There’s an anticipation when a football is punted, for those few seconds the ball is in flight. Will the returner take a chance and catch it? Will he take a chance and let it bounce, hoping the ball spins back towards the line of scrimmage for a few yards in his team’s favor? Will he catch it and immediately get hit, dropping where he stands, and, if he’s lucky, hold on to the ball?
Will he simply wave his arm for a fair catch, ending the play before it gets started?
The punt return can be the most exciting play in football, or it can be as mundane as dry toast.
A punt returner needs a variety of skills, but most of all, he needs to be able to catch the ball, and he needs to be able to ignore his fears.
“A lot of kids are afraid to do it,” Messalonskee head coach Brad Bishop said.
Waterville’s Dalton Denis returned a punt 55 yards for a touchdown in the first quarter of Saturday’s 54-8 win at Nokomis. It was his first punt return for a touchdown in a varsity game.
“I was just looking for an opportunity to run. As soon as I caught it, there was a block made, and I saw an open lane,” Denis said. “There was three guys coming towards me, and I just ran as fast as I could. I broke to the outside, and had a touchdown.”
A returner has a lot to process on each punt. If the ball is over his head, does he go back and get it? If he lets it go, will it go into the end zone for a touchback, or will the opposition be able to down the ball and leave his team with lousy field position?
Are defenders too close to catch it and run? Should he call for a fair catch? None of that matters if first, he cannot catch the ball.
“If you don’t catch the ball, it usually bounces 15 or 20 yards more, and then you’ve got to make that up,” Waterville head coach Frank Knight said.
“It also takes courage. You have to be focusing on the ball when you know there’s swarms of people coming down on both sides of you. You’ve got to trust that you’ve ascertained you have time to catch it, or you have to call a fair catch.”
Winslow head coach Mike Siviski listed four traits he looks for in a punt returner: Agility, speed, recognition and discipline. Siviski doesn’t look for that just in the two players he send back to receive the punt. That’s the entire 11-man punt return unit.
“We try to get a punt return team on the field that can run,” Siviski said.
Each team has a few rules when it comes to returning punts. For instance, at Messalonskee, if the returner’s heel is on the 10-yard line and the ball is over his head, let it go. It’s a likely touchback.
Field conditions play a part, too. Stearns and Maine Central Institute played in a steady, heavy rain last Friday night in Pittsfield. Nine punts were attempted in the game, and each team only tried to return one. With wet hands trying to catch a wet ball, both of those were muffed and recovered by the punting team. For most of the game, both Stearns and MCI were content to let the ball land and stop on the sloppy field.
Knight said experience shagging fly balls can help a punt returner.
“We find student-athletes that have played baseball are pretty good at it. If they’ve played the outfield, they’re used to judging fly balls,” Knight said.
While college and pro teams usually send one punt returner back, high schools typically use a pair. One takes charge, much like a centerfielder in an outfield, determing which player will field the punt, or if they’ll let it go. At Waterville, Denis is joined by senior Brian Bellows, who makes the call.
“One makes the call. ‘You you you’ or ‘me me me,’ so there’s no confusion as to who gets it,” Knight said.
Although confidence is a major factor in making a good punt returner, some butterflies in the stomach before the punt are normal.
“I kind of get this nervous feeling right before I catch it,” Denis said. “As soon as I catch it, it all goes away, and I get pumped. I just want to run fast and not get tackled.”
A punt returner needs confidence, and the coach need confidence in him. Bishop, a former head coach at Morse, Lawrence and Livermore Falls, spent the last two seasons as an assistant coach at Mt. Blue. Bishop worked with the Cougars’ special teams, and named a few very good punt returners he coached at Mt. Blue: Eric Berry, Izaiha Tracy, and Nate Backus.
Bishop’s Eagles will face Backus on Friday night.
Travis Lazarczyk — 861-9242