- Andrea Adelson, ESPN Staff Writer
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Not only will the TCU-Utah game feature great defense. Two of the best special teams players in the country will be featured as well.
The question, of course, is whether we will see anything out of either player in the return game. You have to figure both teams know to kick away from Utah punt/kick returner Shaky Smithson and TCU punt/kick returner Jeremy Kerley.
Kerley, the reigning Mountain West Special Teams Player of the Year, was expected to have a good season. Smithson has provided one of the most pleasant surprises. After struggling through injuries last season, Smithson emerged early, with punt returns for touchdowns in back-to-back games against UNLV and New Mexico in Weeks 2 and 3. Finally teams have figured out they should kick away from him, so his opportunities have dwindled in the last two games.
Teams already knew that about Kerley, who has yet to return a kick for a touchdown this season. Smithson (5-11, 202 pounds) is bigger than Kerley (5-10, 192 pounds), but both use their speed and vision to make plays. Utah special teams coach Jay Hill says this about Smithson, “He’s got great ball skills so his ability to judge balls, catch them as they go forward, those things sometimes go unnoticed. He has great vision. One thing about Shaky-- he’s a big punt returner. He runs through a lot of arm tackles.”
Both are exceptional athletes, too. Kerley was a baseball standout in high school and drew interest from Texas and Stanford. Smithson was a basketball standout in high school, featured in the HBO documentary “Hard Times at Douglas High” as the point guard and team captain.
Kerley is more of a go-to receiver on offense, leading the team with 35 catches for 364 yards and seven touchdowns. Smithson is third on the team with 13 receptions for 234 yards and three touchdowns. Kerley also has handled more kick returns than Smithson. He set a career high with 234 all-purpose yards at SMU earlier this season, with 172 yards on kickoff returns, 23 on punt returns, 33 yards receiving and 6 yards rushing.
Here is more to compare:
Kerley leads the Mountain West in all-purpose yards, with an average of 134.4. Smithson is second with an average of 126.5.
Smithson leads the league in punt-return average. Kerley is right behind at No. 2. Smithson is the only player in the nation this year with three 70-yard punt returns.
Smithson leads the NCAA in punt-return average (23.33), punt return yards (560), total punt returns (24) and punt returns per game (3). He is the only player in the country this season with four 100-yard punt return games.
TCU is 17-0 when Kerley scores a touchdown.
Smithson became the first punt returner in school history with over 500 yards. With four regular season games remaining, he is 3 yards away from setting Mountain West Conference record for punt return yards in a season. Who holds the mark? None other than Kerley, who had 563 yards last season.
7hDavid M. Hale