If there is one position in football that is commonly overlooked, but can have a dynamic impact on a game, it's that of kick returner.
Kick returners are the ones that set up an offense in good (or poor) position either to begin a half or to bounce back from giving up a score. In an instant, these speedy returners can change a game.
However, the thing about kick returners, and punt returners for that matter, is that, like their feet, their fame is fleeting.
One year they can average 30 yards a return and be a threat to take it all the way every time they touch the ball. The next year the holes just don't seem to open, opposing teams key on them, and they average 20 yards or less.
Remember the NFL's Dante Hall?
While with the Chiefs only six or seven years ago, Hall was the talk of the league. Ask yourself, when was the last time you heard Dante Hall's name?
I'm willing to bet it wasn't recently.
Even in college, returners' success can change drastically year to year. Ask the Wisconsin Badgers' David Gilreath.
As a freshman, Gilreath was considered one of the brilliant returners in the land. As a kick returner, his production has kept at a constant pace, but as a punt returner, he averaged only 2.8 yards a return last year compared to almost 10 yards as a freshman.
The fact is, returners usually have a few good seasons, but if they aren't capable of stepping in at another position, history shows that their time is limited. Desmond Howard, Dante Hall, even Devin Hester (unless he proves to be a reliable wide receiver) have experienced this phenomenon.
With that in mind, it should come as no surprise that predicting what kick returners will have exceptional years is somewhat of a crap shoot.
But anyways, despite all that, kick returners are still a crucial part of the game.
So, who are the top 10 in college football? Take a look.
Note: Rankings were based on a combination of number of returns, return yards, return yard average (based on ESPN's minimum attempts eligibility), and touchdowns from 2009. There were many players who had very similar numbers, so good kick returners were inevitably left off this list. After all, there can only be 10.
An argument could be made for the inclusion of any of these kick returners in top 10, but they just missed the cut.
Keshawn Martin, Michigan State- 23 kickoff returns, 665 yards, one touchdown
T.Y. Hilton, Florida International- 22 kickoff returns, 633 yards, one touchdown
Niles Paul, Nebraska- 16 kickoff returns, 446 yards
Tracey Lampley, Southern Miss- 17 kickoff returns, 469 yards, one touchdown
Jamaal Jackson, North Texas- 17 kickoff returns, 463 yards
Derrick Locke, Kentucky- 23 kickoff returns, 625 yards, one touchdown
Titus Young, Boise State- 31 kickoff returns, 833 yards, two touchdowns
Leon Berry, Mississippi State- 38 kickoff returns,1,015 yards, one touchdown
Phillip Livas, Louisiana Tech- 24 kickoff returns, 622 yards, one touchdown
Dennis Johnson, Arkansas- 40 kickoff returns, 1,031 yards, one touchdown
Jesse Grandy, Ole Miss- 29 kickoff returns, 746 yards, two touchdowns
Darryl Stonum, Michigan- 39 kickoff returns, 1,001 yards, one touchdown
Travis Cobb, Arizona- 30 kickoff returns, 762 yards, one touchdown
Damaris Johnson, Tulsa- 46 kickoff returns, 1,131 yards
Kerwynn Wiliams, Utah State- 45 kickoff returns, 1,131 yards
Troy Stoudermire Jr., Minnesota- 43 kickoff returns, 1,057 yards
D.J. Monroe, Texas- 16 kickoff returns, 537 yards, two touchdowns (not eligible, didn't have minimum amount of attempts)
Lining up as a starting cornerback, UNLV junior Deante' Purvis was also one of the premier kick returners in the country last year.
Purvis was fourth in the country in kick return yards, taking back 50 kicks for 1,165 yards (a 23.3 yard average). He also returned one kickoff for a touchdown, going 94 yards for the score.
As a sophomore last year, Purvis really came on as a kick returner after seeing time as a freshman. He's believed to be the fastest player on the team (running a 4.3 40-yard dash) and is certainly one of the most dangerous return men in the game.
If his duties at cornerback don't hold him back, he will again be a top kick returner in 2010.
As the SEC Freshman of the Year in 2009 and the Freshman All-America team kick returner, Vanderbilt sophomore Warren Norman is poised for a huge 2010, both as a running back and kick returner.
