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10 Best Return Men Coming Back for the 2012 College Football Season

David Fidler Correspondent IJune 3, 2012

10 Best Return Men Coming Back for the 2012 College Football Season

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    Secure the ball, find a seam and run like all get-out.

    Pretty simple, yet it may be the most exciting and intense moment in football—of either the Pop Warner, high school, college or pro variety.

    In fact, it's so intense that many pre-high school football organizations don't allow returns.

    It also may be the most talent-intensive element of football. You either have it or you don't, and all the experience and training in the world won't give you moves like Arkansas' Joe Adams showed last season against Tennessee.

    By my count, he broke eight tackles and outran the entire Volunteer punt coverage squad. You just can't teach that.

    Adams has moved on to the Carolina Panthers, but there are still plenty of quality return men ready to strut their stuff this season.

    This list breaks down the 10 best: five players primarily known as punt returners and five primarily known for kickoff returns.

No. 5 Punt Return Man: Jamal Miles, Arizona State Sun Devils

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    2011 Punt Returns

    14 RET, 232 YDS, 16.57 YPR, 1 TD

     

    Outlook

    In 2010, then-sophomore Miles gave glimpses of what he could do with the ball in his hands, averaging 8.55 YPR on 29 returns.

    However, he blew up in his junior season, putting up a national third-best 16.57 YPR.

    Unlike most of the other players on this list, Miles is not only dangerous on punt returns, but also on kickoffs. He averaged a PAC-12 second-best 26.27 YPR, including two touchdowns.

    Miles will have to prove he can perform in marquee games, as his career average against ranked teams—4.33 YPR—is considerably less impressive than his average against non-ranked programs—12.97 YPR.

No. 5 Kickoff Return Man: Raheem Mostert, Purdue Boilermakers

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    2011 Kickoff Returns

    25 RET, 837 YDS, 33.48 YDS, 1 TD

     

    Outlook

    Don't tell the college football blue-blood programs, but if stats tell the whole story, the best kickoff return man in the country last year was a lightly regarded true freshman who played for Purdue.

    Mostert came out of nowhere—actually, New Smyrna Beach, FL—last season and ran through almost every coverage that was thrown at him.

    Moreover, he didn't have the benefit of padding his stats against cupcakes, as he didn't have any returns in the Boilers' first three games—against Middle Tennessee State, Rice and Southeast Missouri State (FCS).

    He was solid during the regular season, but he exploded in the Little Caesars Bowl, averaging 62 yards on two returns, including one touchdown.

    Next season, Big Ten teams might opt to offer squib kicks and field position to Purdue, rather than risk putting the ball in Mostert's hands.

No. 4 Punt Return Man: Jared Abbrederis, Wisconsin Badgers

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    2011 Punt Returns

    20 RET, 315 YDS, 15.75 YPR, 1 TD

     

    Outlook

    Abbrederis came to the Badgers as a walk-on. He quickly fought his way onto the depth chart, both as a receiver and a return man.

    He became the top punt return man as a freshman, after David Gilreath was injured, and took the job back in 2011, after Gilreath had graduated.

    Last season, Abbrederis ranked No. 4 in the country in punt return average.

    Pretty impressive for a walk-on, huh?

No. 4 Kickoff Return Man: Sammy Watkins, Clemson Tigers

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    2011 Kickoff Returns

    33 RET, 826 YDS, 25.03 YPR, 1 TD

     

    Outlook

    Sammy Watkins may not have the most impressive stat line of any kickoff returner—in fact, last season, he was No. 37 in the country and No. 3 in the ACCbut there may be no more explosive player in the country than the true sophomore from Ft. Myers, FL.

    Next season looks to be bright for Watkins, as he now has collegiate experience upon which to draw.

    It remains to be seen how much his recent drug charges will affect his season, but if he gets on the field, he will be dangerous.

No. 3 Punt Return Man: Greg Reid, Florida State Seminoles

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    2011 Punt Returns

    37 RET, 416 YDS, 11.24 YPR, 1 TD

     

    Outlook

    Reid exploded onto the scene during his true freshman year. He led the country with 18.43 YPR.

    He has cooled off a bit since 2009, averaging 9.81 YPR in 2010, and 19th-best 11.24 YPR last season.

