Dangerous return men make kicking a challenge in the ACC
Posted August 6, 2014
Perhaps Duke head coach David Cutcliffe best describes the challenge of kicking off and punting in today’s Atlantic Coast Conference.
“Location, location,” he says, “and I’m not talking about a restaurant.”
The Blue Devil kickers are fortunate that they don’t have to boot the ball to their own dangerous kick and punt return men, DeVon Edwards and Jamison Crowder, each of whom returned two kicks for touchdowns last season.
But the league’s return men put up a collective 21 touchdowns (eight on kickoffs and 13 on punts) and most of them have at least one more year of eligibility (several of the best have three more years).
Five ACC teams returned at least one kickoff for a touchdown in 2013. Seven ACC teams returned at least one punt for a touchdown last season. There is plenty of danger to go around. Jimbo Fisher, coach of national champion Florida State, cautions, “you must know who you’re kicking it to, and how you’re covering the kick.”
Kick returns and kick coverage played a prominent part in Florida State’s ending the SEC’s long domination of college football’s national title. The Seminoles averaged 28 yards per return in 2013, the top mark in the country.
They allowed opponents just 18 yards per return. FSU’s Levonte “Kermit” Whitfield ran a kickoff back 100 yards to help lift the ‘Noles over Auburn in last season’s penultimate game.
The Ryan Switzer factor
Pitt Coach Paul Chryst pulls no punches when discussing his team’s punt coverage against North Carolina.
“We knew about Ryan,” he says. “Ryan still was a factor.”
Yes he was. Ryan Switzer returned not just one, but two punts for touchdowns last autumn at Heinz Field. Chryst, the Panthers’ Coach, calls Switzer’s runbacks phenomenal, adding “he’s a special player, but at the same time, our guys have to be better.”
Switzer and UNC led the nation in punt returns. Switzer’s five scores in a season tied the NCAA record. The Tar Heels also took two kickoffs back for touchdowns (both times by T.J. Logan), giving them the top spot in ACC special teams’ touchdowns with seven.
UNC Coach Larry Fedora describes his program’s success this way: “We take pride in special teams. The culture we’ve created is that it’s special to play on special teams.”
Fedora credits Virginia Tech’s Frank Beamer with making a strong kicking game “the thing to do.” During the 90’s and on into the new millennium, Virginia Tech became so proficient at scoring touchdowns with its offense on the sideline that kicking game (and special plays on defense) became an integral part of the Hokies’ football philosophy: "Beamer Ball," they called it.
“All of us know it can turn a game quickly,” says the longtime Virginia Tech mentor. Beamer, who is now the winningest active coach in major college football, acknowledges his rivals have caught up in special teams play.
“Everyone is coaching it better and teaching it better, with better personnel,” he said
And the veteran coach issues a word of caution to his fellow coaches: “You’d better put your starters on special teams.”
I feel confident in saying the ACC has never greeted a cast of kick return men like this:
- Ryan Switzer, UNC 5 TD’s (punt returns)
- Jamison Crowder, Duke 2 TD’s (punt returns)
- Rashad Greene, FSU 2 TD’s (punt returns)
- “Kermit” Whitfield, FSU 2 TD’s (kickoff returns)
- T.J. Logan, UNC 2 TD’s (kickoff returns)
- DeVon Edwards, Duke 2 TD’s (kickoff returns)
- Jamal Golden, GT 2 TD’s (kickoff returns)
- Stacy Coley, UM 2 TD’s (one kickoff, one punt)
There are four other players who returned one punt for a touchdown, and three other players who returned one kickoff for a touchdown. Oh, and let’s also add Miami’s Duke Johnson to the danger list. He ran two kickoffs back for touchdowns in 2012 (the year he wasn’t hurt). UNC’s T.J. Thorpe ran one kick back for a touchdown in 2011 and still ranks second in total yardage among “returning returners” with an aggregate total of 1,384 yards.
FSU’s Fisher, in perhaps something of an understatement, says “there are more dynamic return guys in the league.”
None of Fisher’s colleagues would quarrel with his observation that “you’ve got to constantly scheme, and put your best people on special teams.”
Duke of Miami and Duke of Cutcliffe
To get the players’ perspective on all the wild scoring these days in ACC special teams play, we went to “the Duke of Miami,” Duke Johnson. He gives blockers a great deal of the credit.
“There are dynamic guys running it back, but it’s the unselfish guys making the blocks,” Johnson says. “The ten blockers are making sure the eleventh guy scores.”
Strategy may play a part in big plays on kickoff returns. Duke’s Cutcliffe is quick to note “if the ball goes into the end zone, it’s a 25 yard line spot.”
Cutcliffe will take that kind of field position all day, but coaches players to “look for opportunities to run kicks back and put them to use.”
Miami’s Al Golden thinks there is something to the Cutcliffe strategy.
“Maybe you’re not covering as many runbacks as before (when the ball only came out to the 20 yard line on touchbacks). You’d better be ready every time and you’d better practice your coverage-often," he said.
While North Carolina received the most acclaim for its special teams play in 2013, two coaches wanted to give special mention to Duke.
“Duke had great special teams and maybe didn’t get enough credit there,” according to Miami’s Golden. Adds Pitt’s Chryst: “Duke won close games. Special teams are a huge momentum swing.”
So will this be a year when the return threats become so significant that coaches begin to change the paradigm on kicking game philosophy?
Kicking off into the end zone, and punting when outside your opponents’ 35 yard line are generally considered safe strategy. But look at the players on the receiving end. In this ACC, is a kick really that safe?