Last year, Norman returned 40 kicks for 1,050 yards (a 26.3-yard average) and took back three for touchdowns.
Although with those kind of numbers, it would be hard for the Commodore coaching staff to relieve him of his returning responsibilities, his duties as a running back may come first.
Last year, he rushed for 783 yards and Vanderbilt will surely try to maximize his talent. That said, he may be too good of a returner to rest.
Although Temple junior James Nixon only had limited opportunities last year as a kick returner (just 17 attempts), he certainly made the most of them.
With those 17 returns, Nixon cranked out almost 500 return yards for a 29.2 yard average and took two back for touchdowns.
That said, with only limited opportunities, it's hard to judge just how good Nixon is. With more returns, it will be easier to see if he can keep up his productivity.
However, Nixon's definitely shown what he's capable of.
Before going down with a shoulder injury in late October last year, Connecticut redshirt junior Robbie Frey was one of the top kick returners in the country.
In only 21 returns, Frey gained over 600 return yards for almost a 30-yard average, and took one back for a touchdown.
However, like Norman in Vanderbilt, Frey may have to focus more of his time in the backfield for the Huskies.
But, in only half a season last year, Frey proved the kind of difference he can make returning kicks. Huskies' coaches would be ill-advised to relieve him of his duties.
Coming off a season in which he was one of the SEC's best kick returners, Georgia junior Brandon Boykin looks like he's in for another big year in 2010.
Last year, Boykin returned 38 kickoffs for almost a thousand yards for a 26-yard average, and took back three for touchdowns. He was also the first player in SEC history with two kickoff return touchdowns of 100 yards or more in the same season.
Boykin will again be seeing double-duty next year as a defensive back and kick returner, but don't expect that to affect him. He'll be back as one of the top return men in the country.
East Carolina senior Dwayne Harris, the team's best wide receiver (83 catches in 2009), also emerged as one of the country's top kick returners last year.
Along with hauling in passes, Harris also took back 37 kicks for 1,000 yards and three touchdowns. With his new-found ability as a kick returner as well as an All-America caliber receiver, Harris is one of the most electrifying players not only in Conference USA, but nationally.
As a junior, Harris proved he had no problems handling both responsibilities. Don't expect a letdown his senior year.
One of the most consistent kick returners in the nation, Maryland junior Torrey Smith not only caught 61 passes for the Terrapins last year, but also led the country in kickoff return yardage.
In 51 attempts, Smith gained 1,309 yards for a 25.7 yard average and returned two kicks for touchdowns.
There's no reason to believe Smith won't have a big year in both roles once again in 2010.
With 574 return yards on only 18 returns, Virginia Tech junior Dyrell Roberts was third in the nation in kickoff return average in 2009 with 31.9 yards a return.
Expect Roberts to also come on as a receiver for the Hokies in 2010 after hauling in 22 passes, including a game-winning touchdown against Nebraska, in 2009.
But, if Roberts can continue this caliber of play at kick returner, that is where he will shine next year.
Playing on one of the highest-scoring offenses in America, Houston junior Tyron Carrier is a fun player to watch.
Only 5'8" and 163 pounds, Carrier hasn't let his size affect his play. Not even close.
Along with lighting up defenses as a wide receiver (91 catches and seven touchdowns in 2009), Carrier rips through opposing kickoff teams as well.
Last year, in 34 attempts, Carrier gained almost a thousand return yards (a 29-yard average) and four touchdowns. Yep, four.
And defenses have to deal with him for at least another year? Wow.
Probably the best overall kick returner in the nation, Stanford junior Chris Owusu was third in the NCAA in return yards last year (1,167) on 39 returns, which also gave him the fifth-highest average (29.9 yards).
Oh, and he also had three touchdowns.
Unlike the other players on this list, Owusu carried a relatively high workload and still managed to produce one of the highest return averages in the country.
Some players may have had more returns and yards than he did, but they didn't put up his average. Others may have had higher averages, but they didn't have the amount of attempts to show if they could do it consistently.
Owusu proved he can do it every time he touches the ball.
And to top it all off, he's also one of Stanford's starting wideouts.
If you're looking for a return man to mimic, just watch No. 81.