Three players combined to return a total of 14 punts for the Washington Huskies in 2013. None of them went very far.
Marvin Hall and Kasen Williams tied for the team lead with five returns — not counting fair catches and downed kicks — and they combined to run just 56 yards after catching the ball (47 of those were from Hall, the team leader, thanks in part to a team-best 18-yard return against California).
John Ross tried it, too, returning four punts a total of 21 yards. And this year, junior receiver Jaydon Mickens won the job for UW’s opener at Hawaii, only to muff a catch and struggle to field the ball against a knuckleball-style punter.
So the recent emergence of freshman receiver Dante Pettis as a legitimate punt-return threat appears to have given the Huskies something they haven’t had since at least 2003, the year Charles Frederick returned a punt 86 yards for a touchdown against Oregon State. No UW player has done it since. In other words: the last time the Huskies returned a punt for a touchdown, Keith Gilbertson was their coach and Pettis was in the second grade.
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And while that mark still stands, the Huskies appear more dangerous at that position now than they have at any point in the previous decade.
Pettis, a 6-foot, 177-pound receiver from Junipero Serra (California) High School, is one of eight true freshmen to play for the Huskies this season through four games. His playing time at receiver has been limited, but Pettis has made significant contributions as a punt returner, taking four kicks last week a total of 98 yards against Georgia State.
That performance alone topped UW’s entire 2013 output by 21 yards, and it brings Pettis’ season totals to nine returns for 149 yards. No other Pac-12 player has more punt-return yards this season, and only Utah’s Kaelin Clay is averaging more yards per return. And Pettis’ 149 return yards are already more than any Huskies player has totaled in a single season since Anthony Russo tallied 222 in 2007. (UW’s single-season record, by the way, is 593 yards on 38 returns, set by Beno Bryant in 1990.)
Pettis’ returns were especially important last week. The first came with UW trailing 14-0 in the third quarter and covered 35 yards. It set up Washington’s first touchdown. Two other returns led to scores, too. Pettis provided the spark the Huskies so badly needed after an awful first half.
“If you win at the line in that phase, that’s where the explosive returns come,” said Jeff Choate, the team’s special-teams coordinator. “They don’t come by guys (blocking) downfield. It’s by guys creating the cushion at the line of scrimmage that develops as the play progresses. I think our guys on the hold-ups did a great job giving him room, he did a good job making decisions, putting his foot in the ground, getting vertical, and the seams were there.
“Got tackled a couple times, and I’m sure he would have liked to get in the end zone. (But) there’s no question that made a huge difference in the game.”
Of course, substantial punt returns in college football are predicated on the punting team actually kicking it to the returner, which is becoming less prevalent as more teams shift to rugby-style kicks out of multiple formations and with multiple “gunners” releasing in pursuit of the returner. That isn’t allowed in the NFL, which has rules prohibiting ineligible receivers from crossing the line of scrimmage prior to the ball being kicked.
And as UW transitions into the Pac-12 portion of its schedule — No. 16 Stanford visits Husky Stadium on Saturday — it becomes less likely that Pettis will get the same opportunities to put together lengthy returns.
That’s coach Chris Petersen’s primary lamentation. He believes punt returns to be one of the most exciting parts of a football game, and doesn’t like how college rules favor the punting team. But Choate acknowledged that “we’re part of the problem,” referring to his own use of rugby-style rollout punts dating back to his stint as Utah State’s special-teams coordinator in the early 2000s.
Choate helped further popularize unorthodox punt formations when he went to work for Petersen at Boise State.
“I think it definitely does take one of the more exciting facets of the game out of it a little bit. That’s up to the rules committee to decide,” Choate said. “But as long as they have the rules the way they are, we’re going to take advantage of them, and so are a lot of other teams in the country.”
Asked what constitutes a quality punt return anymore, Petersen said: “When we get the ball back to the offense, number one. And that might mean the ball hits the ground, the ball goes back to the offense — that’s our number-one goal. Number two, it’s always caught with some sort of technique.
“And three, we steal some hidden yardage as the game goes on.”
So far, Pettis has stolen plenty.