Who Should Return Kicks For Florida State?

I do not often write about special teams play, and while they are not as important as offense or defense, the special units are important nonetheless.  New Running Back Coach Eddie Gran is highly regarded for his special teams and he is Florida State's new special teams coordinator.  He replaces Jody Allen, who is now at West Georgia (not a joke).  I'll give Allen high marks for not messing up Graham Gano and Dustin Hopkins, passing marks for FSU's punt return team (though much of that praise must go to Greg Reid as we'll see in a moment), and failing marks for the coverage teams (both kick and punt coverage). Today I want to talk a little return game. 

Punt Return

I'll get this out of the way.  At its core, punt return is very simple.  Do not commit penalties.  The offense is getting the ball.  Don't rough the punter and do not hold.  Do not turn the ball over.  And after that, block in such a fashion as to allow the returner to gain speed before he must avoid his first potential tackler.  FSU was the best punt return team in the ACC and 2nd nationally (to LSU).  Greg Reid led the country in return average.  Here's the numbers. These are for conference play only (level playing field for all), and Reid handled every ACC punt return for FSU:

Return Avg.
Florida State 19.7
Clemson 16.0
Georgia Tech 13.4
North Carolina 13.0
Virginia Tech 7.9
North Carolina State 7.2
Miami (Florida) 6.7
Wake Forest 6.4
Virginia 5.8
Maryland 5.4
Boston College 4.8
Duke 2.5

After watching the film, it seems like FSU's punt return team wasn't very good at all.  FSU routinely turned loose at least one (and sometimes both) gunner and it was up to Greg to make them miss.  Reid has incredible vision and the ability to go from a dead stop to top speed in a single step.  In watching his punt return film, look at how often he must immediately dodge one or two would-be tacklers.  In particular, I refer you to the highlight at 3:15.  Greg must dodge 4 defenders who have eluded FSU blockers, in a row!  That's not ideal.  Greg is the best punt returner in the country, but the rest of the return team could use some work.   It's probably safe to say that Reid succeeded in spite of the efforts of the return team.  I would suggest that FSU needs to stop feigning the block and just simply set up the return.  That would allow the blockers to be in better position against the gunners.  An occasional doubling of the gunner, particularly to the field side might also serve FSU well.  FSU's punt return results were already excellent, but they can still improve.  It's likely that teams simply punt out of bounds this year, and while I expect Greg's individual numbers to drop as a result of the diminished opportunities, the resulting excellent field position from poorly executed out-of-bounds punts will absolutely help the team.  Conclusion:  Greg Reid should continue to return punts for Florida State. 



Kick Return

Kick return, however, is different than punt return.  The kick returner must catch the ball.  That is absolutely critical because unlike a punt, a non-fielded kickoff is a live ball.  After that, getting upfield quickly and not dancing is the next most important (SOURCE:  Bill Belichek Orlando Nike Clinic Talk).  And of course, no penalties and no turnovers.  Here, FSU was bad:

Team Kickoff Return AVG
Maryland 23.9
Georgia Tech 22.7
Wake Forest 22.4
Duke 22.3
Clemson 21.8
North Carolina State 21.8
Virginia Tech 21.2
North Carolina 20.7
Boston College 20.5
Miami (Florida) 20.4
Florida State 20.3
Virginia 20.2

As always, these numbers reflect conference play.  Granted, there isn't a lot of differentiation between the best and worst team (only 3.7 yards per return), but over the course of a game (5-7 returns depending on how bad your defense is), that can add up.  And besides, with the athletes FSU has, it is just not acceptable for the kickoff return team to finish 2nd to last in the conference.  FSU and Miami should have far and away the best return teams in the conference due to the caliber of athlete those two schools field across the board. 

And while Greg Reid is the obvious choice as punt returner, he is far from a lock to return kicks.  Coach Gran prefers guys who do not dance a lot on kick return.  He, like Belichek, wants really fast, straight-line guys who make minimal cuts and follow the design of the return.  Greg is fast, but he is not track fast compared to guys like A.J. Alexander, Bert Reed, and the incoming LaMarcus Joyner.  People I speak with seem to think Alexander has a good chance to return kicks this year.  He's very fast and he does not dance much.  That's not to say that Reid won't return kickoffs, but he was only 8th in the conference last year.  Greg is very slight of build and considering that he will already be subjecting himself to hits on defense and in the punt return game, it might not be wise to risk him to injury returning kickoffs.  Kickoff hits are harder on average than punt hits because of the speed the coverage team builds as it has a greater distance to gain speed and doesn't have to waste any time blocking before it releases to go downfield.  Conclusion:  Unclear.  While Reid is an acceptable returner, FSU might be able to do better if a track guy steps up.  Even if Reid is the man, I expect his average to increase because...

As a final note, I expect both return teams to improve their averages because of linebackers.  Huh?  It's true.  FSU's lack of linebacker recruiting under a certain former coach hampered the special teams.  Special teams needs linebackers.  They are faster than defensive ends and bigger than wide receivers.  FSU had to try to substitute wide receivers, defensive linemen, and safeties in its special teams last year and that just doesn't work.  FSU brought in 5 linebackers this recruiting class and while Holmes Onwukaife will redshirt, I expect the other 4 to make an impact on special teams.

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