversial holding call.
“I remember getting that touchdown and was so happy and then I read the mood of the crowd and I thought, ‘Oh no!’ I just hoped it wasn’t on us,” Hine said. “We call it the ‘phantom block’ because while it looked like (Alani) Fua hit the defender, the angles we saw afterwards showed that he didn’t touch him at all. It was a bad call.”
Kickoff return was just one area where Hine excelled. Among his other big moments included two rushing touchdowns during BYU’s 41-7 route at No. 25 Texas in 2014. A year later, after he moved off special teams to replace Jamaal Williams at running back, Hine rushed for 149 yards and a touchdown at No. 10 UCLA.
Hine decided when he was 9 years old that he wanted to be a dentist and work with kids. He followed up his BYU graduation with dental school at the University of Utah and a residency at Primary Children’s Hospital.
“It was humbling. It was good. I got to work with a lot of great kids,” he said. “Mainly our patient base was kids with special needs with a lot of them going through cancer treatments or complex medical issues. I got to interact with the most tender people.”
Hine prepped for dentistry by sinking his teeth into football.
“Everything about football helped me. No. 1 was working well on a team, knowing you must do your part well for everyone to reach their goals,” he said. “The tough transition for me was I had to go from the physicality of football to more of a mental approach. I had to hit the books hard and learn as much as I could about dentistry.”
Hine and his wife Cassidy live in Salt Lake City with their three children. He splits his time at Kid’s Town Pediatric Dentistry, which has locations in Layton, Roy and Syracuse, and Children’s Dentistry in Layton. Cassidy is in her last year of dental school. Their dream is to someday build a practice together.
“Kids are just pure. They are innocent. They ask lots of good questions, and I think they are easy to treat,” he said. “When they come in with cavities, we help them and set them on the right track to enjoy healthier teeth.”
30-yard line or bust
It takes a special kind of person to return kicks. It certainly helps when each blocker does his job, but success relies heavily on the young man who is carrying the ball.
“As the returner, you just have to kamikaze in there,” Hine said. “I finished my football career with three pretty bad concussions. But you just have to go! You catch the ball and run as hard as you can and hope you are doing the punishing as opposed to someone punishing you.”
That approach helped Hine average 27.2 yards a return in 2013 and 24.5 in 2014. Last season, BYU averaged 20.2.
It’s Poppinga’s job to change that.
“I think 24 is a good mark to have for a return average,” said Poppinga, BYU’s new special teams coach. “The top average last year was 32 (Mississippi State). Our goal is not so much an average per return as it is to get the ball past the 30. The scoring percentage for an offense goes way up if the average starting field position is at the 30.”
Hine would like to see a return average that leaves his legacy in its dust.
“I want to see 28 yards a return. I want them to be better than I was. I think these athletes are better than the athletes we were,” he said. “There shouldn’t be any other goal than to do better than when we returned the last kickoff for a touchdown. I feel confident that coach Poppinga is going to be able to do it. He’s aggressive in his style.”
As Poppinga scours the roster for an Adam Hine-like performer, there are certain ingredients he is looking for.
“Speed, fearlessness, and a guy who trusts the return and the scheme,” Poppinga said. “When those guys have the ball in their hands, we want the other team to be thinking, ‘Oh crap! I hope somebody tackles that dude!’”
That’s exactly what Poppinga was thinking at Boise State last year every time BYU running back Hinkley Ropati touched the football.
“When I got the job, that guy was fresh on my mind for what he did to us in the Boise game,” he said. “That was my first thought before I knew anybody here. Ropati is the one I thought would be really good back there.”
Ropati caught three passes out of the backfield for 82 yards, including an electrifying 66-yard catch-and-run for a touchdown that left an impression.
“I like running backs as kickoff returners. They are trained to run in condensed spaces,” Poppinga said. “Most kick returns are designed to hit a certain spot and running backs, like Hine, are good at doing that. I know (Ropati) is going to hit the hole, stick that foot in the ground and get us to the 30.”
Receiver Parker Kingston and cornerback Marcus McKenzie are also on Poppinga’s short list of candidates. McKenzie is the state 4A record holder in the 100-meter dash (10.54).
“Parker has game-changing speed and I’m really excited about Marcus with how he plays fearlessly,” Poppinga said. “Right now, those guys are the top three.”
Hine was a respected and feared kick returner and his longer returns of 37, 39, 40, 47, 90 and 99 yards set a standard his followers are still trying to match, including that elusive touchdown in 2014.
“As a special team’s coordinator, you stay awake at night thinking about those kinds of guys,” Poppinga said. “I know how valuable they are when you have to cover them. It changes the game.”
Change is what Hine is hoping for — a change in fortune for whoever is returning the kickoffs.
“I can’t believe it’s been so long,” he said. “I feel like this is the year someone is finally going to end the (touchdown) drought. Someone has to do it.”
Dave McCann is a contributor to the Deseret News and is the studio host for “BYU Sports Nation Game Day,” “The Post Game Show,” “After Further Review,” and play-by-play announcer for BYUtv. He is also co-host of “Y’s Guys” at ysguys.com.