This is the third article in a three-part series analyzing the three phases of the game for Utah State football for the upcoming 2023 season
Utah State has a good history in the special teams department, even winning games almost on the strength of the third phase alone (see also last year’s win over New Mexico). There’s a solid chance this year will be as good as any previous season. Most of the players at the top of the special teams depth chart return with the only major turnover coming at placekicker.
Previous breakdowns have listed each position group with national prognostications for each unit from the Athlon Sports and Phil Steele preview magazines. And while Steele gave special teams ranks relative to other Mountain West teams, neither broke down special teams in the way it’s split up here (isolating both kickers and the returners). But given the placekicking, punting and returner units usually boil down to one or two players, you can get an idea for how these outlets think of them based on whether or not certain players received spots on the preseason all-conference teams.
As a whole on special teams, the Aggies ranked third in Steele’s rankings (Athlon did not give a specific special teams unit rank). Steele and Athlon both placed Terrell Vaughn, Stephen Kotsanlee and Cooper Jones on their all-conference teams as a kick returner, punter and punt returner, respectively. So it’s clear both are rather high on the Aggies’ specialists.
Position Strength — Average
It’s next to impossible to be certain about Utah State’s kicking room. Elliott Nimrod hasn’t attempted a field goal in a real game since 2019, when he was in high school, and there are no publicly available stats on how Nimrod even performed way back then. What is known is that Nimrod clearly has the potential for decent distance as he’s handled kickoff duties since his freshman year at Arkansas State. He doesn’t have an elite leg as he ranked 81st in average kickoff distance and 80th in touchback percentage in 2022, but Nimrod should have the leg for anything inside 50 yards and perhaps just over that landmark.
Testa is less of an unknown thanks to there being some data on his field goal kicking. In three seasons at the New Mexico Military Institute, Testa made 34-of-52 field goals (65.4 percent) and 130-of-133 on PATs.
Who winds up as the starting kicker isn’t clear yet. The spring showcase seemed to suggest Nimrod had the edge, though Anderson has been quite complimentary of Testa when asked about the incoming kicker. This will be the one position battle to watch on special teams in the fall. And if one wins the starting battle but falters during the season we could see a swap.
The last two kickers at Utah State, Dominik Eberle and Connor Coles, were both solid kickers with enough leg to hit from any reasonable distance and be mostly accurate. Hopefully, that trend continues and doesn’t regress back to the dark days of kicking in Cache Valley.
Position Strength — Among the best in the conference
Kotsanlee returns for a fourth season as the starting punter at Utah State and in his three previous years in Logan he’s steadily improved. The Australian punter went from an average of 40.7 yards per punt as a freshman to 43.2 last year, a number that ranked a solid 48th in the country last year. If that trend keeps up, Kotsanlee could jump into the top third of punters in the entire FBS. Both Steele and Athlon named him to their respective preseason All-MW third team. He’s not likely to get the better of San Diego State’s Jack Browning or New Mexico’s Aaron Rodriguez for any end-of-season accolades, but the Aggies will still enjoy some solid punting.
A major area of improvement for Kotsanlee that could help him rise higher than third-best in the conference will be touchbacks (which admittedly is not all on him). He tied for the fifth-most touchbacks in FBS last year with eight, something that dragged his net punting average down to just 39.7. That and a slight boost in raw yards per punt could boost him slightly.
Position Strength — Among the best in the conference
Dynamic returners have contributed more than their fair share to the Aggies’ special teams success in recent years. Savon Scarver made his mark as a consensus All-American returner, but Vaughn has done fairly well himself. In 2022, Vaughn ranked 10th in the country in average kickoff return yards (26.5) which included his 100-yard return touchdown against Weber State. He should continue to be a positive force in returns this season.
At the punt return spot, Jones returns and also ranked fairly strongly in his sphere of returns, coming in at 32nd in FBS last year in yards per punt returns. He has yet to break a return truly open and take it the distance, but Jones’ solid average despite not having an outlier to raise said average speaks to his consistent success in gaining yards.
The Aggies did take a minor hit on the depth chart with backup kick returner Jordan Wilmore adding his name to the list of transfers. Wilmore took the field on kick returns despite being the backup, usually ending up as a blocker in the return. Jones was listed as the third-string kick returner so it’s possible he simply moves up the list or the coaching staff may go with another player as they did last year despite Jones being one of the top returners.