College Football Predictions: Justin Gilbert and 15 Dangerous Kick Returners

Michael CarrollFeatured ColumnistJuly 17, 2012

College Football Predictions: Justin Gilbert and 15 Dangerous Kick Returners

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    For 2012, college football has followed the NFL and made kickoff returns safer for players. According to Iliana Limon Romero of SunSentinel:

    “Teams will be kicking off from the 35-yard line instead of the 30-yard line. Players on the kickoff team will not be allowed to line up more than five yards behind the ball in an effort to avoid high speed collisions. If the ball is kicked out of the end zone, it will be placed on the return team’s 25-yard line instead of the 20-yard line.”

    In regards to players possibly losing helmets after collisions, Romero said:

    “If a player loses his helmet and it not caused by a penalty, it will be treated like an injury. The player must leave the game for at least one play. If the helmet comes off a player’s head during the final two minutes of the second or fourth quarters, the player must leave the game for one play and 10 seconds will run off the clock to discourage teams from using the helmet rule as a mechanism to stop the clock.”

    The NFL rule changes have worked. According to Gary Mihoces of USA Today:

    “Totals kickoff returns fell by about 32% in the 2011 NFL regular season under a rule change that pushed kickoffs up from the 30-yard line to the 35. Concussions on all plays dropped 12.5%, according to NFL data…both numbers fall in line with the NFL’s strengthened safety agenda.”

    Since college football has moved the kickoff location five yards closer to midfield, I expect kickoff return numbers to decrease. However, there are many kick returners who can still break off kick return touchdowns at any moment.

    Let’s take a look at 15 of these guys. All of them have at least two career kickoff return touchdowns, and all but one have solidified themselves as their school’s No. 1 kick returner heading into 2012.

Justin Gilbert, Oklahoma State University

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    Only a rising junior, Oklahoma State University’s Justin Gilbert leads all active FBS players with four kick return touchdowns.

    In 2011, Gilbert finished 17th in the nation in kickoff return yards per return (27.0). Gilbert also tied for second nationally with two kickoff return touchdowns.

    Gilbert had 26 kickoff returns and two kickoff return touchdowns in both 2010 and 2011. How do you like that for consistency?

    Phil Steele placed Gilbert on his 2012 Preseason All-Big 12 Third Team at kick returner.

Tavon Austin, West Virginia University

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    West Virginia University rising senior Tavon Austin could be the most dynamic player in college football.

    Austin led the country in all-purpose yards in 2011, as he was a weapon in the running, receiving and returning games for the Mountaineers. As a result, Austin was named to the 2012 Maxwell Award Watch List.

    Phil Steele placed Austin on his 2012 Preseason All-American Fourth Team at kick returner.

    As a kick returner in 2011, Austin had two kickoff return touchdowns.

    I do not see a drop-off in production from Austin in the kick return game, now that West Virginia University has moved from the Big East to the Big 12.

Andre Debose, University of Florida

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    University of Florida rising junior Andre Debose needed only 40 career kickoff returns to reach three career kickoff return touchdowns.

    According to Matt Hinton of CBSSports.com, the Gators expected Debose to be the second-coming of Percy Harvin. Injuries and coaching changes have prevented Debose from realizing his true potential as a complete football player, but his dangerous kick return production in limited opportunities really sticks out.

    Hinton says of Debose:

    “The kid can absolutely fly. Even post-surgery, Debose has given glimpses of the acceleration and flat-out speed that fueled the acclaim out of high school, most notably as a return man who can house it every time he touches the ball.”

    With Jeff Demps and Chris Rainey having moved on from college football, and with injury problems seemingly behind him, Debose should firmly establish himself as the Gators’ No. 1 kickoff return threat. More return opportunities (by number, but not by quality) should allow Debose to collect even more scores in 2012.

    Phil Steele has placed Debose on his 2012 Preseason All-SEC Third Team at kick returner.

Dennis Johnson, University of Arkansas

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    University of Arkansas rising senior Dennis Johnson is the SEC active leader in all-purpose yards and kickoff return yards. Johnson also has three kickoff return touchdowns. Due to a serious injury suffered two seasons ago which required him to use a medical redshirt, Johnson is playing his fifth college football season in 2012.

