Long TD drought for Cougs on special teams

THE END ZONE has been a foreign land for Washington State punt and kick returners for so long that even the trivia-loving founders of Cougfan.com struggled to recall the last time the Cougs hit paydirt on special teams. Indeed, WSU hasn't scored on a punt return since Michael Bumpus took one 87 yards at Nevada in 2005.

And their last kickoff return for a TD stretches all the way back to Sammy Moore at Colorado in 2003.

“I tell people all the time (about it)," Bumpus, a record-setting receiver and returner, told CF.C this week when asked how well he remembers the Cougs' last scoring punt return.

"I coach kids so I tell them that I compare (returning a punt) to the stampede in the Lion King. You’re sitting there, and you feel those guys coming. Your juices get flowing, and then you’re just running for your life, picking up blocks,” said Bumpus (pictured above).

To put the Cougars' long drought into perspective, consider that Kaelin Clay, whom the Cougars will play on Saturday at Utah, has already this season taken two punts and one kickoff to the house.

“It’s just hard. Just think about it. You’ve got to make 11 guys miss, 11 guys not to do their job,” WSU special teams coach Eric Russell said this week when asked about the Cougars' long dry spell.

Asked if he had any tips for the current crop of Cougar return men, Bumpus was matter-of-fact.

First, he said, "following the butts" is key. In other words, find the blockers and then search for north-south creases. Once you have an idea of where your guys are going to be, he said, follow your instincts.

“It just takes nerves of steel. If you’re a timid player, punt returning is not the spot for you,” Bumpus said. “Punt returners are usually your confident guys, your better athletes. It takes a lot of nerves, hand-eye coordination, and belief ... your guys are out there blocking...”

Russell said the ingredient the Cougars have lacked in taking one to the end zone is explosive, finishing speed.

“I like where we’re at and I like what certain guys bring, but we’re not those trackster-see-it-hit it-finish-it-type of guys,” Russell said.

Bumpus said the key to his early success on special teams was the leadership on the unit. Guys like Hamza Abdullah and Karl Paymah were among the elder statesmen who show the way, he said.

A review of the stats over the last decade hint at why the Cougars haven't scored on special teams in so long.

In 2004 and 2005, Bumpus’ freshman and sophomore seasons, WSU averaged 11.6 yards per punt return. In the years since, the highest single-season average has been 9.0 yards. That was last season. This year through four games, the Cougs are averaging 7.6 yards per punt return.

There have been a few years in which the Cougars have averaged more yards per kick return than they did in 2003 (19.4), when Sammy Moore was striking fear into the hearts of opponents. And WSU has actually averaged more than 20 yards per kick return every year since 2010. Just no one breaking it all the way.

Bumpus, originally from southern California, lives in Snohomish County, where his wife grew up. They moved to the area after Bumpus finished playing pro football in Canada following a stint with the Seattle Seahawks in 2008. Bumpus owns and operates a physical fitness training facility.

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