- Edward Aschoff, ESPN Staff Writer
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Our look at the SEC's most productive returning players in 2012 continues with a look at the league's top returning kickoff returners.
The SEC returns seven of the top 10 kick returners from 2011. The top three returners are back, so kickers beware. However, the ball will now be moved forward five yards to the 35-yard line for kickoffs, meaning returns should occur less often. But that also means they'll now be more important. We're going by average per return. Note: To qualify, a player must have at least one return per team's games played. This is one of the most exciting plays in football and here's a look at the SEC's top returner:
Tre Mason, RB, Auburn: He returned 24 kicks for an average of 26.4 yards per return, had a long of 97 yards and recorded a touchdown. Mason dealt with being in a crowded backfield by making a name for himself in the return game during the first half of the season. He did most of his damage in the first two weeks, grabbing 10 returns for 348 yards and had a touchdown in the season opener against Utah State. He saw his production dip as the season went on because of injuries and his fumbling issues. He eventually lost his job, but could he make a comeback for his crown in 2012?
The SEC returns six more of the top kickoff returners in 2012:
Andre Debose, WR, Florida: He returned 19 kicks for an average of 26.1 yards per return, had a long of 99 yards and registered one touchdown.
Dennis Johnson, RB, Arkansas: He returned 18 kicks for an average of 25.6 yards per return, had a long of 98 yards and registered one touchdown.
Tobias Singleton, RB, Ole Miss: He returned 21 kicks for an average of 24.6 yards per return and had a long of 47 yards.
Andre Hal, CB, Vanderbilt: He returned 31 kicks for an average of 23.8 yards per return, had a long of 96 yards and registered one touchdown.
Devrin Young, RB, Tennessee: He returned 27 kicks for an average of 23.3 yards per return and had a long of 67 yards.
Bruce Ellington, WR, South Carolina: He returned 20 kicks for an average of 23.2 yards and had a long of 45 yards.
With kickoffs being moved up, we might see even less in the kick return game this fall. We could also see a new winner for this category if Mason doesn't get his job back. And with the amount of production he'll have on offense, his returns might get cut short anyway. Keep an eye on Mason's teammates, Onterio McCalebb and Quan Bray. McCalebb averaged 30.1 yards per return and had a touchdown on just 11 returns, while Bray averaged 24.2 on 10 returns.
Johnson has always been very dangerous in the return game. He entered the 2011 season as the SEC's active leader for career kickoff return yards and total return yards with 2,014 and he added 461 last fall. Johnson will likely have more steam to work with this fall with Knile Davis eating into his carries at running back. That will make him even tougher to stop in the return game and counting him out of the race for the return crown is just silly.
Debose was named the nation’s top kick returner by the College Football Performance Awards in 2010, but has always had some issues with his decision-making in the return game. Still, there's no doubting his speed when he finds a hole. When he's focused, he's exciting to watch, but he's yet to keep his focus for an entire season as a returner.
LaDarius Perkins will have more responsibility in Mississippi State's offense, but he was sometimes fun to watch in the return game.
Missouri receiver T.J. Moe averaged 23.3 yards on 26 kicks, but didn't return a kick longer than 49 yards. Still, he's shifty enough and has the vision to make a run at this thing.
16hSam Khan Jr.
2dSam Khan Jr.