    On Sept. 10, 2010, Johnson ruptured his bowel on a kickoff return against the University of Louisiana-Monroe. The injury threatened both his football career and his life.

    Luckily for Johnson, he was able to play football again in 2011. Johnson ended up leading the Razorbacks in carries and rushing yards, in addition to kickoff returns and kickoff return yards in 2011.

    Johnson’s rushing workload increased, because starting running back Knile Davis sat out the season with an ankle injury. Now that Davis is ready for 2012, Johnson will focus primarily on kickoff returning.

    Phil Steele has placed Johnson on his 2012 Preseason All-SEC Second Team at kick returner.

Jamal Miles, Arizona State University

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    In 2011, Arizona State University rising senior Jamal Miles scored a touchdown as a quarterback, a wide receiver, a kick returner and a punt returner. Miles might have to wear a lot of hats again in 2012 as the Sun Devils completely rebuild their passing attack.

    Miles will need to lead the Sun Devils’ receiving corps as the team breaks in a new quarterback, starting wide receivers and starting offensive linemen. As the team’s returning leader in receptions, receiving yards and receiving touchdowns, Miles is the natural choice.

    As a returner, though, Miles has already assumed the lead role. Miles has four career return touchdowns. Three of these are on kickoffs, and two of those came in 2011.

    Phil Steele has placed Miles on his 2012 Preseason All-Pac 12 Second Team at kick returner.

George Atkinson III, University of Notre Dame

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    University of Notre Dame rising sophomore George Atkinson III returned two kickoffs for touchdowns in 2011.

    Atkinson comes from an accomplished football family, as his father, George Atkinson Jr., won Super Bowl XI with the Oakland Raiders. George III’s twin brother, Josh, also plays for the Irish.

    Head coach Brian Kelly said this about Atkinson’s return abilities:

    “He’s got that open-end speed that can turn a 30-, 40-yard return into a touchdown. Obviously there is no substitute for that. Also, he’s got pretty good vision. He’s been able to see blocks, the setup of blocks. You’ve got to have great vision as a kick returner, as well.”

    Atkinson also runs track for the Fighting Irish. University of Notre Dame won the 2012 Big East Indoor Track and Field Championship, and Atkinson finished third in the 200-meter final.

Brelan Chancellor, University of North Texas

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    University of North Texas rising junior Brelan Chancellor has two career kickoff return touchdowns. Both came in 2010, though, so Chancellor could have motivation to get back on track in 2012.

    Athlon Sports has placed Chancellor on its 2012 Preseason All-Sun Belt Second Team at kick returner. Chancellor is also the No. 1 wide receiver for the Mean Green.

    Chancellor was one of the busiest kick returners in college football last season. Though he never broke one for a touchdown, Chancellor finished fourth nationally in kickoff returns (50) and fifth in kickoff return yards (1,094).

    According to Athlon Sports, University of North Texas lost a huge portion of their defensive production from 2011. The Mean Green also have a new defensive coordinator in John Skladany. Hopefully the defense can improve from its 30.7 points allowed per game in 2011, but rebuilding due to personnel losses could bring about growing pains in 2012.

    What does this mean for Chancellor? Chancellor should expect to return a lot of kicks again in 2012.

Tommy Davis, University of Illinois

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    After graduating and transferring from Northern Illinois University, Tommy Davis can play immediately at University of Illinois.

    The Fighting Illini will welcome Davis’ return abilities with open arms. According to Athlon Sports, new head coach Tim Beckman paid extra attention to improving the return game in spring practice. Davis figures to be a big beneficiary of this.

    The team brought in Tim Salem from University of Central Florida to coordinate the special teams, so changes have come in the leadership of the unit.

    In 2011, the Fighting Illini finished last in FBS in kickoff returning. Why, then, is Davis on this list?

    First, there is nowhere to go but up. Second, Ron Zook is no longer the head coach in Champaign. Third, Davis made the All-MAC Team as a kick returner twice.

