clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Inside the approach of Utah State’s elite return specialists, Savon Scarver and Jordan Nathan

Scarver is all All-American kick returner, while Nathan is one of the top punt returners in program history.

Utah State wide receiver Savon Scarver (81) (left), Utah State wide receiver Jordan Nathan (16) (right)
Left picture: (Eli Lucero/The Herald Journal via AP) / Right picture: (Andres Leighton/AP Photo)

LOGAN — It was the play of the game.

With just under eight minutes remaining in the first quarter of Utah State’s eventual 62-7 rout of Stony Brook on Sept. 7, sophomore return specialist Deven Thompkins took a Seawolves punt 46 yards to the house.

It was the first special teams touchdown of Thompkins’ young career, not to mention the Aggies’ first this season, and it couldn’t have come at a better time.

Utah State had moved the ball well enough against Stony Brook up to that point, but the team’s first two offensive possessions ended in a field goal and a turnover.

Not exactly the start anyone envisioned.

“I knew we needed a play,” Thompkins said, after the game. “I knew we needed to score. We needed a touchdown. As soon as I touched the ball I wanted to score and that was it.”

Utah State football is no stranger to game-changing special teams play.

Between All-American kick returner Savon Scarver, Jordan Nathan — statistically one of the 10 best punt returners in program history — and now Thompkins, the Aggies arguably have three of the best four return specialists in the state.

Scarver, a junior, is one of the best in the country, as evidenced the The Jet Award he earned last season, which is given annually to the nations top return specialist.

He is already second all-time in school history with three kick returns for touchdowns in his career, and his average of 28.5 yards per return is the third-highest mustered by any Aggie ever.

What makes him so elite at kick returns?

A host of things, really.

Foremost among them is top-end speed, a necessity for all kick returners and something Scarver has it in spades.

“It is like a NASCAR driver,” said Stacy Collins, Utah State’s special teams coordinator. “You put the pedal to the metal and when that smoke clears you roll.”

The smoke in this case are the blocks laid by the Aggies’ return team.

In a matter of moments, those blocks open seams in the return coverage, holes Scarver finds on a regular basis.

“You catch it, scan and go,” he said. “First seam you see you have to hit it, cause it can close just like that. You don’t really have a plan because you never really know what is going to happen. You catch it and quick scan. Whatever grass, seam you see you have to hit it.”

For ordinary returners, those seams close more often than not. For Scarver, not so much.

“Savon has such top-end speed, and he hits that thing on the run extremely well,” Collins said.

A punt return is a completely different animal, but it is something Nathan and Thompkins are well suited for.

Where a kick return demands top-end race car-esque speed, punt returns necessitate more lateral quickness and an innate ability to make a man or two miss. You have to operate in a tight space and have the ability to accelerate out of it.

More than anything else, though, punt returners have to be fearless.

“You have guys screaming down on you and that ball is high,” Collins said. “There is a fear factor in there and you have to find the right guy. Both Jordan and Deven have that.”

Nathan and Thompkins have returned punts for a score in their Aggie careers, and Nathan’s career average of 8.3 yards per return made him an All-Mountain West punt returner in 2018.

As far as he is concerned, punt returns are all about instinct.

“A lot of it is instinct,” Nathan said. “It is if I have a feel for it. If I feel like I can get it and make the first guy miss, I’ll go for it. A lot of it is purely instinct.”

Not all of it, though, and as physically gifted as Scarver, Nathan and Thompkins are, their success ultimately comes down to the mental aspect of the return game, that is to say decision-making.

Make the right decision, and the Aggies are likely to benefit from the elusive special teams touchdown.

Make the wrong one, and it could cost the team a shot at winning a Mountain West Conference championship.

“It is all about making the right decision,” Nathan said. “A return is one of the biggest turnarounds of the game, whether you score or turn the ball over, it can be very positive or very detrimental.”

Thanks in part to detailed preparation in practice — “It is all about film study,” Nathan said — Scarver, Nathan and Thompkins have the faith of the Utah State coaching staff to make those decisions, none more than Scarver.

“Coach Collins has a lot of trust in me, I have a lot of freedom,” Scarver said.

He plans to make the most of it.

“I’m thinking about taking a lot more out this year,” said Scarver. “I have ability that God gave me and I have to use it. I’ll make something happen.”