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IOWA CITY — First, yes, Desmond King has to catch the ball. Rule No. 1 of Punt Returners Club is "Catch the ball." It’s also rules Nos. 2 through nine jillion, but after that is when the fun begins.
King usually makes a jump cut. Never mind the fact that 11 defenders are running full speed with the idea of separating him from the ball, King keeps his cool and makes his move.
“As a returner, you need instincts,” King said after he put up 162 return yards in the Hawkeyes’ loss to Northwestern last weekend. “You have to feel what’s going to happen. Our coaches want someone who is quick and not fast. I’m very quick on my feet and I can make a move in a snap of a finger.”
On his third punt return last week, King caught the ball at Iowa’s 13, he stayed cool and made a few defenders miss. He broke to the right toward the Iowa sideline. He found himself in the clear.
The only player between King and six points was the punter. Northwestern’s Hunter Niswander won the one-on-one.
Returners do all of that work only to get tackled by the punter. They really hate that.
“I honestly didn’t see him,” King said. “When I did finally see him, I was out of control. I was like, ‘Oh my God, he’s here.’ It’s just something after the other.”
Of course, return guy always thinks he can juke the punter.
“You’re so close to getting to the end zone and it’s the last person you have to beat,” King said. “They end up executing what they have to do. That’s credit to the punters.”
The Hawkeyes did end up scoring on that drive, so it worked out OK in the end. Iowa punter Ron Coluzzi also had to make a TD-saving tackle. After the Hawkeyes (3-2, 1-1 Big Ten) went three-and-out on the first series of the game, Coluzzi punted and Northwestern’s Flynn Nagel caught the low liner and took it 47 yards to Iowa’s 5, where Coluzzi did make the play.
He wasn’t claiming any sort of victory. Yes, the punters do love spoiling the returner’s glory, but the bad news is it came down to the punter to make the play.
“It came to that, because I hit a bad punt,” Coluzzi said. “It was a minus in my eyes. Watching the tape, the footwork looked smooth, everything looked great except for the drop. The drop was an inch outside. That’s football, it’s a game of inches. It can go your way or it can go the other way. Unfortunately, that’s what happened on that play.”
There was another slight problem with that play. Iowa only had 10 players on the field. Coaches on the sideline, fullback and punt shield captain Drake Kulick and Coluzzi have a hand in counting players. Still, Coluzzi wasn’t looking for excuses.
“If I would’ve put the ball where it was supposed to be with the proper hang time and the distance, the guy shouldn’t have returned it,” Coluzzi said. “I’m a fifth-year senior and that’s a mistake I can’t make again.”
I count 10 Hawkeyes on the field for Northwestern's big punt return in the first quarter. I might be missing someone, but don't think so. pic.twitter.com/lI1LADwG5T— marcmorehouse (@marcmorehouse) October 3, 2016
Return specialists are enjoying success around the Big Ten this season. Michigan’s Jabrill Peppers averages 20.5 yards on his 12 punt returns. King averages 11.4 yards on his 10 returns and ranks No. 6 in the league. King is No. 2 in kick returns with 29.5 yards on 10 returns.
Last week, King and senior wide receiver Riley McCarron were mostly responsible for a sterling average starting field position of the Hawkeyes’ 40-yard line. King was the first Hawkeye with 75-plus yards on kickoffs and punts since Khalil Hill in 1998. It was Iowa’s best day returning kicks since 2013 vs. Western Michigan, when former wide receiver Kevonte Martin-Manley returned two punts for TDs.
McCarron set up a field goal with a 30-yard punt return. He returned a kick 54 yards and was just tripped up before he broke free. That drive ended with a punt. So yeah, these inches matter.
“Anytime you get tripped up like that, you go back and watch the film and say, ‘I could’ve done this, I could’ve done that,’” said McCarron, whose two returns last week were career bests to go along with career highs in receptions (eight) and receiving yards (78). “When you’re out there, you only get that split second to think about a move. It hurts, but at the same time you want more opportunities.”
Iowa’s kick return unit averages 27.8 yards per return and is No. 15 in the nation. The Hawkeyes’ punt return team averages 13.8 yards a return, which is just fourth in the B1G but is No. 22 nationally.
King, who took over kick and punt return responsibilities last season after throwing out the idea to coaches, credits the blocking.
“It’s significantly improved over this season,” King said. “We feel like we have great special teams this year and that there will be opportunities we can take advantage of.”
Now, look out for the punter, who, usually, is a much better athlete than anyone realizes. Plus, kickers and punters do practice tackling. It is football, after all.
“The game is changing,” said Coluzzi, who flips back and forth from regular punts to rugby style. “Returners do get mad when a punter or kickoff guy does tackle them, but that’s the nature of the game.”
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