    Sure, the MAC is no Big Ten, but home run speed needed to return kickoffs for touchdowns knows no conference affiliation.

Jerry "BooBoo" Gates, Bowling Green State University

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    Bowling Green State University rising junior Jerry “BooBoo” Gates could leave opposing kickoff coverage units hurting in 2012.

    Gates—also a starting safety for the Falcons—has two career kickoff return touchdowns.

    In 2011, Gates finished 16th nationally in kickoff return yards (981) and tied for 19th with 38 kickoff returns.

    Phil Steele has placed Gates on his 2012 Preseason All-MAC First Team at kick returner.

Lindsey Lamar, University of South Florida

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    University of South Florida rising senior Lindsey Lamar will get some reps at running back in 2012, according to Andrea Adelson of ESPN.com. Lamar will undoubtedly start at kick returner, though.

    Lamar collected both of his kickoff return touchdowns in 2010, but he still managed 40 kickoff returns in 2011. The new kickoff rules will probably decrease Lamar’s opportunities this season, but he should still get enough to take one the distance.

Tommylee Lewis, Northern Illinois University

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    Northern Illinois University rising sophomore Tommylee Lewis scored both of his kickoff return touchdowns back-to-back in the same game. Lewis was facing the Toledo University Rockets, but he was the real rocket in that contest.

    Lewis will benefit greatly from Tommy Davis’ departure to University of Illinois, even though Lewis was the more productive kick returner in 2011.

    At least Phil Steele does not see Lewis’ 2011 performance as a fluke, as Steele has placed Lewis on his 2012 Preseason All-MAC Second Team at kick returner.

Tyler Lockett, Kansas State University

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    Kansas State rising sophomore Tyler Lockett was a consensus All-American in 2011 as an all-purpose player.

    Lockett ran back two kickoffs for touchdowns, and he led the country in kickoff return yards per return (35.2).

    Perhaps Lockett will follow in the footsteps of former Wildcats all-purpose star Darren Sproles, who continues to rack up yards in all kinds of ways for the NFL’s New Orleans Saints.

    Phil Steele has placed Lockett on his 2012 Preseason All-American Third Team at kick returner.

De'Anthony Thomas, University of Oregon

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    With LaMichael James now in the NFL, the three-headed monster at running back for University of Oregon is now a two-headed monster.

    Kenjon Barner returns kicks for the Ducks as well, but rising sophomore De’Anthony Thomas will make the greater impact in the return game in 2012.

    Thomas won the 2011 Pac 12 Co-Offensive Player of the Year Award, as he accumulated 1,200 yards from scrimmage and 16 touchdowns from scrimmage. Those numbers are independent of the 36 kickoff returns, 983 kickoff return yards and two kickoff return touchdowns in 2011.

    Thomas’ total kickoff return yards and kickoff return yards per return were both 15th-best nationally in 2011.

    Phil Steele has placed Thomas on his 2012 Preseason All-American Second Team at kick returner.

    Thomas should score all over the field in 2012, just as he did in 2011 when he scored 108 points on 140 touches (rushing, receiving, kickoff returning, punt returning).

Justin Veltung, University of Idaho

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    University of Idaho rising senior Justin Veltung plays for a team where, as Athlon Sports suggests, the special teams are truly special.

    Veltung should see a lot more production as a kick returner in 2012, now that he does not have to split opportunities with the departed Princeton McCarty.

    Many teams will likely score on the Vandals in 2012, considering they surrendered 33.3 points and 436.8 yards per game last season. This means a lot of kickoff returns for Veltung.

    Veltung has two kickoff return touchdowns in his career, and he will continue to get more chances to bring one back in 2012.

    Phil Steele has placed Veltung on his 2012 Preseason All-WAC First Team at punt returner, as Veltung returned two punts for touchdowns in 2011, but I also predict a strong season for Veltung as a kick returner.

Nick Williams, University of Connecticut

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    University of Connecticut rising senior Nick Williams will handle both kickoff return and punt return duties in 2012. As a kick returner, Williams has two career touchdowns.

    Phil Steele has placed Williams on his 2012 Preseason All-Big East Third Team at kick returner.