SALT LAKE CITY — What traits make for a great return man?
According to Utah cornerbacks coach Sharrieff Shah, who doubles as the co-special teams coordinator — his focus is the return units, both for punts and kickoffs — there are many.
Fearlessness is one. Spatial awareness. The ability to get vertical quickly. A touch of crazy doesn’t hurt and neither does irrational confidence.
“A good returner is absolutely fearless,” said Shah. “He will run into the fire. When everyone else would wave for a fair catch, he’s running into the fire.
“You need good spatial awareness. Good returners get vertical quickly. Those are some of the things I have seen that consistently make a returner special.”
Watch Britain Covey make some magic with this punt return. Utah scored on the next play. pic.twitter.com/5WPJafwWB1— Yahoo Sports College Football (@YahooSportsCFB) October 25, 2015
Of all of the traits that are important for a returner to possess, none, according to Shah, is more important than the ability to make the first man miss.
“Great returners can always make the first defender miss,” said Shah. “All the time. All the time. I’ve coached some good ones, and every one of them has been the same. They believe the first guy will never get them and they make him miss.”
Shah would know. Since joining the Utes in 2012, he has witnessed greatness first hand on more than one occasion.
“I’ve coached a couple of good kids,” Shah said. “I’ve coached some All-American caliber players, All-Pac-12 kids.”
To his point, in 2012 Utah wide receiver Reggie Dunn became the first Ute designated a First Team All-Pac-12 player as a returner.
Dunn was electric that year as a kick returner, returning 10 kickoffs for 513 yards (he averaged 51.3 yards per return) and four touchdowns.
In 2013, Utah wide receiver Dres Anderson picked up where Dunn left off. He had 232 total yards on 11 kick returns.
In 2014 the proverbial baton was passed to Kaelin Clay.
Unlike either Dunn or Anderson, Clay was the Utes primary returner on both kickoffs and punts. He returned 22 kickoffs that year for 548 yards and a score, while also bringing back 23 punts for 346 total yards and three touchdowns.
Like Dunn, Clay earned a First Team All-Pac-12 honor.
In 2015, a 5-foot-8 true freshman from Utah county took over as the Utes' return man, along with Cory Butler-Byrd. That freshman was Britain Covey and he finished the year with seven kickoff returns for 169 yards, 21 punt returns for 246 yards and a score and an All-Pac-12 honorable mention.
Last year it was Boobie Hobbs. The nickelback continued the tradition of excellence amongst Utah return men, finishing the season as the 12th-best punt returner in the country. Hobbs totaled almost 300 yards (292) on 26 punts returns, an average of 11.2 yards per punt, and earned Second Team All-Pac-12 honors as a returner.
All told, in the six seasons that Utah has played in the Pac-12, the team has had an All-Pac-12 returner in four.
This year, the quartet of Covey, Demari Simpkins, Julian Blackmon and Jameson Field will look to make it five years out of seven, when it comes to All-Pac-12 returners from Utah.
Foremost among them might be Covey, who has designs on both punt and kick return duties.
“I know I am doing punt returns and I really want to do kick returns,” said Covey. “I believe I’ll get a shot.”
Simpkins, who was Utah’s primary kick returner last season with nine returns for 207 yards, will have a say in that decision, as will Blackmon.
“I’m going to be on all the special teams,” Blackmon said.
Fortunately for Utah, each player appears up to the task, or at the very least understands just what goes into a successful return.
“The first and most important thing is you have to be sure-handed. You have to catch the ball every time,” said Covey. “You also have to be aware of a few things. You have to be aware of the height, the hang time of the kick, in order to determine whether or not you are going to catch it. You kind of have to see out of your peripherals your first step. After your first step, it is all instinct, but you have to be able to see out of your peripherals to know what that first step is going to be.”
“The returner has to know what he is going to do, whether he is going to fair catch it or just catch it,” added Blackmon. “You have to make a split-second decision because your decision determines what your teammates are going to do.”
The biggest question mark this season for returners isn’t actually who’ll be on the field or how’ll they perform, however. Rather it is how the Utes adjust to the latest kickoff rule change.
“We’ve talked about it,” said Covey. “You have to be really aware, once again, of the hang time of the kick and the location of the kick. We will be fair catching quite a few balls this year I think.”
“We have talked about putting ourselves in better positions,” Blackmon added. “At the end of the day, if we fair catch behind the 10 (yard-line) it’ll give our offense a better chance to start the drive.”
“It’s all about trying to determine the best application of the rule and how to implement it,” said Shah. “We are trying to figure that out, figure out what the calculated risk is. We haven’t figured it out just yet, but we’ll know in a few weeks.”