Two weeks ago in training camp, rookie Chris Thompson struggled to catch punts. He misjudged the flight, reached up awkwardly to his side when trying to corral one and didn’t look smooth catching others. He knew it too.
“I was frustrated because I couldn’t read the ball that day,” Thompson said.
But he received help from the other returners. Richard Crawford, Nick Williams and Skye Dawson all gave him tips on how to catch punts. It’s not necessarily an art form, but there is a difference between fielding kickoffs and punts. Thompson occasionally fielded punts during practices at Florida State, but never returned one in a game, just kickoffs.
Some of the differences are obvious: Punts are more unpredictable, both in terms of where they’re going and how long they’ll be. There’s also a chance the returner might get drilled upon catching the ball. So instant decision making is important. As a kick returner, the big decision is whether or not to run it out of the end zone -- and coaches often tell them beforehand what they want. The upback can help in that decision, too. For punt returners, it’s an in-the-moment decision.
But the ball arrives differently as well. Kickoffs are end over end and easy to read. Punts come off the foot differently and can rotate in more ways.
“You have to be able to read where it’s going or if it’s going to fall short,” Thompson said.
It can take time. But Thompson did a good job of this versus Buffalo. He ran up at least 10 yards to field one punt; drifted back to catch another and moved back and to the side on a third. All were fielded smoothly. It’s a start.
“I was actually surprised myself,” Thompson said on how well he caught the ball. “Crawford had been doing a great job just helping me out every single day.”
Thompson, though, has fumbled twice in the preseason on runs from scrimmage. Ball security and decision making trump speed when it comes to returning punts. Thompson said coach Mike Shanahan told him after his fumble against Buffalo that, “I don’t care how good you are, if you put the ball on the ground you’re not going to play.”
But if Thompson does end up returning punts, then you can credit the other returners, Crawford in particular, for an assist. Thompson knows this could be a way to ensure a roster spot, too. His open-field running style, the ability to be patient yet cut sharply and set up blocks, works well on punt returns. He could get more chances Thursday at Tampa Bay to prove he's a viable option.
“Coaches brought me here not just to be a running back,” he said. “I know that’s one more thing I can hopefully add to this team.”