Explosive returns can cause some of the biggest swings in the Big Sky


MISSOULA, Montana — Bobby Hauck has mentored several of the most explosive and productive returners in the history of the Big Sky Conference.

And when Hauck was the special teams coordinator at San Diego State, Rashaad Penny and the Aztecs were among the best teams in the return game in the country. Look no further than Penny’s seven kick return scores between 2015 and 2017 before the elite prospect became a first round pick.

During Hauck’s first seven-year stint at Montana, his teams took a total of 16 kicks and punts for touchdowns. Every season between 2003 and 2009 except the 2007 campaign, Hauck’s Griz scored at least two special teams touchdowns on returns.

The success has continued in Hauck’s second stint since he returned to lead his alma mater ahead of the 2018 season. On Saturday in a 39-7 homecoming win over Cal Poly, Griz junior kick returner Malik Flowers took the opening kickoff of the second half 96 yards for his program record-tying four kicks back for a TD.

Montana wide receiver Jerry Louie-McGee (16) vs Idaho State in 2019/by Brooks Nuanez

“It can swing the momentum and it does,” Hauck said earlier this season. “I think any time you can swing field position, it creates momentum in the game. If you can make something happen in the return game, it puts your offense ahead. We’ve been fortunate where we have been pretty good in the kick return game here over the years.”

The most recent iteration of Hauck Era No. 2 has produced a total of five ST returns for touchdowns, including the last of Jerry Louie-McGee’s Griz record-tying three career punt returns for a score. Flowers’ touchdown return Saturday tied Greg Anderson (1973-76) for the UM’s kick return career record.

Tuff Harris set an all-time Big Sky Conference record with 667 punt return yards in 2006. Levander Seagers between 2001 and 2004 along with Marc Mariani between 2006 and 2009 each took three punt returns to the house. Seagers took two punts and a kick back during his senior year, Hauck’s first at the helm in 2003.

Montana head coach Bobby Hauck (left) and Weber State head coach Jay Hill before UM played WSU in the quarterfinals of the 2019 FCS Playoffs/ by Robert Casey

Jefferson Heidelberger took three kickoffs to the house during his career, including one during his senior year in 2004 on the way to setting UM’s career record for KR TDs.

Rob Schulte and Harris each took punts to the house in 2005. Harris took two punts to pay dirt in 2006. Mariani burst onto the scene with a pair of punt return scores in 2008 as Montana advanced to its sixth national championship game in 13 years.

And in 2009, Mariani outdid himself, taking a punt to for six during the regular season and then sparking Montana to a comeback for the ages.

Trailing 48-21 with 5:25 left against South Dakota State in the first round of the playoffs, Mariani entered the game as a kick returner. He took it 97 yards for a touchdown to spark an unbelievable 61-48 win.

That’s all to say: returning for Hauck is an inside track to the end-zone.

“Consistency is the right word and all those guys understood what we were trying to do,” Hauck said. “I think there’s enthusiasm with the other 10 guys who are out there to work for those guys with the ball because they know good things can happen and they can sense some of the things you mentioned that can affect the game. It’s what we want it to be about.”

When Flowers put his foot in the ground and followed a perfectly executed blocking scheme on his return, he tied the UM record and came within one return TD of long-time Big Sky record holder Lamont Brightful, who took five kicks to the end-zone for Eastern Washington in the late 1990s and the early 2000s.

Montana wide receiver/return specialist Malik Flowers (19)/by Jason Bacaj

The all-time record holder for kick returns for touchdowns in the Big Sky is still competing in the league. Weber State’s first possession of 2021 started and ended with super senior Rashid Shaheed ripped off a 100-yard touchdown, a BSC- record sixth of his outstanding career.

Coincidence or not, Montana won every Big Sky title between 2000 and 2009 while Weber has won or shared the last five, including the 2021 abbreviated spring season. Each program featured All-American returners and special teams minded head coaches; Jay Hill, like Hauck, was a special teams coordinator in the Power 5 — Hauck at Colorado and Washington, Hill at Utah — before becoming a Big Sky head coach.

“ We’ve had multiple games where it seems like a team is making a run back at us and Rashid will take one for a touchdown,” Hill said. “Those are some of the biggest momentum plays in a game.”

Shaheed has scored 17 total touchdowns offensively outside of the return game. He has caught 119 passes for 1,647 yards. But it’s his prowess as a special teams weapon that makes him one of the headliners in the Big Sky and around the FCS.

“He is the most explosive returner in the country, in my opinion, and we have to do a good job of getting him the ball any way we can,” Hill, Weber’s eighth-year head coach, said. “We have to do a good job of getting him in space. And I think we’ve done that a good job of that in the return game in the past. And I know one thing: I wouldn’t want to kick to him if I were an opposing coach.”

During his time as a standout at Mount Carmel High in San Diego, Shaheed was on Hauck’s radar while Hauck was the special teams coordinator on Rocky Long’s staff at SDSU. Hauck himself called Shaheed the best kick returner in the country.

Shaheed burst onto the scene by earning first-team All-American honors on Weber’s 2017 Big Sky title team. That season served as the first of four straight first-place Big Sky finishes for the Wildcats. He repeated as an All-American the following year.

“He’s a touchdown waiting to happen and watching him the same as if I was standing in the stands; that’s one of the most exciting plays to watch,” Weber senior All-Big Sky defensive tackle Jared Scheiss said at the Big Sky Kickoff in July. “Especially when it’s on your team, it’s a game changer. All I know is I’m glad he’s on our team.”

It seems to be the common sentiment for those fortunate enough to have a game breaker on their side.

Photos by Brooks Nuanez and attributed. All Rights Reserved.

About Colter Nuanez

Colter Nuanez is the co-founder and senior writer for Skyline Sports. After spending six years in the newspaper industry with stops at the Missoulian, the Ellensburg Daily Record and the Bozeman Daily Chronicle, the former Washington Newspaper Association Sportswriter of the Year and University of Montana Journalism School graduate ('09) has cultivated a deep passion for sports journalism during his 13-year career covering the Big Sky Conference. In August of 2014, Colter and brother Brooks merged their passions of writing and art to found Skyline Sports.

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