Few plays can consistently rival the electricity and the opportunity to seize momentum a kickoff return or a punt return are able to generate.
Despite attempts to limit the physical damage and injuries allegedly inherent in returns, these plays remain a dynamic component of the game that offers teams a chance to so greatly impact the game’s outcome in so minuscule an amount of time.
Big returns don’t appear to happen as often as they used to. But is it a byproduct of the new rules, or has it become less important with the rise of a prolific, balanced offensive attack the Cowboys have seen with Mason Rudolph at quarterback and the weapons available to him?
Since the Bedlam game of 2014, Oklahoma State’s return game seems to have gone missing.
In the last two seasons, OSU has only had one punt or kick off return for a touchdown, a 67-yard punt return by Jalen McCleskey midway through the third quarter against Texas Tech on October 31, 2015. It was the only punt return that season that went more than 20 yards.
The longest return this season looked to be the inauguration of Barry J. Sanders as he weaved his way 57 yards through Southeastern Louisiana defenders before bring brought down shy of the goal line. This was what we were hoping to see from the Stanford graduate-transfer. But that return accounted for more than half of his total punt return yardage for the season, and neither he nor any of his fellow returners came close to replicating the feat.
It’s difficult to outdo what Tyreek Hill accomplished in the 2014 Bedlam game, when he cut through a pair of defenders and dashed down the sideline for a legendary 92-yard, game-tying touchdown on a punt return that forced overtime in a rivalry game the Cowboys would go on to win in overtime.
But OSU hasn’t really been a able to duplicate plays like that since.
In the two years since Hill’s departure, and outside of McCleskey’s TD in Lubbock, none of OSU’s return men have been the dynamic speedster who is a threat to hit paydirt any time he fields a kick. That’s not meant to offend Chris Lacy, James Washington, Sanders, or the others.
No team is going to return a large percentage of kicks for touchdowns, but great returners are able to combine speed and agility necessary to break open a long return that electrifies a home crowd or silences an opposing one. It can happen on any return. It just doesn’t seem to be happening as frequently for the Cowboys as we may have been used to.
Is it a product of the individual players who make each return or is it simply the special teams system that fails to provide opportunities for great returns? It looks like a combination of the two.
The bright side for OSU is that the Cowboys’ kick coverage has limited damage on its side. The Pokes haven’t given up a special teams return since that same 2015 game in Lubbock when Jakeem Grant returned a first quarter kick 100 yards to extend the Red Raiders’ lead to 24-7.
In 2016, Cowboys opponents returned 16 punts for an average of .94 yards. The longest was 19 yards. On kickoffs, OSU limited opponents to less than 19 yards per return, with a season long of 38 yards.
That special teams effort has helped to offset the struggles in OSU’s own returns, but having a weapon—ala Hill or Justin Gilbert or Josh Stewart—making those returns coupled with that strong coverage the Pokes have demonstrated in recent years could be the missing piece that ensures the 2017 Cowboys are legitimate title contenders late in the season.