Penn State Football: With John Reid Out, Many Happy Returns in Question
John Reid the Cornerback is going to be sidelined for quite awhile, with a knee injury.
So is John Reid the Punt Returner.
That would be the same John Reid who was far and away Penn State's leading punt returner in 2016.
Of Penn State's 30 punt returns last season, Reid had 22 of them -- averaging 7.5 yards per return, ranking 39th in the country, with a best of 59 yards. Only the departed Gregg Garrity Jr., with four for 32 yards, also had more than one punt return in 2016.
The injury explains why Reid was not with the group of five that was fielding punts from Blake Gillikin and Danny Pasquariello at the end of Penn State's practice on Wednesday. That quintet included redshirt juniors DeAndre Thompkins, Josh McPhearson and Mark Allen, as well as newly-minted first-semester freshmen Lamont Wade and KJ Hamler.
Thompkins was Penn State's primary punt returner in 2015, with 23 returns for an average of 7.7 yards and a long of 58 yards. But he also lost four fumbles that season. He only had one punt return in 2016, for two yards. Allen had five returns in 2015, none in 2016.
So, it looks like the job is up for...um... grabs. Again.
At the start of spring drills, Penn State head coach James Franklin was excited by the return game potential of McPhearson, Penn State's 2016 scout team special teams player of the year. Speedy and effervescent, he is the brother of cornerback Zech McPhearson. He's battled back quickly from knee surgery and could catch on.
"Josh is moving from wide receiver to running back, and I would add that we're really looking at him being a return specialist," Franklin said in early March. "That's one of the reasons for moving him to running back; the ball security and things like that. We are really hoping Josh can factor in and compete as a kick returner and a punt returner. He's a dynamic guy when he gets the ball in his hands, so we're going to give him an opportunity there."
With Reid out, opportunity abounds.
And with Reid out, the Nittany Lions' seemingly endless search for a consistent — and consistently successful -- punt returner continues. Reid and the reliably tough Jesse Della Valle (35 PR for an 8.1-yard average in 2013-14) notwithstanding, that search has been ongoing since Derrick Williams left Penn State after the 2008 season.
Williams was the last Nittany Lion to return a punt for a touchdown. We are talking bona fide punt returns taken to the house. (So the blocked punts recovered in the end zone for a TD by Michael Yancich vs. Ohio State in Beaver Stadium in 2012 and by Jaime Van Fleet vs. Indiana at FedEx Field in 2010 don't count.)
A WILL, A WAY
Williams' last score came in the seventh game of the 2008 season, on Oct. 11 in Beaver Stadium when he returned a punt by Wisconsin's Brad Nortman 63 yards for a touchdown in Penn State's 48-7 victory over the Badgers. It was his fifth kick return for a TD at Penn State -- three punts, two kickoffs -- and the most by a Joe Paterno-coached player.
Since then, there has been a PR-for-TD drought at PSU.
It's been 8-1/2 seasons, 109 games and 244 returns — fair catches, corner kicks and wave-offs are non-counters — since the Nittany Lions' special teams last scored on a punt return. In this case, special may be a misnomer. Not that it's easy, even for Williams. Here's how the four Wisconsin punts went before Williams went 63 yards for that score in 2008:
1. Williams fumbled the punt, recovered it, lost two yards.
2. Downed by the Badgers at the PSU 15, no attempt at a return.
3. Williams fair catch.
4. Williams fair catch.
34 AND COUNTING...
Filling Williams' shoes hasn't been easy, either. From Drew Astorino to Graham Zug and everyone in-between (including Jordan Norwood, whose 61-yard punt return for Denver against Carolina is a Super Bowl record), 34 Nittany Lions have been credited with a punt return.
The list includes a Van and a Von. Two Browns, one White and a Golden. A Lynch and a Lynn (but no linchpin). But no big stars, Moye or less.
Specifically, the return men have been: Astorino, Brad Bars, Cam Brown, Justin Brown, Curtis Cothran, Andrew Dailey, Della Valle, Koa Farmer, Garrity, Malik Golden, Grant Haley, Gerald Hodges, Mike Hull, Juwan Johnson, Shawney Kersey, Evan Lewis, Akeel Lynch, D'Anton Lynn, Derek Moye, Norwood, Amani Oruwariye, Brandon Polk, Chaz Powell (who returned two kickoffs for TDs, in the 2010 and '11 season-openers), Reid, Evan Royster, Anthony Scirrotto, Nick Scott, Devon Smith, DeAndre Thompkins, Van Fleet, Von Walker, Nyeem Wartman-White, Yancich and Zug.
