Something Special in Storrs

STORRS – More often than not, special teams seem to be an unappreciated part of football with the focus being on offense and defense. But for Connecticut this season, the special teams have carved out an important role and have played a big part in a 2-1 start.

"If you ever have a good team and you start looking at it and you start really evaluating it and going under the microscope and seeing what really makes them a good team, you'll find great production on special teams" said Nick Williams, who is the punt and kickoff returner for UConn, as well as a wide receiver in the slot position.

"It's kind of the hidden statistic that maybe the media or fans don't really get to see as much, but if you've got guys that are kicking over 80 percent on field goals and a punter that's averaging over 40-yards a game and if you're averaging over 10-yards a punt return, that's going to affect the outcome."

UConn's special teams unit has three players ranking nationally in the top 50 in their respective positions. Kicker Chad Christen is perfect on extra point attempts this season, is kicking 80 percent on field goals attempts and ranks 28th in the nation with 1.33 field goals per game. Punter Cole Wagner ranks 44th in the nation averaging 42 yards per punt. And Williams, who recorded his first career punt return for a touchdown Saturday against Maryland, currently ranks eighth in punt returns with 21.17 average yards per return and 28th in kickoff returns with 26.6 average yards per return.

"Any time the ball is in his hands he could take it all the way," said Wagner about Williams. "It's scary. I know, me as a punter, the opposing punters have to be thinking about that all the time."

Williams returned a 58-yard punt for a touchdown in the first quarter of last week's game against Maryland.

Nick Williams is UConn's big return threat (US PRESSWIRE)

"Any time you make a play like that on special teams, whether it's a blocked punt, a big-time change of field position or a touchdown, it really swings momentum," Williams said. "It's kind of an unexpected play, so when it happens everyone is kind of amped up." The touchdown helped spark UConn to a 24-21 victory over the Terps. Williams got good blocking on the play and used his shiftiness behind a good wall. After the game in College Park, Md., he wasn't exactly sure who made the big block that busted the play open. Dwayne Gratz and others told Williams they did their part.

"I've been told by a few guys in the locker room that they made their block on that play," he said. "I'm sure a few guys had it blocked up real nice.

Williams was named Special Teams Player of the Week by the Big East and the ECAC.

"I think it's the first time I've been named Special Teams Player of the Week, so it's nice to get some recognition for a lot of hard work," said Williams.

Even though UConn ranks 11th and 30th nationally in punt returns and kickoff returns, the Huskies are still striving to improve.

"The thing that I was disappointed in last week was our coverage units," coach Paul Pasqualoni said. "Our coverage units did not meet the standard last week. [Maryland] had a terrific returner in Stefon Diggs."

Diggs had 223 all-purpose yards, 68 on punt returns and 98 on kickoff returns. He also caught three passes for 57 yards and a touchdown, a 29-yard reception from quarterback Perry Hills that was tipped and cut UConn's lead to 17-14.

Wagner and Williams agree with Pasqualoni's assessment, but think there is much more to do.

"Our protection has been great, snapping has been great, we just have to get guys on the ground now because our net average is what we are really focusing on," Wagner said.

As of this week, UConn ranks 87th in net punting with 34.64 average yards, a number he is looking to improve. Wagner also wants to elevate his punting average into the top 10.

"We could always continue to work on the return game," said Williams. "I can always continue to make better decisions in terms of fielding balls, fair catching balls and we can work on our coverage units."

The Huskies will have a chance to improve their special team rankings as they travel to Western Michigan to take on the Broncos on Saturday. The Broncos are 1-2 following a 28-23 loss against Minnesota.

"Western Michigan is kind of a good revenge game for us because they got us last year," Wagner said, referring to a 38-31 loss to the Broncos at Rentschler Field last season. "[Pasqualoni] always talks about wins early in the season. We let one get away with N.C. State so as long as we can get a win and if I can help the team get a win, it's a good day."

UConnPlaybook.com Managing Editor and Lead Writer Ken Davis contributed to this article.


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