Column: Aztecs in need of improvement on special teams

Junior+running+back+Jordan+Byrd+celebrates+after+scoring+a+rushing+touchdown+during+the+Aztecs%E2%80%99+34-10+win+over+the+Rainbow+Warriors+at+Dignity+Health+Sports+Park+in+Carson%2C+Calif.+on+Nov.+14.

Courtesy of Derrick Tuskan, SDSU Athletics

Junior running back Jordan Byrd celebrates after scoring a rushing touchdown during the Aztecs’ 34-10 win over the Rainbow Warriors at Dignity Health Sports Park in Carson, Calif. on Nov. 14.

by Amber Salas, Senior Staff Writer

As San Diego State football made preparations to begin the 2020 season back in October, Head Coach Brady Hoke said special teams would be one of the Aztecs’ biggest concerns. 

Entering the season opener against UNLV, Hoke hoped the Aztecs’ attention and focus towards special teams would be enough to see their success on the field. 

“Always in the first game, you see a lot of games won and lost by poor performance in special teams,” Hoke said. “We obviously have targeted that. Giving up big plays defensively, you can’t do that, we can’t have the ball going over our head.” 

At the rate this season is going, Hoke is right.

The mistakes made by special teams have put the Aztecs in the position to lose games. SDSU’s loss to San José State was evidence of that.

The special teams have been the biggest struggle for the Aztecs this season. They’ve done very little to provide the Aztecs success; in fact, they’ve often hurt the team in games. 

The Aztecs have their strong defense to thank for the number of times the ball has been turned over due to muffed punts. 

In the Aztecs’ season opener against UNLV, junior running back Jordan Byrd was the Aztecs’ punt returner. 

Things seemed to be going well as the Aztecs had momentum after junior linebacker Caden McDonald and sophomore defensive lineman Cameron Thomas combined for a sack to force a UNLV three-and-out. On the following play, Byrd muffed the ensuing punt and UNLV was able to recover the ball.

This marked the beginning of the punt return issues that have seemed to haunt the Aztecs this season. 

In the Aztecs’ matchup against San José State, the Aztecs were down 21-17 with 3:47 left in the fourth quarter. The ensuing drive needed to be a positive one for the Aztecs in which a touchdown could give them the lead. Instead, Byrd muffed a punt resulting in a fumble that the Spartans recovered. 

“Jordan obviously got a little anxious and I think he was trying to make a play, to be honest with you,” Hoke said. “From that standpoint, we like the aggression that he has, but we just got to have better follow-through at the end.” 

San José State went on to score the game-sealing touchdown and handed the Aztecs their only loss of the season thus far, 28-17. 

The game marked the second showing of special teams issues. After the game, Hoke decided it was time to make some changes and said sophomore wide receiver Jesse Matthews would most likely be the punt returner in the upcoming game against Hawaii. 

“I think it will be Jesse,” Hoke said. “As we go through the week, (assistant coach Hunkie Cooper) does a great job with those guys fielding punts and we’ll see who has a good week.”

Matthews felt he was prepared for this position. He said his experience returning punts last season helped him feel confident for his debut this season.  

“I don’t really see it as a challenge because I did it for most of the season last year, so I’m pretty comfortable back there and I just want to be the one to do the job, get the job done,” Matthews said. “I’m glad they have their trust in me to be back there and I’m just going to try to field every punt cleanly and just do the best I can.”

Matthews returned punts in the Aztecs’ Nov. 14 game against Hawaii. During the first half, things seemed to be going well. 

To start off the second half, Matthews dropped a punt in which Hawaii’s sophomore linebacker Isaiah Tufaga recovered. This could have given Hawaii their first touchdown of the day as they were placed at the SDSU 38-yard line, but the Aztecs were bailed out by a missed field goal.

In total, Matthews had two muffed punts and bobbled one in which he ultimately secured. 

“We’ve got to do better,” Hoke said of the punt return struggles. “It all starts with coaching, and we’re coaching the heck out of them and we’re going to give them all of the opportunities. But if you knew Jesse Matthews and you knew Jordan Byrd, you talk about two great teammates who care about this program and care about this team. I can promise you we won’t have a whole lot of that going on.” 

Although the muffed punts are concerning, Matthews still showed he can be successful as a punt returner. He found some daylight on a couple of returns during the first quarter against Hawaii, returning two punts for 16 and 29 yards, respectively.

The fact Matthews had some successful returns isn’t enough to make up for the concern over the muffed punts. The Aztecs are now at the midway point of the regular season and are in dire need of winning out in order to be in the running for a trip to the Mountain West Conference championship game. 

The Aztecs face an undefeated Nevada team on the road this Saturday. If the Aztecs want to win this game, there is no room for error on mistakes that special teams may cause. 

Going forward, Hoke said it’s the attention to detail and fundamentals that Matthews and Byrd will need to focus on. 

“As many punts as they’ve caught over their years of being here at San Diego State, they’ve just got to do a little better,” Hoke said. “Get your elbows in a little bit more, don’t catch it up on your pads.”  

Hoke said there are no questions to be asked when it comes to perfecting special teams moving forward.  

“There’s no question,” Hoke said. “These guys do a tremendous job during the week. We’ve got some other guys who get involved with our punt return. Those two guys have been pretty consistent. I’m hoping that it’s a two-time thing.”

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