College Football: The 15 Most Electrifying Kick Returners of the Last 25 Years
It is the most violent, video-friendly, terrifying, electrifying, dangerous and dramatic play in football. And unfortunately, its days may be numbered.
Over the past eight months, Rutgers head coach Greg Schiano has become the public face of a movement to eliminate the kickoff from college football. In an interview with an Atlanta radio station last week, he again laid out his proposal:
"Instead of having a kickoff, every place where you would have a kickoff now, you would put in place a 4th-and-15 situation. The team that would now be kicking off would have the option: They could punt the ball or they could go for it. The option to go for it would replace the onside kickoff. You could still try to maintain possession of the ball. If you don't, then you punt the ball. I think it would start the game in similar field position. Punts are a much, much less physical play."
Schiano referenced a statistic that more than 15 percent of the catastrophic injuries suffered on the football field happen on kickoffs, even though there are only a handful of kickoffs per game.
You can't knock Schiano for wanting to make the game safer. He is a former college linebacker, a longtime coach and a parent. One of his players, Eric LeGrand, remains paralyzed from the neck down today due to an injury suffered on a kickoff last October.
Schiano, like anybody who cares about football, cares about the welfare of the players.
But wiping out the kickoff? Though I understand the safety concerns, it would be a shame to tear down a stage on which some of college football's most talented players have put in work. It'd be like turning a demolition crew on the Apollo Theater.
Consider what we've seen from the most electrifying kick-returners to mark the college football landscape over the past quarter-century.
15. Allen Rossum (Notre Dame)
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Boasting the speed and fluidity you'd expect from an All-American sprinter, Rossum owns the FBS career record with nine total return touchdowns—three on punts, three on kickoffs, three on interceptions—and ranks second in Notre Dame history with a 22.9 punt-return average.
As a senior in 1997, Rossum finished fourth nationally in kickoff-return average; as a junior he led the country in punt-return average.
Rossum played 12 years in the NFL, where he made the Pro Bowl as a return specialist and ranks second all-time in combined kick return yardage.
No. 1 on that list? Brian Mitchell, the three-time All-Pro who, interestingly enough, never once returned a punt or kickoff in college. Mitchell was a full-time quarterback at Louisiana-Lafayette.
14. Tim Dwight (Iowa)
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Dwight's style wasn't graceful—he was reminiscent of one of those old NFL Films segments starring Crazy Legs Hirsch—but he got where he needed to go in a hurry.
"White Lightning" was another dual-sport football/track star who finished his Iowa career ('94-97) as the Big Ten's all-time leader in punt-return yardage and touchdowns. Both records have since been broken.
13. Javier Arenas (Alabama)
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Weaving through traffic and toeing the sidelines in ways that would make Kyle Busch and Cris Carter smile, Javier showed anybody who watched him serve four years ('06-09) as Alabama's home run threat that he is more than just Gilbert Arenas' little cousin.
Javier owns the SEC career record with seven punt-return touchdowns, averaging 14.0 yards per punt return and 24.1 yards per kickoff return.
12. Wes Welker (Texas Tech)
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Not that the Red Raiders' notoriously potent offense needed help putting points on the board, but Welker was an extra threat to score any time he fielded a kick.
Welker scored eight touchdowns on punt returns in his career ('00-03), tying the FBS record. As a senior, he won the Mosi Tatupu Award as the nation's top special teams player.
11. Tim Brown (Notre Dame)
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Brown probably wouldn't have become the first receiver to win the Heisman (1987) without his contributions on special teams. That season, he averaged 19.8 yards per kickoff return and scored three TDs on punt returns.
And that really wasn't even his best year as a kick-returner. As a junior in '86, Brown averaged 27.9 yards per kickoff return, including two touchdowns and 37.5 yards per punt return. For his career, he scored six times on kick returns.
10. Barry Sanders (Oklahoma State)
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Before his breakout Heisman season (1988), Barry played backup to Thurman Thomas and made his mark on special teams. As a sophomore, he led the nation in kickoff return yards with 442, while averaging 31.6 yards per return.
That year, he took the opening kickoff of the opening game back for a TD against Tulsa. The next year, his Heisman year, Sanders took the opening kickoff in the opening game back 100 yards for a score against Miami-Ohio.
9. Maurice Jones-Drew (UCLA)
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Imagine if the fantasy football owners who covet Jones-Drew so much now could have had him in college, where in addition to his rushing and receiving exploits, he was also a record-setting kick-returner.
That same power, speed and aggressive running style that has made him a superstar every-down back in the NFL made him a lethal returner for UCLA.
As a junior in 2005, Jones-Drew set the FBS single-season mark by averaging 28.5 yards per punt return. His career punt-return average (23.2) ranks second all-time nationally.
During his freshman and sophomore seasons, Jones-Drew averaged over 26 yards per kickoff return, and by the time he went pro, he had scored seven return touchdowns.
