- Kevin Gemmell, ESPN Staff Writer
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If you play in the Pac-12, there’s never been a better time to be a return man. Because business is booming.
Already with 19 kicks returned for touchdowns -- punt and kickoff -- the Pac-12 is the leading conference in FBS football this season when it comes to taking it to the house. The SEC -- with two additional teams -- is next with 16.
This is by far the greatest season for returners since the Pac-12 became the Pac-12 in 2011. That year, the conference saw 14 kicks returned for scores. The number declined the next two years (13 in 2012 and 12 in 2013) before a massive spike this season. In fact, the Pac-12 this season has the highest rate of kicks returned for a touchdown per game than any other league since the SEC in 2011.
Asked for any sort of rhyme or reason for the special teams spike, almost every Pac-12 coach pointed to one common element: Great returners.
“Returns start with returners that have a knack for making people miss and hitting those creases,” said Utah coach Kyle Whittingham, whose team has a league-high four returns (three punt, one kick). “It’s either something you have or you don’t have. It’s tough to train a guy to become a great returner. The No. 1 factor would be that there are a bunch of athletes in this conference that have that capability to miss the first guy, make the next two or three miss as the case may be and finding those creases in the coverage and hitting them.”
Whittingham’s guy, Kaelin Clay, has been the class of the league when it comes to returns. With three scores on punt returns and another on kickoffs, he leads a very talented group. But he’s not the only one with multiple scores. California’s Trevor Davis (two kick returns), Oregon’s Charles Nelson (two punt returns), Stanford’s Ty Montgomery (two punt returns) and USC’s Nelson Agholor (two punt returns) are also in the multi-TD club.
Players with one touchdown include Arizona’s Cayleb Jones (kick) and DaVonte' Neal (punt), Oregon State’s Ryan Murphy (kick), UCLA’s Ishmael Adams (kick), USC’s Adoree' Jackson (kick) and Washington’s John Ross (kick) and Dante Pettis (punt, Washington's first since 2003).
One can argue the flip side, being that kick coverage in the Pac-12 is down. Only Arizona, Oregon and Washington haven't yielded a special teams touchdown. Washington State has the dubious honor of allowing a league-high six returns for touchdowns this season.
“In our case, I think we need more of an identity on defense and our lack of that has hurt us on special teams,” said head coach Mike Leach, who swapped special teams coaches midseason. “I think individual effort (plays a role), we’ve had some young guys out there. I feel like we should be playing better on special teams across the board.”
Funny thing, those special teams touchdowns. Sometimes they play out exactly as they are drawn up. Other times it’s simply outstanding athleticism from a return guy that makes the difference.
“You can put the film on and there are times when you don’t block anybody and the guy runs it back 100 yards for a touchdown, and there are other times if you don’t have a special return guy, you block everybody and he still gets tackled,” Cal head coach Sonny Dykes said. “There are so many skilled athletes in this league and guys that are capable of big returns. I think it starts there.”
We can all pretty much agree that having an outstanding crop of returners is by far the most important element of the equation. But there are a few other factors to consider. For starters, scoring in the league is up. The Pac-12 leads all conferences with 34.1 points per game. That’s the highest it’s been since the league expanded to 12 teams and the highest scoring average in at least a decade. More points means more kickoffs. There are also lots of sacks and tackles for a loss, which creates more punts.
Additionally, most teams use younger players on special teams to give regular defensive starters a rest. You throw talented returners into the mix and you have return touchdowns trending up.
“When you don’t have depth, the No. 1 part of your team that gets hurt is special teams,” Dykes explained. “There’s more kickoffs and it’s a wide-open league. Everyone is going through what we are. You’re kicking off a lot, and then having to play young players on those coverage units, and the combination of really good returners is usually the recipe for disaster.”
Well, only if you’re on a coverage team.