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.
“I'd love for Gilbert to be back there,” said receivers coach Kasey Dunn, who is working with punt return candidates. “But at the same time, he can't be everywhere. We've got some other guys that are pretty capable right now. They're working hard at doing it.”
All punt return candidates constantly are reminded of two golden rules: 1) if you don't catch the punt, run away from a bouncing ball, and 2) if you catch the punt, don't fumble even if someone racing downfield clocks you.
The 49ers' Williams violated both rules. His two turnovers in the NFC title game led to two New York scores.
“It's just focus,” Stills said. “You have to focus on the ball and still peek a few times to see players coming at you, if you have the proper blocking to know if you're going to fair catch it or not.”
That's the tricky part. The safe play is to wave your right hand in the air, signal for a fair catch. But every punt returner's dream is to take one to the house.
Punt returners often have adventurous personalities. There aren't a lot of volunteers for a job where the punt cover team, running full speed, hopes to make highlight reels with a jarring hit on a return man.
Texas A&M defensive back Dustin Harris led the nation last season, averaging 18.6 yards a return, highlighted by a 72-yard touchdown against Kansas.
Harris, a senior, has returned punts since junior high, a skill he hopes will land an NFL job a year from now.
Confidence is a must for punt returners.
“I feel I'm the most comfortable person back there right now,” Stills said. “I'm just trying to improve on those skills ... I really like it. It's a lot of fun. It's easy to make people miss. They're coming at you full speed, out of control.”
Williams is one of the top punt returners in the NFL. He finished sixth in the league with an 8.4 average. But his NFC title game gaffes were a punt returner's nightmare.
“I felt his pain because I've been in the same situation,” Harris said. “When it happens you have to move past it. There are a lot of big plays in every game. But it made a big difference. The 49ers should have won and been the team to beat the Patriots.”