POCATELLO — David Fiefia knows that if it wasn’t for a couple special teams mistakes, Idaho State’s 2018 season might have looked a lot different.
The Bengals missed a 27-yard, end-of-regulation field goal attempt that would have given them the win in an eventual overtime loss to UC Davis, and gave up a 79-yard kickoff return touchdown to Weber State’s Rashid Shaheed that short-circuited a comeback attempt in a 26-13 loss to the Wildcats.
“I think if we eliminate those two, I think those games are a lot closer or we win them,” said Fiefia, ISU’s special teams coordinator and running backs coach. “So I think those are the things that stick out to continue to improve on and motivate these guys to help continue to win. ... It’s been an emphasis on trying to get our special teams play to improve. Because I think we can continue to climb in the Big Sky rankings throughout the season just by simply improving on special teams in general.”
The Bengals were near the bottom of the Big Sky Conference in just about every special teams metric last year — ninth in kickoff returns, punt returns and field-goal percentage, 11th in kickoff coverage, 12th in punting. That, plus the crucial mishaps that possibly cost them games, have given those units all the incentive they need to improve.
“It makes us work hard, it really does,” returning punter Kevin Ryan, a sophomore, said. “As we see it, the offense and defense did so great last year that I’m convinced that if the special teams does just as well as the offense and defense did, that we’ll have no problem doing well (as a team) this season.”
Fiefia also pushes the idea of taking pride in contributing on special teams.
“He delivered a speech last night in our special teams meeting that I wish the whole team would have heard, talking about the importance of your role and the attitude and all that stuff,” head coach Rob Phenicie said. “He’s our emotional leader. We wouldn’t be able to do this without the level of effort and attention to detail that he’s given.”
That starts with the kicking game. Campbell Sheidow, who missed that field goal against UC Davis and finished the season 12 for 18 on field goals, is no longer on the roster, leaving Ryan to battle it out with redshirt freshman David Allish.
The two have differing styles, making the daily field goal portion of practice a study in contrasts.
Ryan, a lefty, kicks low line drives. Allish, a right-footed kicker, has a more traditional arc on his kicks.
Both have struggled at times, including a bad session at practice Monday, but Phenicie said both have improved since then.
“It’s such a timing thing and just such a rhythm thing with field goal,” Phenicie said. “They’ll be competing throughout the fall. It’s one of those things, whoever’s going to make it if we need three (points). If someone goes into the tank a little bit, we’ll try the other one, but hopefully that doesn’t happen.”
The field goal team is also breaking in a new long snapper, freshman Zach Wallace, which has contributed to some of the issues.
“He’s done a really good job,” Fiefia said. “You can still tell, he just came from high school, so (we’re) trying to put some pressure on him in situations where he has to be able to get the ball back to the holders and to the punters. We try to create those situations during practice and through special teams periods to make sure that he can understand the type of pressure that he’s going to feel on game day.”
As for the punt team, Ryan looks solidly entrenched as the starter, although Allish can step in for emergency situations.
Ryan has been booming balls downfield consistently throughout the fall.
“It’s really just a process,” Ryan said. “If you punt one bad ball, you’ve got to go back and you’ve got to think through your head, ‘What was wrong there that wasn’t wrong on the last one?’ And so, to nail down consistency, it’s really just your form. You have to have perfect form, and when it’s not there, you’re not going to hit that great ball.”
Like everywhere else on this ISU team, there’s a lot of experience coming back on the kickoff and punt groups.
Fiefia said he was excited about that, but to expect to see some new blood on coverage and return teams as well.
“I tell every incoming guy, whether you’re a JC transfer, incoming freshman, that the best way to get on the field and the best way to make a direct impact on the team is on special teams,” Fiefia said. “We can have a true freshman come in that just played high school ball last year, come in and be able to run down on a kickoff because they have the speed and agility to be able to make a guy miss, and then pull the trigger and make a tackle.”
It’s an often hidden part of the game, but after last year, everybody on the roster knows how important special teams are.
“We spend a lot of time meeting, practicing, we devote close to a half hour a day, if not more, to special teams,” Phenicie said. “All the coaches know they have a role to play and help assist with it. It’s a really good situation that we have.”
- Phenicie said the Bengals got most of their short-yardage and goal-line packages installed Wednesday, adding that it was a “crisper, cleaner” session than the one ISU had on Tuesday. He didn’t say much about quarterbacks Gunnar Amos and Matt Struck, offering only that he felt they had improved on Wednesday.
- A couple of freshman running backs have been impressive with Nehemiah McFarlin still out injured.
“Malakai Rango and Raiden Hunter, those two ... have really caught our attention and they’re getting a lot of reps,” Phenicie said. “They’re taking all the second string reps. So, (we’re) really pleased with how they both are performing right now.”
- Phenicie also had thoughts on the new, snarling Bengal head logo that Idaho State is debuting this fall.
”I love it,” Phenicie said. “(University president Kevin Satterlee), back during the spring semester, or maybe during the summer, I don’t know, he and I had a little visit, and he brought me the whole thing and showed me the new branding. I thought it was cool from then, I love it. Does that make us any better winning games? Probably not, but it looks cool.”