Friday, August 26, 2016

UConn's punt return game could remain stuck in neutral

It's taking me a little longer to follow up on my promise to address the punt return situation but better late than never.

There's been some buzz surrounding true freshman Quayvon Skanes and there's a possibility he could be in the mix as a punt returner. So at one point in UConn coach Bob Diaco's time answering questions from the media during Wednesday's media day festivities, I asked him if UConn would be more likely to return punts this season.

What followed was an answer lasting almost four minutes and at the three-minute mark came the most telling part of his answer.

"We have a little different mentality here and it is being sure we get the ball," Diaco said. "They are going to have to execute and we are going to get it. If Brian (Lemelle) or Q (Skanes) can return it for a touchdown, fantastic,  if the protection is a liability and we can attack it, fantastic  but risk/reward there for blocking punts as it relates to roughing the punter, I am really not for that."

Diaco also said "I think an emphasis on getting it caught is a big deal."

What that is likely to mean is another season of fair catches by UConn's punt returners.

Diaco mentioned the changes in rules that has allowed more players on the punt coverage team to release and get down the field. That is certainly a valid point. However, it should be noted that even with the rules in place that a total of 55 teams returned at least one punt for a touchdown led by Alabama's five. UConn ranked last among 128 FBS programs with five returned punts and 2 yards of punt return yardage. The Huskies are the only team not to have at least one punt return of 10 yards. UConn's last double-digit yardage punt return was Deshon Foxx's 72-yard touchdown against Stony Brook in the second game of the 2014 season. If you take that return away, UConn has a total of 11 yards in punt returns in 25 games over the last two seasons.

Going back to Larry Taylor and more recently with current NFL receivers Nick Williams and Foxx, UConn has had dangerous players returning punts. Skanes and Lemelle may be capable of delivering what Diaco refers to as explosive plays in the punt return game but if last year is any indication, they may not get the chance. As scary as last year's punt return numbers may be, you may recall that at least one of Nick Vitale's returns was not supposed to happen.

Diaco did make a good point about the importance of catching the ball in the air.

"How many punts do you see not caught that roll for 10-12 yards?" Diaco said. "That is if you caught every punt. If you just design it to catch every punt, now you don't have to get that run. That is one run you wouldn't otherwise have to get or one pass, if you catch it on the 40 instead of it rolling to the 28, that is an explosive play that you don't need because you got the ball caught. We have a little different mentality there and it is being sure we get the ball, they are going to have to execute (the punt) and we are going to get it."

What Diaco said is try and his comments on having players ready to make a tackle when a punt return catches the ball is also a valid point. I'm not suggesting that Lemelle, Skanes, Tyraiq Beals or whoever else is back fielding punts risks taking a nasty shot as they field a punt or risk turning it over but I do think that a team can put an emphasis on not having punts hit the turf and rolling for 10-15 yards and still return a punt when the opportunity presented itself. My hope is that there isn't a preconceived desire to merely fair catch every punt because when you have an offensively-challenged team like UConn, a positive punt return every now and then could help the Huskies put points on the board.

I still have plenty of stuff to get to from media day and I also headed down to Staples and St. Luke's yesterday to catch up with UConn commits Ryan Fitton and Omar Fortt so there will be plenty of stories and blogs to come.


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