Injuries highlight risk in having top players return kicks

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Jayden Reed has been a big part of Michigan State’s resurgence this year, returning two punts for touchdowns while also ranking among the Big Ten’s top receivers.

That kind of double threat can be valuable to a team – but at Maryland and Michigan, it went much differently.

Dontay Demus and Ronnie Bell, two of the top receivers in the league, are out for the season after getting injured on special teams. Bell was hurt in Michigan’s season opener returning a punt, and Maryland lost Demus while he was running back a kickoff in a game earlier this month. As much as teams want to have their most dynamic players return kicks, there is obviously some risk.

“The No. 1 thought is who can help us do the task at hand,” Wisconsin coach Paul Chryst said. “And then there’s always going to be risk involved, and yet I know players want to play and guys want to be able to help the team in any way that they can.”

This year, Wisconsin’s main punt returner is Dean Engram, a backup cornerback. Wide receiver Devin Chandler, who does not have any receptions this season, returns kickoffs.

Other teams have put some of their top playmakers in return roles.

Nobody has to tell Michigan fans what an impact a player can make on special teams. Wide receiver Desmond Howard won a Heisman Trophy in part because of his contributions running back kicks. Defensive back Charles Woodson, another Heisman winner, did that too.

When coach Jim Harbaugh was questioned about the pros and cons of putting a pivotal player back on punts, he said great players do that job, pointing to Howard, Woodson and former Central Michigan star Antonio Brown.

“The best players play positions,” Harbaugh said. “That’s the way it works.”

Michigan State coach Mel Tucker shares that philosophy when it comes to Reed.

“I’m not sure why anyone wouldn’t want to have him back there,” Tucker said earlier this season. “He can make plays back there and put us in good field position. He wants to be back there.”

There has been growing concern in recent years about the injury risk of kickoffs, to the point that a fair catch on a kickoff now puts the ball at the 25-yard line. Still, the temptation to try to break a big return remains strong.

Nebraska has used starters at other positions to return kicks and punts, hoping for a game-changing play – although coach Scott Frost said he understands the need to keep players healthy for their regular jobs.

“Normally I would weigh it quite a bit. Right now, I want someone back there who is going to catch it and give us a chance to return it,” Frost said. “We’re fielding it right now. We need to make a play in the return game at some point and that would really help us, so normally you make sure everybody is healthy. Right now, it’s all hands on deck.”

A week after Demus’ injury, Maryland still used Rakim Jarrett – now its top healthy receiver – as a kick returner against Ohio State. However, most of the Buckeyes’ kickoffs in that game last weekend resulted in fair catches or touchbacks.

Brandon Joseph, an All-America safety for Northwestern, had punt returns of 65 and 46 yards against Indiana State in the Wildcats’ second game of the season, but he hasn’t returned any since.

Garrett Wilson, who is Ohio State’s leading receiver, has been the primary punt returner for the Buckeyes for the last three seasons. But as coach Ryan Day pointed out, punt returns and kickoff returns are quite a bit different.

“Kickoff return, there’s just a lot of momentum on both sides. It’s one of those things we’ve looked at really, really hard to decide if, last year as you know, we didn’t do that. We tried to take the ball to the 25,” he said. “This year, we’re picking and choosing our spots we think that’s appropriate. A big part of that is the guys who are on that unit. It’s not just the returner. It’s everybody involved.”