Mountain West Football: Post-Spring Practice Specialist Rankings
A pair of record-setters and more have now moved on, so which Mountain West teams have the conference’s best punters and kickers this spring?
Who looks like they could be truly special this fall?
12. San Jose State
Projected frontrunners: Taren Schive (K), Travis Benham (P)
Will Hart established a baseline of punting performance that the Spartans hadn’t seen since Michael Carrizosa left town and Matthew Mercurio established himself a reliable kicker with an 82% field goal rate over three seasons, but both of those guys are gone now to the pros and transfer portal, respectively. San Jose State is starting over, then, so will there be a drop-off?
Schive handled kickoffs for the Spartans last year and managed a solid 51.9% touchback rate, suggesting a strong leg that should be just fine among the conference’s new crop of specialists. Benham, meanwhile, improved his yards per punt across two years at the juco level but averaged only 37.4 YPP in his last extended action at City College of San Francisco in 2019.
11. New Mexico
Projected starters/frontrunners: George Steinkamp (K), Aaron Rodriguez (P)
Rodriguez was a busy man in his first full year as the Lobos punter, launching more punts than anyone else in the country, and he fit in just fine among first-year Mountain West specialists with a 42.8 YPP average.
Steinkamp, on the other hand, is the only Lobos kicker with prior game experience… though his first stint as the starter in 2020 didn’t go exactly as planned (6-of-11 on field goals). He held down kickoffs for UNM last season, however, and booted touchbacks 63.2% of the time, the third-best figure in the conference, so the leg strength is there if he can hold off newcomers Zach Benedict and Luke Drzewiecki.
10. Fresno State
Projected starters: Abraham Montano (K), Carson King (P)
Montano’s initial audition as the Bulldogs kicker could hardly have come in more intense circumstances, replacing an injured Cesar Silva on the road against a ranked Oregon team, but he was perfect that day and for the rest of the year (5-of-5 field goals, 14-of-14 extra points) and figures to be the frontrunner to handle Silva’s job for good now that he’s moved on.
King, like Utah State’s Stephen Kotsanlee, improved his yards per punt average from 2020 to 2021 (albeit not as drastically), but it’d be a surprise if he was pushed for the starting role. Fresno State’s specialists may not have a lot of flash, but it’s likely they’ll get the job done next fall.
9. San Diego State
Projected frontrunners: Jack Browning, Collyn Hopkins
Matt Araiza has ascended to new heights, so the job of replacing him should fall to Browning and Hopkins. No one should be expecting record-setting production from either specialist, but the longer track record of Aztec excellence on special teams means that the bar will still be relatively high.
Projected frontrunners: Daniel Gutierrez (K), Ryan O’Hara (P)
Daniel Gutierrez quietly established himself as one of the best kickers in Rebels history over the past few years, so having him back is big for an offense still growing into its potential. O’Hara, meanwhile, stepped up and impressed down the stretch in handling kickoffs (50% in two games), so the leg is probably good enough to play. Evan Silva and Charlton Butt are also still around and could contribute should O’Hara falter.
Projected starters/frontrunners: Brandon Talton (K), Matt Freem (P)
The Wolf Pack’s placement here is mostly splitting the difference between possessing one of the conference’s most reliable kickers (Talton) and an unproven entity at punter (Freem). Technically, Nevada has three placekickers on the current roster but Freem is the only one who’s seen the field as a punter in the past, doing so in two games back in 2020.
Projected depth: Matthew Shipley (K/P)
Shipley got a fraction of the attention that Matt Araiza did at San Diego State, but he was also a decent one-man show for the Warriors in 2021. There are still things on which he can improve, though: While his 85.7% field goal percentage ranked third in the Mountain West, Shipley’s 41.5 yards per punt average was next-to-last.
There’s still a chance he may not have to pull double duty again, though. Adam Stack put his name into the transfer portal back in December but is still listed on the team’s spring roster; he averaged 43.4 YPP in 2020. Shipley may not have to worry about handling kickoffs against, either, as Kyler Halvorsen did that job a year ago.
5. Air Force
Projected starters: Matthew Dapore (K), Carson Bay (P)
The Falcons’ specialists are young but the early returns have been very promising. Dapore was perfect on extra point opportunities and 8-of-10 on field goals while Bay supplanted Charlie Bein as Air Force’s punter and put up the team’s best per-punt average since 2018 (among those with at least 15 punts). Perhaps more so than any other team in the Mountain West, the potential here is big.
4. Colorado State
Projected starters: Cayden Camper (K), Paddy Turner (P)
Camper became the nation’s busiest kicker in 2021, leading FBS with 32 field goal tries and managing a healthy 78.1% success rate in the process, so the Rams are likely set on that front.
Great expectations are certain to be thrust upon Turner, however, since he’ll have to replace the best punter in college football history, Ryan Stonehouse. He followed Jay Norvell from Nevada to Fort Collins, so the familiarity is there and, at least according to the current roster, there are no plans to bring in competition.
3. Boise State
Projected starters/frontrunners: Jonah Dalmas (K),James Ferguson-Reynolds (P)
Dalmas emerged as a pleasant surprise in an often-frustrating year for the Broncos, putting up perhaps the best season ever by a Boise State kicker to entrench himself at the position. It isn’t inconceivable that he could be the one to replace Joel Velazquez, too, though his brief punting stint in 2020 (35.8 YPP vs. Colorado State that year) wasn’t all that great.
Thankfully, Dalmas isn’t the only one with experience on the roster. Ferguson-Reynolds is an intriguing Austrailian import who will have to compete with Gavin Wale, who saw action against BYU in 2020 and was merely okay (39.4 YPP), and redshirt freshman Will Farrin.
2. Utah State
Projected starters/frontrunners: Connor Coles (K), Stephen Kotsanlee (P)
Connor Coles had a productive 2021 and was rock solid on field goal tries from with 40 yards (14-of-16), so his return for one more year gives the Aggies a substantial leg up — no pun intended — on the competition in this conference.
Utah State also has no concerns in the punting game, either, where Kotsanlee improved by nearly two full yards per punt from his freshman to his sophomore campaign. For a team facing a great deal of competition, another step forward in year three could make more of a difference in the long run than you’d suspect.
Projected starters/frontrunners: John Hoyland (K), Ralph Fawaz (P)
Steady wins the race (slow doesn’t really apply here) most of the time, so the Cowboys’ unassuming duo gets the nod here. Fawaz, for instance, quietly had one of the best seasons by a Mountain West freshman punter not named Ryan Stonehouse in recent memory, at least putting himself in reasonably company with former Cowboys Ethan Wood and Tim Gleeson.
Hoyland wasn’t quite as sharp in his sophomore campaign as he was in his freshman year, but he still owns a 82.1% field goal success rate that would put him in the conference’s all-time top five if he qualified.