Vonte Davis is a senior and the projected starting strong safety for the University of Utah’s football team, but he’s not expecting either of those facts to relieve him of another duty that some might consider beneath him.
For the past two seasons, Davis has logged a lot of time with the Utes’ special teams units, and he doesn’t anticipate that will change despite his depth chart promotion and upperclassman status.
Like anybody who’s followed the Utes for a while, Davis knows special teams aren’t just an afterthought for Utah. They’re a big deal.
“Even though I’m a starter, I don’t see that (role) changing,” he said, “because special teams are a No. 1 priority here.”
To that point, Davis said the Utes’ special teams coordinator, Sharrieff Shah, treats that part of the game with as much importance as defense or offense. And Utah players know their coaches have high expectations when it comes to kicking, punting and returns.
“The expectations is always to sit in the No. 1 spot,” said Shah, noting that the Utes have been in the top three in special teams production since joining the Pac-12. “The expectation is to have great special teams play. It’s something that Coach Whittingham has put his stamp on. It’s something that we continue to do.”
Whittingham has believed special teams was worth one of his stamps since 1988.
Following his successful collegiate career at BYU — as a linebacker and special teams player — and a short stint in the NFL, Whittingham took his first Division I coaching job at Idaho State that fall. The responsibility became his after the ISU special teams coordinator surprisingly turned in his resignation.
“I already made the decision when and if I got the opportunity to become the head coach it was going to be a phase of the game that was emphasized and I was going to have a role in. I’m completely involved in the special teams here.” — Utah coach Kyle Whittingham
Opportunity knocked for Whittingham, and he busted down the door.
“I was given the job as special teams coordinator right then — a week before the season,” Whittingham said. “I had no background in it other than having played special teams as a player, and at that point I fell in love with it. I had a great experience.”
Whittingham spent four years at Idaho State as the special teams coordinator and has carried a love for that aspect of the game with him ever since.
“I already made the decision when and if I got the opportunity to become the head coach it was going to be a phase of the game that was emphasized and I was going to have a role in,” Whittingham said. “I’m completely involved in the special teams here.”
Through the years, the Utes have fielded a variety of top-tier special teams players — from All-American punters Tom Hackett and Mitch Wishnowsky, talented sure-footed kickers Andy Phillips and Matt Gay, and return specialists extraordinaire Reggie Dunn and Britain Covey.
Now that he’s back and fully healthy, Covey gives the Utes a weapon they missed in their special teams unit last season.
“I think we’ll have a very dynamic punt return team,” said Shah, admitting he loves having Covey back. “I love that he’s feeling a lot better. He’s looking a lot more explosive, so I love our punt return team.”
Covey is also listed as the team’s kickoff returner along with fellow wide receiver Bryan Thompson. Jaylen Dixon was No. 2 on the depth chart the Utes circulated before camp started, but he has since entered his name in the transfer portal.
Sophomores Ben Lennon (punter) and Jadon Redding (kicker) are back after getting experience as freshmen, while incoming freshman Jordan Noyes is listed as the No. 1 kicker for kickoffs. Redding nailed all 56 extra-point attempts and booted in 10 of 13 field goals with a long of 42 yards last season. Lennon averaged 40.9 yards per punt, including 20 that were placed inside of the 20-yard line.
Lennon is projected as the place-kicking holder, with senior Keegan Markgraf slated to handle long-snapping duties.
Shah believes there’s plenty of room for improvement there.
“We have been unbelievably good in the punt team, but last year wasn’t as good as we wanted to be so we have to be better in our protections,” he said. “We want to be more effective in certain locations of the field. Maybe we can get opponents pinned in the fashion and way we are accustomed to.”
It won’t be for a lack of attention or practice if that doesn’t happen. Whittingham said his former boss Urban Meyer is among coaches who have been highly involved in special teams like he is now.
“It creates an immediate buy-in from the players and they understand how important it is, and that’s really the key,” Whittingham said. “The key to special teams is that your players buy in to it. When the head coach shows a genuine interest in it and takes part in it, that helps solidify that.”