Big Ten Football: Ranking the Big Ten Punt Returners
Every Tuesday, The Big Ten Blog will rank the top player at each position for each team in the Big Ten. Today, we look at a highly underrated position, one that has the potential to demoralize either team out of nowhere: the punt returner.
As with the kick returners, these roles are extremely fluid and often aren't permanently settled by Week 1 of the regular season, much less in early July. So these are often approximations and subject to change. You have been warned.
12. Minnesota: Marcus Jones
To be honest, this situation is still wide open, and we're currently penciling in a guy who's coming off a torn ACL during last season (hence the 12th place on this list). But Jones healed so quickly from that injury, he was only held out of spring practice for precautionary reasons, and he should be all set for action in 2012.
As for what he brings to the table, he's a shifty 5'8" and 170, which is perfect for the quick changes of direction and straight-line speed necessary for punt returners. He spent some time returning kicks in 2011, at the very least, and if coaches are pleased with where he is physically already, then punt return could be a good fit for the sophomore from North Carolina.
11. Penn State: Bill Belton
This spot was given to waterbug Devon Smith on Penn State's post-spring practice depth chart, but Smith was dismissed from the team two months later, so backup tailback Bill Belton is the presumptive starter.
Belton took one kick back for 15 yards against Eastern Michigan last year, and that's the extent of his return experience in college. He's athletic and can probably contribute here, but there's no track record to work off of as yet.
10. Purdue: Ricardo Allen
Ricardo Allen stepped in for an ineligible Waynelle Gravesande in Purdue's bowl game last year and brought one punt back for five yards. That is the Ricardo-Allen-as-punt-returner highlight reel in its entirety. He's a great cornerback, not a prolific punt returner.
Now, presumably, with Purdue's deep wide receiver corps, someone else will step in here so Allen's not taking kicks back after having played at least the last three downs at cornerback.
9. Indiana: Nick Stoner
Stoner spent most of 2011 at cornerback before moving to wide receiver in Week 11. His real position should be "return specialist," though, because he's also a sprinter for the Hoosiers, and he's not about to crack the (surprisingly deep) WR depth chart this season.
Stoner could surprise in 2012, but Indiana will have to force some punts first, and uh... (shaking head sadly).
8. Nick Hill
With Keshawn Martin off to the NFL, Michigan has a big hole at punt returner. Dynamo Nick Hill is about as prepared as anybody to fill that role. He spent time on kick return duty last year, averaging 26 yards per return, and he could see some time at punt returner too, though he has less experience here.
Michigan State may also take a look at DeAnthony Arnett or one of the other talented but inexperienced wide receivers they've got. But Hill should be a perfectly serviceable solution while he awaits his turn in the Spartans' running back rotation.
7. Northwestern: Venric Mark
You may remember Venric Mark from such articles as "Ranking the Big Ten's Top Kick Returners." He should continue to pull double duty at KR/PR for Northwestern this year, just like he did for the past two seasons.
Mark is shifty and works well in space, but punt returns aren't really his thing; he registered all eight of Northwestern's punt returns last year. Just eight.
There's a significant amount of risk-reward at play with punt returns, so it could well be the case that Pat Fitzgerald wants his guys waving balls off or calling fair catch unless they've got some green space in front of them.
Either way, 15.9 yards per punt return is really nice, but Mark needs to return more than eight per year if he wants to climb on this list. Otherwise, he's not really a significant factor on special teams.
6. Ohio State: Jordan Hall
Jordan Hall as only the sixth-best punt returner in the Big Ten? Qu'est-ce que c'est?
Yeah, he's further back on this list because of the uncertainty surrounding his injured foot and how he'll be phased back into the rotation at both running back and returner.
Ostensibly, Hall will be in shape by the start of the Big Ten season. But making assumptions about injury recovery is the hallmark of bad coaches.
In the meantime, we're forced to guess about who'll return punts, since Urban Meyer never listed return specialists in his first depth chart. Hall's the only smaller tailback on the roster, so while he's out, Meyer will probably use a wideout like Philly Brown or maybe even Michael Thomas in Hall's stead.
Eventually, though, we expect Hall here. It's just a matter of when.
5. Iowa: Micah Hyde
Hyde was perfectly serviceable in this role in 2011, and he's got the kind of athletic ability where he's a threat to take a punt to the house if he's so inclined. The problem is the inclination.
Kinnick Stadium often groaned at Hyde's refusal to field shorter punts last year, often just waving them off and letting the ball roll.
The end result was just 13 returns on the year for 106 yards. Eight yards a pop and no scores...
That approach may be safe, but it rarely does the team any favors in field position. We expect more out of the senior cornerback this year.
4. Michigan: Jeremy Gallon
Gallon is Michigan's returning punt returner, and he was downright effective in 2011. He was third among all qualifying Big Ten return men with just over 10 yards per punt return, and he looks to be a solid lock to continue that role in 2012.
Gallon's hands are a concern, though, and he was disastrous as a kick returner in 2010. With any luck, that's an aberration that's long since been of any importance. Look for a good year from the diminutive wideout.
3. Illinois: Terry Davis
As noted in the kick returner rankings, Davis is a two-time All-MAC return specialist (and say what you will about the MAC, but they do have some athletic skill position players), and he'll be a major boost for a special teams unit that was utterly awful in 2011.
Davis is a dynamic athlete with great agility and straight-line speed, so of course he's a great returner as well. Expect him to flip at least one game in Illinois' favor with a big return, either on a kick or a punt, and also look for Illinois to just have better control of the field-position game with a guy like him back to maximize return yardage.
2. Nebraska: Ameer Abdullah
Abdullah is one of the most electric athletes in the Big Ten. If anyone can manufacture a touchdown (or even a 15-plus-yard return) out of a hopeless situation, it's Abdullah. In terms of actual production, though, Abdullah only managed 7.3 yards per return in his true freshman season last year. That's likely to rise substantially in 2012.
His problems holding onto the football are disconcerting to say the least, though, so between that and the lack of overall production thus far, he's not yet the best the Big Ten has to offer.
1. Wisconsin: Jared Abbrederis
Abbrederis was almost unfair last year. We say "almost" because he was playing through a hurt foot, so c'mon, the guy was already hampered...how much more do you want, opponents?
At any rate, Abbrederis was third in the nation in punt-return yardage at a remarkable 15.75 yards per pop. His return instincts might be better than his receiving instincts, and he's a darn good WR too.
What's more, Abbrederis' punt return average wasn't even that skewed by scores. Yes, he took a punt to the house from 60 yards out against Indiana. Which, yeah, anybody can do. But even taking out Abbrederis' best return (which seems like a poor way to evaluate his talents, but hear us out), he still averaged almost 13.5 yards per return.
He's solid. He's good. He's the best in the Big Ten.