Korvic Neat muffs a punt, contributing to 13 LSU points off turnovers in a 41-35 Tiger win in 2012. Markell Pack muffs a punt in one of many forgettable moments in an ugly 30-0 loss at Arkansas in November of 2014. Carlos Davis muffs a punt against Vanderbilt, and if not for a convoluted fair catch interference penalty, the Rebels are scrambling to hold on in an eventual 27-16 win last season.
Punt returns, to put it mildly, have been an adventure for Ole Miss in four years under head coach Hugh Freeze. The Rebels have tried just short of everything in search of a solution, shuffling in candidate after candidate only for the results to remain, for the most part, the same. Returns can, and should be, a weapon for teams; they can turn a game in an instant or, if nothing else, flip field position for an offense.
“We’ve got to improve there,” Freeze said. “The number one goal of your punt return unit is to have the football.”
For Ole Miss, though, they’ve been nothing short of a black hole. In mid-October against Memphis, Freeze, at his wit’s end, turned to oft-injured wide receiver Collins Moore as his primary punt returner. Why? No drama. Moore caught pretty much any punt kicked in his direction, even if he didn’t do much of anything with it. But the consistency was a welcomed reprieve from the fumblitis of Davis.
The results were unremarkable, but unremarkable was just fine for a team that finished the year with a Sugar Bowl win and 10-3 record. Moore totaled a team-high 15 returns for 21 yards — an average of 1.4 yards per return.
Redshirt freshman Jalen Julius isn’t blind to the opportunity in front of him. Freeze has championed Julius as, potentially, the future at punt return for almost two years now, and he’s embracing the possibility as Ole Miss enters its second week of August practices.
“I’m comfortable in that because I’m a playmaker,” Julius said. “They kick it to me, and hopefully I’m going to score. I think I can get it. If I get the starting punt return job I’ll make big plays. I’m comfortable (catching punts). I think I have a knack for it. It’s good.”
Julius, a former three-star prospect, played running back, wide receiver, cornerback and kick returner throughout his prep career at West Orange (Fla.) High School. He rushed for 493 yards and seven touchdowns on 38 carries, while also returning two kicks for scores, as a senior. He has the versatility, and the experience, to handle the job.
Ole Miss was tempted to remove his redshirt last season, but Julius said the year off was the right call. He’s never been tied to only one position, and learning the ins and outs of cornerback in the SEC takes time. He used the year to get stronger and better hone in on his technique.
Now he’s garnering praise from Freeze on a near daily basis. More importantly, he sees his name near the top of the depth chart, running with the twos behind starting cornerbacks Tony Bridges and Ken Webster, and competing with true freshman Tre Nixon at punt return.
The Rebels open their season against Florida State in Orlando, Fla., Sept. 5.
“It’s my second year fully at corner and I feel more comfortable with my technique and everything,” he said. “It’s going good. I feel like corner is good for me because I’m quick and I have quick hips and stuff like that. It’s the right position for me. In my opinion we have the best receiver corps in the nation. Every day we compete and get better because we have the best group of receivers. It’s going to help us out in the long run.”
Julius said the toughest aspect of cornerback is “being patient.” The same description applies for his Ole Miss career up to this point.
But his time is now, and not a moment too soon for the Ole Miss return game.
“I think Jalen is going to be a player,” Freeze said.