OGDEN — Weber State junior kicker Trey Tuttle approached the ball, booted it into the crisp, fall air, and Northern Iowa returner Jalen Rima caught it at the 3-yard line.
When Rima reached the 13, he was rocked into the turf by redshirt freshman linebacker Naseme Colvin and the Panthers started the contest between two top-10 teams with poor field position.
Not much later, Tuttle was kicking off again with a 7-0 lead. Deion McShane fielded the kick at the goal line and was upended by freshman safety Aaron Sessions, who simultaneously, akin to a missile, jarred the ball loose and sent McShane’s legs flying into the air. John Abercrombie recovered the fumble and WSU had a 10-0 lead moments later.
It’s exactly the kind of impact Weber State expects from its special teams units.
“Naseme Colvin is a very talented young man who can flat-out fly, and John Abercrombie is next to him and Aaron Sessions is next to him, and they’re like a tidal wave running down the field,” linebackers coach and kick-team coordinator Grant Duff said. “It’s obviously a huge play and got the momentum in our favor from the opening kickoff. It was kind of a knock-down shot like boxing where Northern Iowa, it almost took them two quarters to recoup from that. It was just a huge momentum shift.
“That’s the expectation on our special teams. They start the game, we tell our guys that all the time. They’ve got to set the standard right out of the gate ... they’re the first 11 on the field.”
Tuttle said touchbacks are nice, but big hits are better.
“It kind of gets my heart pumping, gets me excited ... watching guys on my kickoff unit making tackles and forcing fumbles like that, it helps me a lot because other guys don’t want to return it as much so they won’t come hit me and I’ll stay safe, which is the main goal at the end of the day,” Tuttle joked. “But no, it’s super fun and there’s nothing like it. We have really good guys running down on kickoff.”
Solid special teams play is as much of an earmark of Jay Hill’s Weber State teams as defense has been. For the most part, the Wildcats get almost supernatural consistency from its kicking, punting and return games.
Duff attributes that to one of Hill’s program rules.
“Coach Hill has a mandate that you’re going to start on special teams and play on special teams before you’ll ever contribute on offense or defense,” he said. “So the standard is set, and not a lot of teams have that at the level we do. It’s one-third of the ballgame and that’s where wins and losses can occur.”
Tuttle is now 6 of 7 on field goals this season. Four of his makes have come from 40 or more yards, with a long of 47. In each of his freshman and sophomore seasons, he tied the program record for field goals in a season with 19.
Tuttle is 31 of 41 in his career on non-blocked field goals, with a long of 52 yards.
Duff said Tuttle is similar to recent WSU greats like Taron Johnson, Tre’von Johnson, Adam Rodriguez and Jonah Williams in that coaches can’t point out things to him on film that he hasn’t already seen and found a solution for.
“His work ethic, his attention to detail and his mental toughness is off the charts,” Duff said.
Tuttle reiterated the kicker’s ethos to explain his success: you’re only good as your next kick and if you think about the last one, make or miss, you’re asking for failure.
That goes for the success of senior punter Doug Lloyd, too, who made several notable kicks on his way to Big Sky special teams player of the week honors for last week’s win.
The Australian native and the punt coverage team most notably downed three punts at the Northern Iowa 2. One of those came after Lloyd had to dodge a would-be blocker before kicking one 72 yards.
It displayed a particular set of skills for Lloyd.
“The ability he has growing up playing Australian rules football, he’s used to punting the ball from all different angles. Much like a baseball player who plays shortstop is used to having to make every crazy throw depending on where the ball is hit, he’s used to doing that with his foot,” Duff said. “So the punt like he had in the game where it nets 72 yards, honestly, we had a break down of protection and he’s able to just kind of juke a guy and hit it on the run, that’s something that’s very unique to him and his skillset.”
WSU’s potent return game has yet to be unleashed this season. With four kickoffs returned for touchdowns in his career, junior receiver Rashid Shaheed already holds the program record and has had about that many called back on penalties as well. He’s only had three chances to return kickoffs in four games this season.
In 2018, Josh Davis returned a punt for a score and Shaheed ripped a punt return of 44 yards.
“We’ve got to get Rashid going in the return game, but it’s a little hard when nobody will kick to you,” Hill said. “But as far as our opponents’ net punts and average start after kicking, if they’re not kicking to us, usually that’s a good thing for us. We’re gaining yards in other ways. We’ve had three or four kickoffs kicked out of bounds, so you’re still getting good field position.
“People know who (Shaheed) is. We have the best kicker in the country and one of the most effective punters in the country, which Doug proved last week with his unbelievable performance.”