New formations, Aussie invasion make returning punts tough
LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) For weeks, Nebraska coach Mike Riley has been lamenting his team's inability to consistently return punts. He's not the only coach with that problem as the punting game undergoes a dramatic transformation, with different kinds of formations and Australian kickers seemingly everywhere.
The number of punt returns per game in the Bowl Subdivision since the start of the 2015 season is the lowest on record, and average yards per return also have declined.
''I think that's the most interesting thing in the last less-than-a-decade in college football, really - the change in punting, punt formations, how the punts come out,'' Riley said.
Nationally, last year's per-team average was 1.57 returns a game. This season's average is 1.59. Prior to 2006, it had never been lower than 2.23. Also, the average punt return has been less than 9 yards for seven straight seasons.
In the Big Ten this year, there have been 1.85 returns per game per team. The average runback has fallen to 7.87 yards, lowest among the Power Five conferences, and only Michigan and Iowa average better than 9.
Michigan star Jabrill Peppers is the Big Ten leader at 17.5 yards per return. Iowa's Desmond King is next at 8.74. There are only 33 players in the FBS averaging 9 yards or better; there were 68 in 2002.
One of the reasons for the drop, Riley said, is that punt-return units are facing formations that spread the field, compromising their ability to hold up coverage people at the line of scrimmage and set up blockers for a return.
''The different punt formations, punt styles that have come up have really made the punt-return team almost more of a defensive unit, making sure you cover everybody,'' Riley said. ''They're spread over the field, they go in motion, and that never used to happen in a punt. Everybody would stand back there with a personal protector, a couple of wingbacks, a couple of gunners. You knew where everybody was. You could rush or you could hold up, so it's a little more complicated now.''
Another factor is that the art of punting has evolved with the invasion of highly skilled Australian punters into the college game.
In the Big Ten, Ohio State's Cameron Johnston and Maryland's Wade Lees are starting for their teams. Daniel Pasquariello is the backup at Penn State, and Rutgers has Tim Gleeson, who has been injured. Johnston is fifth in the FBS at 47.2 yards per punt. Ahead of him are two of his countrymen, national leader Mitch Wishnowsky of Utah and third-place Michael Dickson of Texas.
The Aussie punters typically are older and come from rugby and Australian rules football backgrounds. They often kick while moving, taking a handful of steps to the right or left before letting it fly, a far cry from the relatively immobile punters American fans are so used to. Rugby-style punts aren't pretty, but they are effective, rolling toward the boundary and giving the coverage unit enough time to get downfield to limit return opportunities.
They also execute ''sky punts'' that fly high and roll out, low ''punch shots'' into the wind that hit the ground and go another 15 yards, feathery pooch punts that pin opponents deep and floating, hard-to-catch knuckleball punts.
Dan Orner, a private coach from Charlotte, North Carolina, who works with NFL and college punters and kickers, said the directional punt with a hang time of 4.8 to 5.1 seconds is still in high demand. But Orner said the influence of the Australians is undeniable.
''While we're throwing the ball around at tailgates,'' Orner said, ''they're kicking it around.''
The Australian influence, Orner said, has pushed American punters to add to their repertoires.
Maryland's Lees is the oldest player in the FBS and one of the most recent Australians to arrive. He's a 28-year-old freshman and a former professional Australian rules football player.
''The only way to pass to a teammate is to kick the ball,'' Lees said of his old sport. ''To pass to my teammate, I have to kick him the ball while I'm being tackled or trying to evade my defender. Accuracy and precision have to be spot-on. That's why we can get so accurate.''
Lees said he first kicked an American football less than two years ago. He worked with a coach in Melbourne who helps connect Australian punters with U.S. colleges. Most of his punts are rugby-style, but he is comfortable doing whatever special teams coordinator Pete Lembo calls for in different situations, based, among other things, on where the return man is lined up and where the ball is on the field.
''All I have to do is just execute the punt and hope to get a fair-caught ball,'' Lees said, ''and I've done my job.''
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