8. Antonio Perkins (Oklahoma)
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As good as Jones-Drew was, UCLA has never seen a return man as dangerous as Antonio Perkins.
On one September day in 2003, Perkins tortured the Bruins for 277 yards on seven punt returns, scoring touchdowns from 65, 74 and 84 yards out. (Jones-Drew's 91-yard kickoff return TD in that same game was understandably overshadowed.)
Another score against Missouri later that year gave Perkins the FBS single-season record for punt return TDs. He left Oklahoma as the school's career leader in punt return yards and tied Wes Welker and Ted Ginn Jr. for the FBS career record with eight total kick return touchdowns.
Perkins wasn't ridiculously fast, but he mastered the art of being elusive in tight spaces. In the famous UCLA game, on his first punt return, he made about four or five moves in a five-yard area before finding daylight.
7. Deion Sanders (Florida State)
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Whether it's football, fashion or just breathing, it's tough to make any "Most Electrifying" list without including Deion.
In 1988, "Prime Time" led the nation in punt-return average and left FSU as the school's all-time leader in punt return yards. But even if he'd been stopped for 10- and 12-yard gains every time, surely he'd find some way to remain memorable.
6. C.J. Spiller (Clemson)
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Watching Spiller make defenders look like clowns while flying down the field in Clemson's orange unis, it was easy to recall images of Barry Sanders at Oklahoma State. Except C.J. was better than Barry when it came to returning kicks.
Spiller racked up 2,052 yards and seven touchdowns (an FBS record) on kickoff returns and added 569 yards and a score on punt returns for good measure.
5. Devin Hester (Miami)
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The best kick-returners have a knack for making big plays in big games. And before Hester made his name in the biggest game by returning the opening kickoff for a TD in Super Bowl XLI, he showed similarly great timing in college.
As a freshman in just his second game for the Hurricanes, against rival Florida, Hester took the opening kickoff 98 yards to the house. He finished his college career ('03-05) averaging 25.5 yards per kickoff return and 15.6 per punt return, with six return touchdowns.
Hester may not be the fastest person to ever play football, but I don't think I've seen anybody run faster on a football field.
4. Desmond Howard (Michigan)
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No one will forget the Heisman pose after the 93-yard punt return TD against Ohio State, but they also shouldn't forget the body of work that led to Howard's defining moment.
Fast, flashy and fearless, Howard averaged 27.9 yards per kickoff return and 16.2 per punt return in his Wolverines career ('89-91), scoring three return TDs. In 2010, he was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame.
3. Ted Ginn Jr. (Ohio State)
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You want to see over 100,000 people afraid to move? You should have watched the Ohio Stadium crowd any time Ted Ginn Jr. went back to field a kick.
Recruited to play defensive back and run track, Ginn made an immediate impact with the ball, leading the nation in punt return average (25.6) as a freshman and scoring four touchdowns.
Ginn visited the end zone four more times on kick returns over the next three seasons—including taking the opening kickoff back 92 yards in the 2007 BCS National Championship Game—and finished his career as the Big Ten's all-time leader in punt-return touchdowns.
2. Reggie Bush (USC)
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Heisman Trophy, Walter Camp Award, Doak Walker Award, AP and Sporting News Player of the Year. Racked up 1,522 kickoff return yards, 559 punt return yards and four kick-return touchdowns in three seasons.
The day before Halloween 2004, from the press box at Washington State's Martin Stadium, I watched him run into a crowd on a punt return on a wet field, then with one cut, leave a trail of flailing arms and jockstraps on his way to the end zone.
I watched him do things in a USC uniform that Marcus Allen, O.J. Simpson, Charles White and Anthony Davis wouldn't have imagined.
As a West Coast resident and Pac-10 fan, I watched Reggie Bush do some incredible things. But the NCAA told me none of it ever happened, so maybe I was just dreaming.
1. Raghib Ismail (Notre Dame)
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He doesn't own any national kick return records, and apparently he only scored six return touchdowns in his college career. His 27.6 yards per kickoff and 13.6 yards per punt-return averages were solid but not eye-popping.
And his most memorable return—a 91-yard dash with one minute left in the 1991 Orange Bowl that (would have) dashed Colorado's national championship—didn't even count due to a clipping penalty.
So why is "Rocket" holding down the No. 1 spot on this list? Because when I was a kid, he was the guy who made me think returners were supposed to take punts and kickoffs back for touchdowns on a regular basis.
I expected him to score every time he touched the ball. It took about two years of post-Rocket recovery before I realized kick return TDs are actually a rare football gift.
Ismail could dance away from contact when he had to, and he had the strength to break tackles, but his style was more like Eric Dickerson.
He'd find the seam, hit the seam and just out-sprint the coverage like they were wearing snow shoes.