NOTE: This is the first installment of a summer-long series projecting the Top 10 players at each position for the 2014 Big Sky Conference football season.
Special teams are never the focal point ... until they lose a game for you. I went back and counted, and 11 games last season were decided by three points or fewer, including Eastern Washington's 49-46 win at Oregon State on Aug. 31.
EWU's win in Corvallis didn't end with a game-winning field goal or another special teams play (instead, QB Vernon Adams ran one in from 2-yards out with 18 seconds left), but a few did. Southern Utah kicker Colton Cook hit two game-winners last season, and that helped the Thunderbirds make the FCS playoffs for the first time. Here's are 10 to watch in 2014:
TOP 10 SPECIAL TEAMERS
1. SHAWN JOHNSON, KR/PR, SR., MONTANA STATE 2013: 22 KR, 31.0 avg, 100 long, 2 TD; 16 PR, 13.9 avg, 82 long, 1 TD. THE BUZZ FOR 2014: Johnson was the only player in the league to return both a kickoff and a punt for touchdowns last season, and his 31.0-yard average on kickoffs led the Big Sky (by far) and ranked fourth in the FCS. Coach Rob Ash has said that MSU's offense will revolve more around Johnson, but that he'll also still be used fully in the return game. Johnson wasn't healthy from all the hits he took toward the end of the 2013 campaign, but there isn't a better return man in the league. The Cats should stick with him as much as possible.
2. KYLE LOOMIS, P, SR., PORTLAND STATE 2013: 56 punts, 46.5 avg, 67 long, 17 fair catch, 18 inside-20, 18 plus-50. THE BUZZ FOR 2014: Loomis was the best punter in the FCS last season -- according to the Associated Press, Walter Camp, and the AFCA. His 46.5 average ranked No. 1 in the country, and he was picked first-team All-American by all three outlets. Loomis' story is a great one: He was a freshman punter at Oregon State before leaving the Beavers to join the Army in 2007. After serving for four years, Loomis wanted to punt again. And now the 6-foot-2, 230-pounder is doing it as well as anybody in the country at Portland State.
3. ELLIS HENDERSON, KR/PR, JR., MONTANA 2013: 21 KR, 24.0 avg, 98 long, 1 TD; 25 PR, 12.2 avg, 54 long, 0 TD. THE BUZZ FOR 2014: Is there a more clutch player in the Big Sky than Henderson? In one four-game stretch last year Henderson scored a late game-winning touchdown three times. His 98-yard kickoff return for a TD late in the fourth quarter pulled out a win over South Dakota when all seemed lost. Without him, the Grizzlies might not have made the playoffs last year. Henderson's 12.2 punt return average was among the best in the league. Henderson can go the distance whenever he has the ball. That's why he's on special teams.
4. BRADY STUART, K, JR., UC DAVIS 2013: 17-25 FG, 47 long, 24-25 PAT, 75 pts. THE BUZZ FOR 2014: Stuart broke the school record for field goals made in a season (17), and really came on at the end of last year. He drilled 12 field goals in the final five games, including 10 straight. He went 4 for 4 in a late-season victory over North Dakota, and was twice named the league's special teams player of the week. With the departures of Southern Utah's Colton Cook, Idaho State's Brendon Garcia and NAU's Andy Wilder, Stuart looks like the most reliable of all the returning kickers in the Big Sky. That's big for a team looking to take another step forward.
5. CHAD NEWELL, ST, SO., MONTANA STATE 2013: 5 special teams tackles. THE BUZZ FOR 2014: Newell, a running back by trade, was one of the best straight-up special teamers in the league last season, helping the Bobcats rank fourth in kickoff coverage. With Cody Kirk graduated, Newell is likely to get more carries on offense this season, but you can still expect to see him covering kicks and punts, just like Kirk did for much of 2013. Newell was named second-team All-Big Sky as a specialist last year. He, along with backup linebacker Mike Foster and others, have helped the Bobcats' special teams units solidify under coordinator Daniel DaPrato.
