Fall camp has yet to commence, but prognostications about the Seminoles’ gridiron fortunes are already plentiful. Naturally, discussions surrounding the quarterback battle and the promising defense have taken center stage, but that certainly doesn’t make special teams worth discounting. And one area that could stand a shot in the arm is the punt return unit.
When you think about ‘Nole punt returners, you tend to picture freakish athletes juking would-be tacklers and blazing by defenders who thought they had an angle. Guys like Deion Sanders, Terrell Buckley, and Greg Reid, who just happen to be three of the five Seminoles tied atop the FSU record books with three career punt-return touchdowns.
But the ‘Noles, perennially rife with athletic ability superior to that of their opponents, haven’t brought a punt back for a touchdown since 2012, when Tyler Hunter accomplished that feat for a 75-yard house call against Duke. In that 2012 season that saw Florida State win the Orange Bowl, Hunter and Rashad Greene combined for three punt-return TDs, while the latter averaged 15.35 yards per return, which came in eighth, nationally.
Since then, the big-play punt-return cupboard has been relatively bare. Kenny Shaw averaged 9.65 yards per return in 2013 (28th, nationally), while FSU finished at an even 10 yards per return (41st in the country)— all of which occurred without a score.
No 2014 Seminole punt returner registered in the nation’s top 60 at YPR, and in 2015, Bobo Wilson averaged 4.54 yards per return. And yes, no scores. The ‘Noles as a team? 115th in the land, at 3.74 YPR.
Now, a lot of this has to do with the increased skill and athleticism of college punters, as Florida State Head Coach Jimbo Fisher has often pointed out. Also, strategy cannot be ignored. When you have offensive weapons like the Seminoles have had of late — most notably QB Jameis Winston and RB Dalvin Cook — you’re much more apt to trend conservative on the return game: when your offensive features weapons like that, safely getting the ball to your superstars is, by no means, a ridiculous proposition.
But still. No TDs since 2012, given the wealth of talent FSU has recruited in the Jimbo Fisher era? A ‘Nole punt returner took one to the house in 2011. And 2010. And 2009. And 2008. Will 2016 be the year that changes the trend?
Time will tell. And incoming five-star recruit Levonta Taylor, a gifted defensive back and returner from Virginia, could weigh in quite heavily as well— and for Florida State’s benefit.