Kickers, Cameron Van Winkle explains, have a tendency to be overlooked, even by their own special-teams coaches.
Kickoff coverage? That deserves attention. Kickoff return? Definitely. Field-goal formation? Of course.
But the kicker himself? Well, Van Winkle said, “in my position, some special-teams coaches I’ve met, recruiting-wise, the kicker’s just there.”
And that is why he will miss Jeff Choate, UW’s defensive line coach and special-teams coordinator who will coach his final game for the Huskies on Saturday before leaving to begin his full-time duties as the head coach at Montana State.
“He’s one of those guys who cares about every little detail,” Van Winkle said. “When Choate is working with us, he’s encouraging us to get better, he’s pushing us. It’s something that’s really unique with just him. And I can tell with kickoffs and all of that — punts, field goals — he deeply cares about it. He’s not some guy who’s just going through the motions. He just cares about every person on the team.”
Most positive reviews of Choate’s two-year stint at UW center around the work he did with the Huskies’ defensive line, and rightfully so — after an all-senior group anchored a defense that totaled 52 sacks in 2014, Choate helped develop a younger, deeper defensive line this season that wound up performing better than some might have expected.
For that reason alone, the Huskies will miss him. But his contributions to UW’s special-teams shouldn’t be forgotten, either.
“He’s one of the better special teams guys in the country,” UW coach Chris Petersen said earlier this month.
In Choate’s two seasons at UW, the Huskies returned two kickoffs for touchdowns, and did not allow a touchdown on a kickoff or punt. They allowed 4.17 yards per punt return in 2014, and 6.7 in 2015. Van Winkle made 33 of his 41 field-goal tries the past two seasons. And Dante Pettis became the first UW player to return a punt for a touchdown since 2003 — and he’s done it three times in two seasons, and needs only one more to tie the UW career record.
“It’s exciting,” said Pettis, a sophomore receiver. “Special teams is the most exciting part of the game, I feel like. There’s nothing more exciting than a blocked kick, (or a) kickoff return. So when (Choate) is bringing in all this energy and all this new stuff for the game plan, everyone’s like, ‘OK, what’ve we got this week? Let’s see what we can do now.’ ”
Pettis said Choate’s knowledge of the game helps him identify weaknesses based on game film of each week’s opponent.
“He’s always thinking of new stuff, crazy stuff,” Pettis said. “He’s like a visionary. He sees something and is like, ‘oh, what if we did this, right there?’ He sees one person not going hard on special-teams on the other team, so he’s like, ‘all right, this guy doesn’t go hard on every single snap. We’re going to attack him, and hopefully he gives up one time and then we win that.’ ”
That creativity helps keep players engaged. Take the opening kickoff of UW’s 52-7 win at Oregon State this season. Huskies kick returner Chico McClatcher laid down on the 10-yard line — right on top of the number “1” in “10,” his white uniform blending in with the paint — before popping up and catching a lateral from Marvin Hall, a trick play that resulted in a 56-yard return to OSU’s 43-yard line.
UW also scored a touchdown this season on a fake field goal against Utah State when sophomore kicker Tristan Vizcaino caught a direct snap and sprinted to the right corner of the end zone for a 2-yard score.
And Van Winkle praises Choate’s willingness to encourage rather than belittle, and to apply pressure when needed.
“He knows kickers, we have our bad days,” Van Winkle said. “We’ll go through little flukes. He understands that as a coach. When we’re down, he’s not just going to scream at us. That won’t always help.”
“I think I’m unorthodox,” Choate said, asked to describe his coaching style on special teams. “I think I always have been. I think we try to be sound in what we do in how we teach the fundamentals of the game. I want to try to create problems for the opposing coordinator in terms of his preparation, give him some headaches every now and then. I know what bothers me, and I try to include that into our game plan.”
Choate said his special-teams background began when he was “thrown into the lion’s den” at Utah State, where he was a graduate assistant before being tasked with coaching special teams.
His earliest lessons came from longtime Utah special-teams coordinator Sean McNabb, who was “semi-retired” at the time, Choate said. The two sat down together for about a week, and McNabb “gave me the crash course on special teams.”
Choate continued to share ideas with colleagues. He says he learned some from current Cleveland Browns special-teams coordinator Chris Tabor and Indianapolis Colts special-teams coordinator Tom McMahon, both of whom worked at Utah State.
“It was kind of an interesting group of guys there at the same time,” Choate said. “We shared some ideas. It was a good situation for us.”
Petersen hired him as Boise State’s special-teams coordinator, though he also coached running backs, linebackers and nickelbacks during a six-year stint before leaving for Washington State to coach linebackers. He made that move to enhance his resume, and to avoid being unfairly labeled as “just” a special-teams coach.
Three years later, he’s a first-time head coach. And he’s excited to see what’s next for the Huskies — Petersen assigned Bob Gregory, UW’s veteran linebackers coach, to take over Choate’s special-teams duties.
“It’s going to allow him to grow in a different way as a coach,” Choate said. “He’s a really smart guy, very detail-oriented guy, really good fundamental football coach. I think he’ll add his own spin to things and things will go really well here.”