6. STEPHEN SHAW, P, JR., MONTANA 2013: 49 punts, 43.9 avg, 64 long, 14 fair catch, 15 inside-20, 12 plus-50. THE BUZZ FOR 2014: In a league that produced four of the nation's top 10 punters last season, Shaw has made his mark. If Shaw's career were already over, he'd own the Montana school record for career punting average at 42.8 yards per boot. Career-wise, Shaw has already boomed 23 punts of 50 or more yards, and has dropped 38 inside the 20. Montana has questions to answer in the grand scheme of its kicking game (it may have cost them a playoff win last year) but the coaches don't need to worry about Shaw. He's as solid as they come.
7. TODD RAYNES, ST, JR., EASTERN WASHINGTON 2013: 7 special teams tackles. THE BUZZ FOR 2014: Eastern Washington kicked the ball off an astounding 103 times last season, 16 more than the the team with the next-highest total in the league (Montana). But the Eagles only had 28 touchbacks, meaning they had to cover 73 percent of those kicks. How many were returned for TDs? Zero. In fact, EWU ranked No. 2 in the Big Sky in kickoff coverage. Raynes had much to do with this, and should again, even though he'll challenge for a starting safety spot this fall. Eastern's special teams don't get the publicity of it's record-setting offense. Maybe it should.
8. A.J. CONEY, KR, SO., WEBER STATE 2013: 22 KR, 24.8 avg, 0 TD. THE BUZZ FOR 2014: Coney is one of the top young defensive backs in the Big Sky, but he's also noted for his kick-return ability, which netted 24.8 yards on 22 runbacks last season. That ranked second only to Shawn Johnson in the league stats. Bo Bolen and Cordero Dixon also had big returns last year, and Bolen is one of the true gamers in the Big Sky -- he returned a kick 100 yards for a TD in 2013 -- but Coney was still the top option. Last season was a disaster at Weber State, but first-year head coach Jay Hill has a few bright spots to point to, Coney being one of them.
9. CHARLES BOYETT, PR, SR., UC DAVIS 2013: 18 PR, 9.7 avg, 44 long, 0 TD. THE BUZZ FOR 2014: Boyett gets much more attention as a solid defensive back -- he led the Aggies with 86 tackles and two forced fumbles in 2013 -- but he's sneaky as a punt returner. The speedy Boyett had a career-long 44-yard return against North Dakota last year, which helped spur a 34-18 victory. Boyett finished last season as an honorable mention All-Big Sky selection as a return specialist. Effective punt-returning is a premium in the Big Sky, and Boyett, who ranked at the top of the league a year ago, gives UC Davis a weapon that many teams crave.
10. RYAN HAWKINS, K, JR., NORTHERN ARIZONA 2013: 1-3 FG, 32 long, 8-9 PAT, 11 pts. THE BUZZ FOR 2014: Andy Wilder was one of the top kickers in the Big Sky for a number of years, so Hawkins is stepping into some big shoes in Flagstaff. He got a little bit of field goal experience last year -- albeit not much -- and was the Lumberjacks' primary kickoff man in 2012 (he had 34 touchbacks that year). So it's not like he's coming in cold. But NAU has always been one of the top special teams outfits in the league, so a smooth transition in the kicking game would serve them well ... especially after an nine-win season in which they made the playoffs.
*** NATIONAL NO. 1: XAVIER ROBERSON, KR, JR., SE LOUISIANA. The 5-foot-9 Roberson averaged an incredible 35.2 yards per kickoff return last season, helping Southeastern Louisiana make it to the quarterfinals of the playoffs. He took three of his 26 KRs back for touchdowns, and has returned five for scores in his career so far. Roberson is a preseason All-American.
LAST YEAR: 2013 special teams rankings
NEXT WEEK: Defensive backs