Punt Returns Must Improve

With Devin Hester in attendance at Miami's practice Tuesday, one couldn't help but remember the good ole' days of great special teams at UM.

From 1999 to 2005, explosive special teams were a constant staple of Miami's offensive diet.

During those years, Miami averaged 13.3 yards per punt return and four punts returned for touchdowns per season.

But in 2006, Miami struggled to find a consistent threat at punt returner and finished second to last in the ACC in punt return average (7.2) and had zero returns for touchdowns.

"Last year was the first time the guys had returned punts in a game," special teams coach Joe Pannunzio said. "At the same time, I think the perception gets skewed because we had a guy like Devin Hester the year before who was the best of all time."

Last year, cornerback Bruce Johnson and receiver Rashaun Jones, who will transfer later this year, split the majority of reps at punt returner to combine for Miami's worst output in nine years.

This spring, Miami has given equal reps to receivers Sam Shields and Ryan Hill, defensive backs Doug Wiggins and Chavez Grant, and freshman running back Graig Cooper, who will likely miss the remainder of spring with a broken hand.

What is it that separates a great returner from an average returner? According to Pannunzio, it is a position that can't be taught.

"It is just god given ability," he said. "It isn't hard to find a great returner because he is just special—either a player has it or they don't have it."

Says Chavez Grant, "I think the key is the ability to see a hole and hit it as fast as you can, because at this level the holes close fast. A guy like Hester reacts fast and hits a hole hard. Average returners will hesitate and get a yard here or there."

Hill on punt returning:

What is the toughest thing for you personally during a punt return?

With me, the toughest thing is looking the ball in when I catch it. Coach is always telling me to keep my eyes up, but it is tough. I have the ability to block everything else out, but my biggest problem is looking the ball in. A lot comes into play when you return kicks and you have to be very detailed in everything you do.

What sets a great returner apart from an average returner?

A great returner has to have great eyesight and agility. There is a lot of great returners that didn't have speed. The most important thing is the lateral quickness from side to side.

Last year the returners weren't as successful as in years past. Have the coaches put more of an emphasis on punt returns this spring?

That is one area we have put more focus on this year. In practice we are having less drops than we had last year—we had probably six drops a practice last year. We have focused more on that area this year and we have gotten better.

With all the great returners Miami has had in the past, does the group battling for the returner position take pride in being the punt returner at UM?

You know that there have been so many great returners before you, that you take pride in that. When you get back there, you know you have a job to do and you have to get your job done because the whole team is counting on you.

Shields on punt returning:

What makes a successful returner good?

A great returner has to have good vision. He has to catch the ball and hit the hole hard, he can't tiptoe into the hole.

What is the thing you feel like you need to improve the most as a returner?

Judging the ball. It is different from high school, because then, it is not so high in the sky. I have to adjust to the high ball and plus you have to see the defenders coming down, cause if you don't you are going to get popped.

David Lake can be reached at lake@canestime.com

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