But is there another Devin Hester looming in the college ranks?
I searched scouting profiles, draft boards, stat sheets, YouTube and more for the top return prospects in college football that can challenge Hester for NFL return supremacy.
Prospects were judged by these criteria:
Acceleration: In and out of cuts and closing speed in the second level
Vision and Awareness: seeing your moves ahead of time and finding the seams in return coverages
Elusiveness or 'Escapability'
Experience and Success in College
Can his Return Style Translate to the NFL?
After much research, here are the six athletes I believe have the best chance of become the next Devin Hester.
Chris Rainey, Florida
Greg Reid, Florida State
Devon Wylie, Fresno State
Branden Smith, Georgia
Tyler Lockett, Kansas State
Travis Benjamin, Miami
Justin Gilbert, Oklahoma State
Marquis Lee, Southern California
Foswitt Whittaker, Texas
In the NFL
Patrick Peterson, Arizona Cardinals
Since Hester came out of the University of Miami, you had to expect a Cane on this list, right?
South Florida has always been considered a recruiting hotbed for the speed and quickness that’s essential for a return man.
But just because Miller goes to "The U" does not mean he's an honorary member.
Miller is the latest speedster to come out of Miami, and he may end up being the most special. He’s projected to be a first-round running back talent by most credible draft agencies, only behind Alabama’s Trent Richardson.
But what Richardson brings with his power, Miller has with his pure speed. He’s a blur when he hits the hole and flies past the second level. I would argue he will be timed with the fastest first 10 yards of any skill player in the 2012 draft class.
That’s exactly why Miller’s skill set may be suited for a return gig in the NFL. While he is being looked at as an all-purpose running back, most teams use RBBCs (running-backs-by-committee) anyway, giving him enough rest to take the return reps in a game.
Plus, he does have return experience from his freshman year last season, most notably his 89 yard scamper against Ohio State in Columbus.
With acceleration like that, Miller will always have a place on a NFL squad. Returning kicks looks like a good place to start.
Meet college football's Usain Bolt.
Demps doesn’t just have top-end speed on the football field. He’s been regarded as the "Fastest Man in College Sports."
The Florida Gators running back also doubles as a track star in the offseason. He is currently the national champion in the 60-meter sprint and was the 2010 champion in the 100 meters.
On the football field, his accolades have been just as spectacular. He always seems to be close to the top in longest all-purpose plays whether it’s in the rushing, receiving or the return game.
Despite being a big-play threat whenever he touches the ball, Demps did not start returning kicks until his junior year. Ever since then, teams always have to know where Demps is on the field, even on special teams.
It is easy to see how Demps’ skill set will translate well to NFL returning. He has some of the greatest agility and acceleration ever to be seen on the football field. When he gets into the open space, it may be impossible to bring down from behind.
With good NFL blocking schemes, Demps will be a feared "home-run hitter" in the NFL.
Oregon has recently become a skill player factory, with multiple upperclassmen with the acceleration and quickness to make NFL rosters, including LaMichael James, Kenjon Barner and Darron Thomas.
But freshman De’Anthony Thomas is already putting special teams coaches to bed.
Thomas is far from being the Oregon Ducks’ secret weapon; he was the most heralded recruit in Chip Kelly’s latest recruiting class and one of the fastest players in recent memory to come out of Los Angeles.
The hype does not faze this 5’8" running back. He’s been able to make an impact in both an offense and special teams for this Oregon team. He has been a terror in the open field with a mix of quickness, closing speed and awareness that can be seen in this recent run-back against USC.
In this play, arguably the best kick return of this college season, Thomas makes two NFL-caliber cuts that only a few elite runners can make.
The first is early on after he fakes a handoff and almost stops a dime, but manages to maintain a quick pace before heading for the seam downfield; one can’t help but be reminded of Hester with that elite juke.
Later down the sideline he has the vision and awareness to trust his blockers and make the necessary cut towards the middle of field and the end zone.
He certainly has the skill set, but in addition, Thomas has been nicknamed "The Black Mamba." Perhaps he’s destined to become the Kobe of the return game.
If anybody on this list has escapability, it has to be Adams. If you haven’t heard of him, just play that video on the right and watch your mouth drop.
In arguably the play of the year, Adams eludes almost the entire Tennessee punt coverage team en route to a score. If he can’t make it in the NFL as a receiving threat, that return alone will get Adams an NFL tryout as a return man.
But Adams is no one-hit wonder. He’s been one of the most consistent returners in college football, placing in the top 10 in punt return yards and kick average.
If his play is any indication of a future Devin Hester, it has been his knack for the end zone this season. Adams is the only returner in the nation who has three punt returns for scores.
Most impressively, Adams has been a force in the return game against SEC opponents, normally boasting the most feared defense and special teams in the nation.
It would not surprise me to see Joe Adams making a fool out of opposing special teams in years to come.
Boykin came out of high school as a highly-touted defensive back prospect with a knack for the return game. In the last two seasons, he has beaten out other Georgia athletes for the return gig and has been spectacular.
One precursor to a successful NFL return man is success on the college level, much like Hester. Boykin has had his share of accolades as a Bulldog.
He holds school records in kick returns, kick return yardage, and touchdowns. In addition, he is the first player in SEC history with two 100-yard kickoff returns in one season, including this one against Tennessee in Knoxville.
In the Tennessee clip, Boykin shows great agility when he makes that small yet significant cut that led him into daylight. That combination of vision and quickness will make an NFL team consider his talents on special teams.
Currently Boykin is projected to be a second- or third-round selection as a cornerback. However, there’s no question he’ll be a factor in the return game on the next level.
The Arizona State receiver and return specialist is currently in the top 20 in punt and kick return average, one of the only Big Six Conference returners to do so. He also has three return touchdowns on the year.
If the stat sheet does not suffice, then check out the videotape. His return touchdown against Oregon State was a perfect blend of quickness and closing speed once he was in open space. Miles is able to split two different sets of defenders in a span of five seconds, exuding an elusive quality that few return men possess.
He’s had success in both returning realms. Next year Miles will attempt to take his return talents to one NFL team. They’ll be lucky to have him.
Regardless if we see another D-Hester again, let's enjoy his greatness in the present.
By the way, he was a pretty good returner in college himself.
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