BOZEMAN — Jeff Choate is the master of one-liners but one of the sayings he most consistently uses is “You get what you emphasize.”
Perhaps one of the most shining examples affirming Choate’s notion will be on display in Weber State’s special teams units when Choate’s Montana State Bobcats take on the Wildcats in Ogden, Utah on Saturday.
“I’ve talked to a lot of kicker around the country about what they do for special teams and it sounds nothing near like what we do for special teams,” Weber State sophomore All-American kicker Trey Tuttle said on Thursday. “Our meetings are really intense.
“We always put a bunch of starters on special teams instead of a bunch of freshmen. We have our top corners as the gunners on special teams, a bunch of veteran guys. But it all comes down to the coaches, Coach (Jay) Hill and Coach (Colton) Swann, the credit goes to them.”
Now in his fifth year as Weber’s head coach, Jay Hill first carved out his reputation in the coaching ranks as a special teams guru and ace recruiter on Kyle Whittingham’s staff at Utah from 2005 until 2013.
Colton Swan is only 38 years old but is in his 14th year coaching at Weber State, making him the longest-tenured Wildcat. He’s served as WSU’s special teams coordinator since 2014, Hill’s first season at the helm.
The Wildcats enter Saturday’s showdown with an identical 4-2 record to the Bobcats despite an offense that has scored just 12 touchdowns on its own. Tuttle has scored 44 of Weber’s 144 points, while All-American kick returner Rashid Shaheed has a 100-yard kick return for a touchdown in WSU’s 48-21 win over Northern Colorado and Josh Davis took a punt 75 yards for a score in last week’s 14-6 win over Eastern Washington.
“Their team speed really stands out and where that has the biggest impact is on special teams,” Choate said. “They make a lot of big plays in the kicking game.
“They score or set up a lot of scores on both defense and special teams and it becomes a big extension of their offense, honestly. They don’t have to take a lot of chances on offense because they know they don’t need a lot of points.”
Under Swan’s direction, the Wildcats lead the Big Sky Conference in kickoff coverage in 2015 and Eric Wilkes earned second-team All-Big Sky honors as a returner.
Last season, Weber shared the league title thanks in large part to stellar special teams play. Tuttle banged 19 field goals as a true freshman to earn first-team All-Big Sky and second-team All-American honors. Shaheed was one of five players in the country who returned two kicks for touchdowns to also earn an All-American nod.
“I can’t say enough about what Coach Swan does with our special teams,” Hill said. “He has weapons, no doubt, to use. But he’s done a phenomenal job putting them in a position to be successful. And the players have bought in to what we believe in.
“And those two players, Trey and Rashid, are huge pieces of our team.”
Weber State led the Big Sky in kickoff returns and was second in punt return average. Shaheed, Brady May and Xequille Harry all earned All-American honors on special teams.
“Special teams starts with our special teams coordinator Coach Swan,” said Shaheed, a sophomore who is averaging 43.4 yards per return this season. “He does a great job of getting us prepared every week. We take a lot of pride in our special teams and we know a lot of big plays can happen, a momentum shifter so we take a lot of pride in it.”
On paper, MSU and WSU each bring physical, hard-hitting defenses to Stewart Stadium on Saturday, although the Wildcats’ unit is quickly earning a reputation as one of the nation’s elite. Both teams bring offenses searching for consistency with a pair of explosive playmakers in MSU quarterback Troy Andersen and Weber State running back Josh Davis.
Like a season ago in Bozeman, the game could come down to who can maximize or limit special teams opportunities. Tuttle drilled four field goals in Weber State’s 25-17 win over Montana State at Bobcat Stadium last season.
This season, Tuttle is 10-of-15, including 7-of-7 from inside 40 yards. He has a long of 52 but has had two of his attempts blocked. He nailed field goals of 43, 18, 39 and 28 yards in Weber’s 27-10 win over No. 24 South Dakota earlier this season.
“It’s not pressure at all, it just gets me excited,” Tuttle said. “When we get to the 30 or 25, I’m ready to go. I’m always ready to do what I can for the team and putting up three points always helps out.”
Montana State’s Tristan Bailey has been equally as productive and even more accurate. The transfer from Coffeyville Junior College who spent his first year at Wyoming has made nine of his 10 attempts this season, his lone miss a 42-yarder in a 34-17 loss to Eastern Washington in September.
“He’s been super steady,” MSU offensive coordinator Brian Armstrong said. “We always talk about once we get to the 25, we have points so be smart with the football. Last year, that wasn’t always the case. Knock on wood, this year that’s been the case. Hopefully that will continue and we give him some new opportunities on Saturday.”
Bailey drilled a 50-yard field goal to tie the game with 8:26 to go, then hit a 35-yarder to give Montana State the lead for good four minutes later in a 26-23 win over Western Illinois to being the season.
In last week’s 24-23 victory over Idaho, the Bobcats forced UI quarterback Mason Petrino to throw a fourth quarter interception. The MSU offense went 3-and-out for the sixth time in the game and ate up less than 90 seconds of game time. But the Bobcats had possession at the Vandal 25, right in Bailey’s sweet spot. He drilled a 42-yard field goal to give MSU a 24-17 lead with 7:26 left.
“It’s night and day in terms of my level of confidence in him, and our team’s,” Choate said. “Tristan has earned that. He’s been consistent for us and has been a guy we can count on.”
If the kickers duel to a draw, the special teams X-factor could be Shaheed. The San Diego native came to WSU recruited as an athlete and made an impact right away. He caught a 55-yard touchdown in Weber’s near upset of Cal, caught a 67-yard touchdown in WSU’s win over UC Davis and took kickoffs to the house against Southern Utah and Portland State. In the PSU win, he caught a 60-yard touchdown and had a 100-yard kick return, averaging nearly 60 yards per touch on just three touches.
“I’ve always enjoyed kick returning and it’s always been something I’m pretty good at,” Shaheed said. “But all my success comes from the 10 guys blocking. All I have to do is read the holes and get through it.”
Shaheed fits the mold of an electric returner that has seen his opportunities wane because of his production. He did not return a kick against South Dakota. The following week, his 100-yard rip opened the second half and broke a 21-21 halftime tie. He had an 80-yard return that set up a 32-yard Tuttle field goal in WSU’s lone league loss, a 28-24 defeat at Northern Arizona two weeks ago.
He did not get a chance to return a kick last week because WSU’s defense held EWU without a touchdown for the first time since 2008. Montana State will need to be wary of No. 22 on Saturday in Ogden.
“I’m just glad he’s on my team,” Tuttle said with a laugh. “I would not want to be the kicker kicking the ball toward him. I would probably kick it out of bounds.
“This weekend for sure, we are definitely glad he’s on our side.”
Photos by Brooks Nuanez and courtesy of WSU athletics. All Rights Reserved.