Punt Returning Not Easy Task

FAYETTEVILLE — Peyton Hillis realizes he's not a prototypical punt returner.

He doesn't have the sub-4.4 speed and elusiveness of Ted Ginn or Reggie Bush, two of the top punt returners in the country a season ago.

"There's a lot more guys that can do it better than me, but I guess they're having trouble catching the ball right now," Hillis said. "With our punt return team ... if you field it cleanly and nobody's around you, you can get 10-15 yards. That's all they want.

"I just try to get north and south as much as I can."

What Hillis does have, is the hands. He's impressed Arkansas' coaches, especially Houston Nutt, with his ability to hang onto the ball.

"That's all I'm working for," Hillis said. "Maybe I can break one here or there but right now I'm just trying to help the team get a few more yards than what we should have."

Of the five players to return punts for the Razorbacks a year ago, only Hillis is back in the mix for the punt-return job this season.

Felix Jones was going to be in the mix at punt returner after being the primary kick returner last season. But Darren McFadden's injury has forced the coaches to back off that to try to give Jones — who is now the Razorbacks' No. 1 option at tailback — a break.

Jones doesn't sound like he wants to give up the punt returning duties without a fight, though.

"Peyton worked hard for that job and deserves it. I try to work hard. All I can do is work hard to try to get the job," Jones said. "If I get a chance, I'm going to try to take advantage of it. If not, I'm going to keep working hard to try to get on the field to catch punts."

The sophomore isn't worried about being overused if he's needed on the punt-return team. As a freshman, Jones was one of the top kick returners in the country, averaging 31.9 yards on 17 returns including one for a touchdown.

"If coach wants me to be on the line, I'll do it," Jones said. "I'll do whatever he wants. It's a team sport and I'll do what it takes to get to where we need to go."

Nutt's preference would be to keep Hillis and Jones off of the duty, but right now doesn't feel comfortable with that.

"I'd rather (not use Hillis or Jones)," Nutt said. "But that's such a big play in the game. It's going to come down to who has the best hands consistently to catch the ball."

The Razorbacks' depth at wide receiver has also helped their punt-return game, with senior Cedric Washington and freshman Damian Williams also entering the picture.

"When you have the guys up there blocking for you, all we pretty much have to do is catch the ball," Williams said.

If it were only that easy.

"I say, ‘All you have to do is catch the ball but it's a lot different now," Williams said. "One thing is you have two gunners that probably run 4.3-4.2 coming right at your face but that's where you have confidence in your team that they're going to block for you. At the same time, the punters in this league are amazing. They can drop balls where they want to drop them ... and then just 75,000 people in the stands cheering, yelling, you have to just block all that out and catch it."


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