Kicking game, big plays part of Colorado Mesa’s success
At Colorado Mesa, special teams is not a place to cut your college football teeth.
There’s no going through the motions, no taking a break.
“Coach Evo, you ask him for a break and he kind of looks at you like, ‘What are you talking about?’ ’’ senior Olie Olson said. “He trusts us, he trusts the older guys who are out there. One play on special teams can change the game. It’s happened for us, for other teams. He wants the best guys out there, the ones who care, who have given everything to the program and aren’t going to let anything slip up. It means a lot to be out there.”
The Mavericks take special teams so seriously, head coach Russ Martin devotes two positions on the staff, with co-coordinators Tom Everson and Riley Newcomer. They’re both involved in every aspect of the third phase of the game, but Everson takes the lead on coverage teams, Newcomer on return teams.
“We don’t cut corners when it comes to special teams,” Newcomer said. “A lot of other places it gets left behind a little bit when it comes to allocating time for meetings and practices, but with Coach Martin, he’s always been a big special-teams advocate, because it can win or lose you games. You only get a certain amount of plays, but they’re the most game-changing plays.”
Defensive coordinator Ben Martin will give players a breather on defense before special teams.
“Our coaches always stress to us that special teams is one-third of the game, it’s not a play you take off,” said Colby Dixon, a senior defensive back who also plays special teams. “Our defensive coordinator tells us if you guys want a break, I’ll give you a break on defense, don’t take a break on special teams. We can make big plays on special teams that will change the course of the game.”
Everson chuckled at the notion that everyone on CMU’s team wants to be on special teams, but he and Newcomer know they have the pick of the litter when it comes to who plays on those units.
“The whole thing about all the special teams units is the personnel. Obviously you want speed, but there’s a lot more to do with it than just speed. We’ve had our problems with some speed guys, they can’t react. You’ve got to have some discipline to themselves as well.
“We’re always looking for somebody to step in. There’s different spots, different people, different formats. It’s been kind of fun this year, we’ve had a lot of … changes,” Everson said, laughing at the constantly changing lineups because of injuries.
This tells you how seriously Martin and the Mavericks take the third phase: Eystin Salum, CMU’s backup quarterback who started a couple of games before he was injured, played on kick coverage even when he was getting the majority of reps at quarterback.
“Most of the time they’re not going to let you,” Everson said. “That particular guy is an exception. He’s exceptional and very skilled as a cover guy. I’d like to have him all the time; he makes it a lot easier.”
Playing on special teams is a badge of honor to the Mavs.
“You could say that’s won us a few games this year,” said Dustin Rivas, who’s probably the best-known special teams guy for CMU, simply for his knack of making those big plays that change the course of the game. “We all want to be on special teams. We feel you can make big plays there.”
In the past two years, CMU is 8-2 in games in which the Mavericks have blocked a kick. Martin said the players expect to block kicks, and Everson said that’s not just at critical times, it’s on every punt, point-after attempt and field goal.
Dixon had the most spectacular block of 2015, one-hopping over the line of scrimmage, then jumping again to block a field goal attempt against Western New Mexico. It wasn’t by chance.
“It’s something that we watch for on film to see if the center is kind of slow and stays down on his snap, or if the (holder) has a certain tendency, if he flicks his hand up when the snap’s coming and you can get those timed,” Dixon said.
He wasn’t in the original plan as the designated jumper, though.
“They actually picked someone else to jump the line last year and I went up to the coaches and said,‘Hey, I can jump, too, you know. I’m already in that spot.’ I remember we were in the weight room and I stacked some boxes up high and said, ‘Watch this,’ and I jumped up, so he gave me the chance and it all worked out.”
This season it’s worked out like never before. With a half-dozen blocks, the Mavericks have won two games as a direct result of a block and secured another victory. Not even Everson, who’s been coaching more than 35 years, has seen anything like it.
It started the third week of the season. In the second overtime against Colorado School of Mines, then ranked No. 10 in the nation, Sean Rubalcaba threw a 19-yard touchdown pass to Virnel Moon, and Ryan Sheehan kicked the extra point to go up 41-34.
The routine PAT kick was not so routine after Mines quarterback Justin Dvorak ran for a 13-yard touchdown, cutting Mesa’s lead to one point. Scott Marshall lined up for the kick, but Dustin Rivas came off the edge, laid out and smothered the kick, which won the game 41-40.
The next week, Rivas blocked and recovered a field goal attempt against Fort Lewis in Mesa’s 34-28 victory. Brad Gillis blocked and recovered a punt against Dixie State, leading to a field goal and a 17-0 CMU lead, although the Mavs lost 38-31.
Those might be plenty for any team, but the Mavericks were just getting warmed up.
Two weeks ago, with the Mavericks trying to clinch the RMAC championship, South Dakota Mines had tied the game 38-38 in the fourth quarter. The Hardrockers had driven to the CMU 4 and elected to kick a 21-yard field goal.
Rivas and his special teams buddies, though, had different ideas.
The linemen got a great push and Rivas found a seam off the right edge. He timed his leap perfectly, the ball hit him in the chest and bounced toward Antonio Clark. He snatched up the ball and raced for a 70-yard touchdown with 3:30 to play for a 45-38 lead. Mesa added a field goal, won the game and the RMAC title.
“They’re football players, they get on the field and react and have a great sense for the game and what’s going on and what we need,” Newcomer said of Rivas and Nelson, “but you need all 11 guys doing their job and allowing them the opportunity to do what they do.”
Nelson blocked a field goal last week against Azusa Pacific, setting up a 70-yard touchdown run by David Tann on the first play of the ensuing possession.
Down 26-24 in the fourth quarter, Azusa lined up for the go-ahead field goal. Again, Rivas was in the right spot at the right time, blocked the kick, and there was Clark again, scoring on an 80-yard sprint to secure the win and a spot in the Division II playoffs.
“All the credit should definitely go to the linemen up front, Blake, (Austin) Beswick, Chance (Drake),” Rivas said. “The push they have makes (teams) focus on the interior and it opens up lanes on the outside.”
The guys up front fire off the ball, clawing to get through. Because the Mavericks come off the ball so hard, some edge blockers try to help hold off the penetration up the middle.
That’s when Rivas and Nelson come in off the edge as the second layer of Mavericks leap, hands thrown up, to try to deflect the ball. Or, in the case of Dixon, you just jump over everybody.
“I appreciate that,” Rivas said of the time the Mavericks spend on special teams. “That’s showing the game respect in knowing every play is important. I don’t think it’s coincidence why we have more blocks than other teams.”