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Utes Hope To Replace Special Teams Fireworks

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DeVonte Christopher celebrates his touchdown with Reggie Dunn, one of the best kick returners in recent memory and now a member of the Pittsburgh Steelers. Photo by Harry How/Getty Images.
DeVonte Christopher celebrates his touchdown with Reggie Dunn, one of the best kick returners in recent memory and now a member of the Pittsburgh Steelers. Photo by Harry How/Getty Images.

On a chilly November afternoon in Boulder, Colo. — and in the waning moments of his career — Reggie Dunn etched his name just a bit deeper in the record books.

After just one juke to the left and a thread through two slow-footed Buffs, Utah’s athlete broke a stalemate in the fourth quarter against Colorado, giving his Utes a season-ending 42-35 win and adding to his mark on history. Dunn’s 100-yard return marked his fourth of the season and fifth of his career, both NCAA records. In a five-win fall, Dunn’s fireworks were absolutely the highlight of the Utes’ 2012 season.

That firepower relocated across the nation, however, as Dunn is now a Pittsburgh Steeler. Undoubtedly, Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham and special teams coach Jay Hill will exercise all the return game pyrotechnics they know to restore some sort of explosiveness Dunn left behind.

The focus is on three positions within Utah’s special teams in advance of its Aug. 29 opener against Utah State. The impossible race for Dunn’s position already features controversy and the kicker slot features a world-class winter sports athlete seeking to restore recent glory to the position. The punter’s story is easily the most orthodox of the trio, though American football teams usually don’t see Aussies seeking to pin opponents deep in their own territory.

3. REGGIE DUNN'S REPLACEMENT

Whittingham has said that Dunn was to Utah’s special teams what first-round NFL draft pick Star Lotulelei was to the Utes’ defense.

"He was a game changer and one of the best kick returners in NCAA history,” the ninth-year coach told the university’s athletics website.

Safety Charles Henderson will probably be the new spark in the kick and punt return game, especially since Quinton Pedroza has been dismissed for violating unspecified team rules. (That has included disclosures concerning the exit on his Twitter account, including criticisms toward and heated exchanges with fans of rival BYU). But Henderson, a junior, had more experience in the return game anyway, handling 26 of the 31 punts last fall for 138 yards (5.3 yards per return). Junior Dres Anderson, last year’s leading receiver, and freshman Delshawn McClellon may be in the mix due to Pedroza’s departure.

2. ANDY PHILLIPS

Phillips may be the most experienced non-experienced NCAA player this season. The 24-year-old redshirt freshman has never kicked in an NCAA game. But he graduated from the Winter Sports School, which is dedicated to elite winter sports athletes, in Park City preparing to compete on the U.S. Ski Team for five years as an alpine racer. Norway, then, was coincidentally a good fit for Phillips’ LDS mission. He got married during part-time enrollment at Westminster College in Salt Lake City, followed by a 2012 redshirt season on the hill.

Now Phillips — who golfs, wakeboards and plays soccer — just needs to declare a major. And hopefully make some field goals, too. He edged fellow redshirt freshman Jamie Sutcliffe in spring ball, though some additional walk-on kickers may challenge him in August.

He follows the unceremonious two-year era of Coleman Peterson, who went just 26-of-38 — including 8-of-13 last year, when he made just 4-of-8 attempts from 30-plus yards. His most memorable, though, was the previous fall. On Nov. 26, 2011, Peterson missed a 48-yard field goal as time expired in a three-point loss to Colorado. It marked his third miss in as many tries that afternoon at Rice-Eccles Stadium, keeping the Utes from advancing to the Pac-12 title game in their first season in the conference.

If Phillips can kick half as well as he can handle the slopes, Utes fans should enjoy an improvement in this category. If not, people will still pine for the storied years of Louie Sakoda (2005-08), the only consensus All-American in Utah football history, according to utahutes.cstv.com. Or at least Joe Phillips (2009-10). At one point, Phillips made a school-record 18 consecutive field goals.

Or at least they'll wish senior Nick Marsh hadn’t transferred to Rutgers.

1. TOM HACKETT

The punter is undisputed. The Australian sophomore has proven his worth after appearing in nine games last fall and being named the Pac-12 Player of the Week in his first game in the United States. His expertise is pinning opponents deep inside their own territory. Last season, he planted 15 of his 25 punts inside the 20-yard line, including seven inside the 10-yard line and four inside the five-yard line. Hackett will also hold for field goals and PATs.

He may not have seen more time last season because of star Sean Sellwood, who played in all 13 games last season and ranked second in the Pac-12 in punt average.