So, how tough is it to return a punt, anyway?
In 2016, of the 128 FBS (major college) football teams, 56 different players on 46 teams returned a punt for a TD. Four Big Ten teams did it last season — Michigan and Maryland both with two, Iowa and Rutgers each with one. Maryland has had six punt returns for TDs over the past three seasons. The national leaders in 2016? Alabama and Texas A&M, both with four.
Franklin is no novice to the punt return game. In three years at Vandy, his teams returned two punts and one kickoff for touchdowns, and also scored on a blocked punt. The Commodores averaged 6.3 yards (2011), 10.5 yards (2012) and 3.8 yards (2013) per punt return under Franklin.
Over the past three seasons under Franklin, Penn State has averaged 6.8 yards (2014), 7.1 yards (2015) and 6.5 yards (2016) per punt return. The Nittany Lions were ranked No. 94 nationally, while Reid was No. 39 among individuals.
Earlier in the spring, Franklin added Phil Galiano to his staff as a defensive consultant. Galiano was the special teams coach at Rutgers in 2015. In that season, the Scarlet Knights returned one kickoff and three kickoff returns for touchdowns — all in the person of Janarion Grant. Galiano also spent two seasons as special teams coordinator with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, in 2012-13. In those two seasons, the Bucs did not return a kick or punt for a TD. They did average 9.0 and 11.2 yards per punt return, and 20.3 and 23.9 yards per kick return.
FRANKLIN'S PR PHILOSOPHY
On Wednesday night, in light of the presence of the youthful and mostly untested — other than Thompkins — punt returners snagging fly balls, I asked Franklin how much he trusts freshman returning punts.
His response, in two parts, resulted in a 3-minute and 29-second clinic on the art and science of the PR game. Punt returning, he said, comprises three special skills: making things happen, making good decisions and making yourself heard. Specifically:
BEING DYNAMIC: "You have guys that are dynamic with the ball in their hands. That usually is something that you either have or you don't. You can either have that as a freshman or as a senior — you're just a dynamic guy, you're the guy that when you touch the ball everybody in the stadium is excited to see what you're going to do."
DECISION-MAKING: "The ball is kicked short and it's in traffic: Do you drive up in there and catch the ball or do you drive up in there and get everybody away from the ball so it doesn't hit the ground and go off of the back of someone's legs? When to fair catch, when not to when you're backed up into your own territory and you're catching the ball inside the 10-yard line or out."
COMMUNICATION: "That's like screaming out to get the guys away from a short punt, all those types of things. So that's where the experience really counts."
BEST OF ALL WORLDS: "You can have a dynamic guy, but he better be a great decision-maker as well, because if you fumble a punt, that's been a huge swing of field position. We're good with it, but they have to show us that they're going to consistently catch the ball and that they're going to make great decisions and be able to communicate. And that's usually the hard thing. If you look at most high-school returners, especially with punt returns, they very rarely ever catch the ball in the air. It's not usually punted very well and it bounces and they've still got space. Returning punts in high school and returning punts in college are two completely different things."
PRACTICE: Another part of the punt-returning conundrum is how do you know if someone is good at it, since Penn State — like most teams — rarely goes live, 11-on-11 in practicing punt returns. There's too much of a chance of injury (ironic, huh, since Reid is now hurt).
As Franklin put it: "...If you're going to go live with your quarterback and go live with your punt returner (in practice), I just don't know if the risk-reward there makes enough sense... It's a hard thing to do because you usually don't go live special teams very much. That's the other thing that I probably didn't mention: It takes a special guy to stand there when 21 guys are running at you and you've got to look up and find a ball and that the guys are going to block for you and trust that no one is going to cheap shot you. That takes a special guy."
NO HITTING AND MISS: Franklin asks: "How do you rep that in practice when they know (that) they're probably never going to get hit in practice? As much as we possibly can, (we) do punt return drills where it's full unit. The other issues you have are you mix and match. .... It's no different than teachers, where it's 'part, part, whole.' So we're trying to break it down and do some coverage drills where it's not all 11 or all 21 guys out there. It's maybe eight guys and he still has to be able to catch the ball, and those (coverage) guys have to break down and tag off and things like that."
THE BOTTOM LINE: But, having said all that, Franklin said that finding a great punt returner is still a crap shoot.
"I hate to say it," Franklin admitted, "but it's almost like you don't really know until that first game."