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College football: Returning punts one of football's toughest jobs

Good hands, skills, speed and confidence are just some of the things coaches look for when choosing a punt returner.
BY MIKE BALDWIN AND GINA MIZELL, Staff Writers, mbaldwin@opubco.com; gmizell@opubco.com Modified: April 6, 2012 at 11:03 am •  Published: April 5, 2012
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The San Francisco 49ers outplayed the New York Giants in the NFC championship game. The primary reason Eli Manning and the Giants advanced to the Super Bowl was San Francisco punt returner Kyle Williams' two blunders gift-wrapped a win.

It's a reminder that Oklahoma and Oklahoma State selecting new punt returners isn't as simple as sorting through the fastest players on the roster.

Returning punts requires a unique skill. Multi-tasking is a plus.

“The first thing is to find one that's sure-handed, good enough to just get it caught,” said former Oklahoma State coach Pat Jones, who also was an NFL assistant. “If you have a guy who can break one, that's a bonus. Sometimes you're tempted to gamble. But if you fumble ...”

Besides setting nearly every OU school receiving record, Ryan Broyles was a dependable punt returner. Wide receiver Kenny Stills, who filled the role after Broyles suffered a knee injury, is the favorite. Roy Finch and Brennan Clay are candidates.

At OSU, the Cowboys must replace Josh Cooper. Justin Gilbert, an electric kickoff returner, is the ideal candidate. Sophomore wide receiver Josh Stewart and redshirt freshman David Glidden are getting long looks this spring.

Returning punts has many variables. Judging the wind, spin and velocity are factors. Experience helps. Little things like knowing a right-footed punter's ball spins differently than a “lefty” kick.

“It's difficult but we practice it a lot,” Stills said. “With all the people watching you, it can get a little nerve wracking. You just have to focus, be able to judge the ball and its spin.”

A good analogy is a center fielder, a position Stills played growing up before he quit baseball in high school to concentrate on football.

One major difference — a center fielder doesn't have the opposing team charging at him while they're chasing down a fly ball.

“No,” Stills said, smiling. “I gave up baseball when those balls started coming too fast (in the batters' box).”

Punt returns were a bit of an adventure for OSU last season, a rare special teams weakness. The Cowboys ranked 115th out of 120 teams nationally, averaging 3.4 yards.

Josh Cooper's average dropped from 9.6 to 3.9. Justin Blackmon fumbled his only punt he tried to return. Late in the season, Cooper and Colton both went deep to return punts. All three are gone.

Gilbert has shown the ability to get past initial defenders on electrifying kickoff returns (four TDs in two seasons). He wants the job. But because he has additional special teams responsibilities on field goal blocks and kickoff returns, Stewart and Glidden have gotten the bulk of reps this spring.

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