Opportunistic UTSA hosts UTEP, hopes to build on two-game winning streak

The UTSA Roadrunners have registered five takeaways on special teams in their first six games this season, including four by the Yannis Routsas-led punting unit. UTSA coaches and players joke that Routsas could be using “voodoo” to force mistakes by the opponent. UTSA is scheduled to host UTEP Saturday night at the Alamodome.

Jerry Briggs
For InsideRunnerSports.com

After the resurgent UTSA Roadrunners finished off a practice earlier this week, punter Yannis Routsas listened to a reporter’s question and patiently shrugged off a rumor that he might be employing voodoo magic to help the team.

Routsas said he’s heard the speculation before.

“Yes sir, coach keeps saying that, too,” said Routsas, a sophomore from Houston Clear Brook.

How else do you explain that UTSA opponents have mishandled nearly 20 percent of Routsas’ punts this year?

Is it because of some sort of spell cast on unsuspecting return men?

“I’ll just keep doing what I’m doing and hopefully (our opponents) will keep turning it over,” said Routsas, who didn’t completely deny the speculation.

Even for those who don’t believe in magic, it’s hard to dispute the facts.

Routsas, using both a traditional and rugby style, has punted 38 times in six games.

UTSA’s opponents have been charged with fumbles on seven of them -- or, 18.4 percent of Routsas’ offerings.

Of those seven miscues, UTSA has recovered four, leading to possessions that produced three touchdowns and a field goal.

With the school’s homecoming game against the UTEP Miners looming on Saturday night at the Alamodome, UTSA sophomore JaColbie Butler applauded the punt coverage unit as a whole and admitted that he has become one of Routsas’ biggest fans.

“Most definitely, it’s a great job by Yannis,” Butler said.  “He does a good job placing the ball, giving us (in coverage) an opportunity.”

Butler made the most of his chance last week in a 14-13 victory at Rice.

He jumped on a loose ball at the end of a chaotic sequence in the second quarter that set up Dalton Sturm’s 28-yard touchdown pass to Josh Stewart.

It was a score that ended up being the game-deciding offensive play for the Roadrunners (3-3, 2-1), one of the surprise co-leaders in the Conference USA West division.

“(Routsas) has got a heck of a foot,” Butler said.  “The rest of the punt coverage team, they all do a great job of getting downfield and creating turnovers.”

Likely, the Miners (1-5, 0-3) and others in the conference have taken notice of the Roadrunners’ special teams success.

It all started on the first play of the season when UTSA’s Daniel Portillo kicked off, and freshman Eric Banks supplied a jarring hit on the return, forcing a fumble.

Redshirt freshman Andrew Martel emerged with the recovery at the Alabama State 6-yard line in front of a roaring student section.  

Riding the emotion, UTSA scored three plays later on a touchdown pass from Sturm to Marquez McNair.

First-year head coach Frank Wilson noted that “we’re five for five,” including four scores on punt coverage, in converting takeaway opportunities by special teams this season.

“How about the special teams, every week, just finding a way to turn it over?” Wilson said.

UTSA senior running back Jarveon Williams called special teams “the heartbeat” of a program that has won two straight games after a 1-3 start.

“You hear coach talk about that all the time,” Williams said.  “We take special teams very seriously. It’s probably the most important factor in our team. You have guys from offense and defense contributing on one unit.  So we take a lot of pride in (it), and it shows on Saturdays.”

A Routsas-led punting team has enjoyed uncanny success.

Last year, Routsas said he thinks UTSA recovered only one fumble at the end of one of his 63 punts.

This year, UTSA has recovered four over the past four games, including two against Arizona State (by Matt Bayliss and Aneas Henricks), one against Southern Miss (by Martel) and another against Rice (by Butler).

In addition, the Roadrunners had a chance at three other takeaways on punt coverage but didn’t get a possession following two fumbles at Colorado State and another at Old Dominion.

UTSA’s Marcos Curry is credited with forcing a fumble by Colorado State punt return man Roberto Ruiz in the fourth quarter on Sept. 10, a ball that was ultimately recovered by CSU’s Izzy Matthews.

But the other six balls that hit the ground, basically, were muffed or mishandled catches.

“I think the rugby (punting style) is definitely helping with all that,” Routsas said.  “It’s a hard ball to catch.  My coach says (in jest) it’s something I’m putting on the ball, I guess.  I’m just going to continue to keep doing the same thing.

“If we get a turnover every game, that would be awesome.”

Clearly, the aggression of the punt coverage unit has been a factor.

Last week, for instance, Routsas’ second-quarter punt descended and glanced off a Rice player running back in haste to protect for the return man.

The player collided with the return man, and Butler, in the confusion, jumped on the loose ball.

“It was just like a reaction,” said Butler, a sophomore from Pearland. “I just saw the ball on the ground.  It was kind of like … everybody is just looking at the ball.  I’m still running.  There’s a ball on the ground.  I’m going to go get it.  I just hopped on it, and it turned out to be a fumble recovery.

“Thank the Lord above, that it was.”

One of Butler’s favorite moments this fall came against Arizona State, when Sun Devils star Kalen Ballage muffed a Routsas punt that had bounced.  Bayliss, UTSA’s deep snapper, hustled all the way down field to get the recovery.

“He’s the long snapper,” Butler said, chuckling.  “He’s just hungry to make a play, hungry to get the ball back.  Special teams, it’s an important part of football.  It’s the third phase of football.  It’s just as important as offense and defense.”

First-year UTSA special teams coach Ricky Brumfield, who worked last season at Western Kentucky, is credited with fostering the attacking style of play.

“Coach Brumfield gets on (our) behinds for not getting down the field,” Butler said.  “Every day at practice we work hard at pursuing and going after the ball.

“We’re doing the extra things and making sure, when they drop the ball, (we) get on it, and then (we) go celebrate with (our) teammates.”

Routsas has been working hard on the rugby-style punt, where he rolls to the side and boots a ball that travels end over end instead of in a spiral.

Still, Butler joked that Routsas, averaging a solid 40.8 yards per punt, might have other forces working for him.

“Yannis has those voodoo punts,” Butler said.  “I don’t know what he puts on ‘em.  I’ve never seen anything like that.  It’s pretty amazing, honestly.   I just hope we can keep it going.”

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