    Reid was also FSU's top kick returner in 2009 and 2010, though he seems to have handed that job over to fellow-cornerback Lamarcus Joyner.

    Reid, like the Noles as a whole, is poised for a big season in 2012.

    Look for the senior from Georgia to finish his college career up in style.

No. 3 Kickoff Return Man: Tavon Austin, West Virginia Mountaineers

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    2011 Kickoff Returns

    36 RET, 938 YDS, 26.02 YPR, 2 TD

     

    Outlook

    Austin is a triple-threat weapon, as he was 21st in the country in kickoff-return average, first in the Big East in punt-return average and third in the Big East in yards receiving.

    Not surprisingly, he led the country in all-purpose yardage, and it wasn't even close, with Oregon's LaMichael James in second with almost 400 fewer yards than Austin.

    In 2012, West Virginia and Austin will see a higher level of competition in the Big 12, and while I'm not sure how WVU will fare, I'm sure Big 12 teams will have to watch out for Austin.

No. 2 Punt Return Man: Dustin Harris, Texas A&M Aggies

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    2011 Punt Returns

    18 RET, 335 YDS, 18.61 YPR, 1 TD

     

    Outlook

    Harris began his career as the Aggies' top punt returner, before sharing duties in 2010. Receiver Kenric McNeal began 2011 as Texas A&M's top returner, but injuries forced him to concede the job to Harris.

    Both Harris' freshman and sophomore years gave indications of how explosive he could be—7.88 YPR in 2009, 11.50 in 2010—but nobody, outside of some optimistic Aggies fans, expected his output in 2011.

    He led the country in YPR and was particularly impressive down the stretch, averaging 24.58 YPR over the Aggies' final five games, including the bowl game.

    2012 will see Texas A&M with a new head coach in a new conference, but don't look for Kevin Sumlin to toy with his return game. Harris will be back on punts and kickoffs this year.

No. 2 Kickoff Return Man: Tyler Lockett, Kansas State Wildcats

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    2011 Kickoff Returns

    16 RET, 563 YDS, 35.19 YDS, 2 TD

     

    Outlook

    Lockett missed the Wildcats' final four games with an injury.

    He also failed to register a kick return in four of KSU's first five games. Consequently, he didn't have enough returns to rank among the nation's best return men.

    However, on kickoff-return average alone, Lockett would have eclipsed the top man—previously mentioned Raheem Mostert—by over 1.50 YPR.

    In 2012, assuming he stays healthy, Lockett will pick up where he left off.

No. 1 Punt Return Man: Tyrann Mathieu, LSU Tigers

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    2011 Punt Returns

    27 RET, 421 YDS, 15.59 AVG, 2 TD

     

    Outlook

    In 2011, Mathieu was only a sophomore, and his return game, like his defensive game, improved as the season wore on.

    In the first seven games, Mathieu averaged 7.93 YPR on 15 returns. Pretty good, but nothing earth-shattering,

    In the final six games of the 2011 season—including the SEC Championship game and the BCS Championship game—he averaged a whopping 25.17 YPR on 12 returns.

    This included one touchdown return against arch-nemesis Arkansas to close out the regular season, and one touchdown return against Georgia in the conference championship.

    In 2012, look for SEC punters to do everything in their power to keep the ball away from the Honey Badger.

No. 1 Kickoff Return Man: De'Anthony Thomas, Oregon Ducks

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    2011 Kickoff Returns

    36 RET, 983 YDS, 27.31 YPR, 2 TD

     

    Outlook

    Rivals' 2011 top athlete prospect in the country lived up to the hype.  

    He logged 46 receptions for 605 yards and nine touchdowns. He rushed for over 10 yards per carry on 55 attempts.

    However, his biggest contribution to the Ducks' Rose Bowl-winning season was in the return game.

    Statistically, he was the 10th-best kickoff return man in the country, and he caught fire at the end of the season.

    In Oregon's final seven games—which included contests against No. 7 Stanford, No. 6 USC and No. 10 Wisconsin—Thomas averaged 32.24 YPR.

    In 2012, Thomas will likely gain more offensive touches with the graduation of starting tailback LaMichael James', but he will still light up the field on kickoffs.

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