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Giants Special Teams Coordinator Thomas McGaughey on What's Next for Returner Plans

Season-ending injuries have now cost the Giants kickoff returner C.J. Board and punt returner Jabrill Peppers. Who are some of the names the team is looking at for these essential roles?

The injury bug currently ripping through the Giants has shown little mercy, costing the Giants 96 man-games lost, making New York the third-most injured team behind the Titans (109) and Ravens (103) in terms of man-games lost.

While offensive coordinator Jason Garrett and defensive coordinator Patrick Graham have scrambled to adjust to injuries, special teams coordinator Thomas McGaughey has had to get involved with making adjustments to his units as well.

Wide receiver C.J. Board, the Giants’ primary kickoff and punt returner at the start of the season, broke his leg in the Giants’ Week 5 loss to the Dallas Cowboys, effectively ending his 2021 campaign. Board had accumulated 327 yards on kickoff returns before the injury, with his longest going for 38 yards.

Then in last Sunday’s 25-3 win over the Carolina Panthers, safety and punt returner Jabrill Peppers ruptured his Achilles in his right knee and was sent to the IR list on Tuesday for the remainder of the season.

Peppers hasn’t been as effective as Board at the return game this season--having just nine returns for 58 yards--but his absence also leaves a gaping hole in both the Giants defensive secondary as well as in the return game.

Filling the returner roles falls to special teams coordinator Thomas McGaughey, who on Thursday indicated that the team could see a revolving door approach starting this week when the Giants visit the Kansas City Chiefs (3-4) at Arrowhead Stadium Monday night.

“The guys that have played in the game," McGaughey said when asked who were the next men up. "We’ve got (Wide Receiver) Dante (Pettis), we’ve got (Cornerback) Darnay (Holmes), (Wide Receiver) John Ross, we’ve got some guys. We’re not completely dead yet.”

McGaughey indicated that Ross, the former Cincinnati Bengal known for his elusive speed in the open field, will take charge of the kickoff returns. The punt returner's identity is a little less clear, as McGaughey said they would jog out whomever they feel can make the big plays.

“It could be Dante, it could be Darnay. We’ve got a couple guys, so we’ve got some options back there and we’re going to keep working," he said. "Depends on how (Wide Receiver Kadarius Toney) KT is with his health. He can definitely be back there. Whoever is up, we’ll block for them and we’re going to try to make a play.”

During his time at the University of Washington, Pettis had nine career returns for touchdowns, making him one of the top return specialists in the country and the NCAA record holder at the time for most career returns for scores.

At the NFL level, which includes two seasons with the 49ers, Pettis has returned eleven punts for 41 yards and one kickoff for 18 yards. His first kickoff return as a Giant came Sunday, but he halted at the point of the catch for no gain.

Darnay Holmes, the second-year defensive back out of UCLA, got a chance at kickoff returns in the win over the Panthers. In that game, he had three returns for 56 yards.

Another player whose name has come up as a possible solution is rookie first-round pick Kadarius Toney. However, with Toney currently nursing an ankle injury after showing how valuable he can be on offense, there was some question whether deploying the receiver as a kickoff returner was a good move.

McGaughey quickly quelled the questions by reminding them that the game of football is about taking risks in the pursuit of wins.

“You take a risk when you step out in between those white lines,” he said. “They pay you to play football. They don’t say, ‘Okay, you can only play this part, but you can’t play that part.’ It’s a game. You get paid to play the game. We’re trying to win games and we’re going to play the best players.

“Thing about it is, in this game, you don’t know when the game changing play is going to happen, and you don’t know who is going to make it. The game doesn’t care who makes the play; we do. We just want to make sure that we’ve got guys in the game that can play, regardless of quote unquote, injuries or whatever. We’re trying to win games. Whatever we’ve got to do to win a game, we’ll do what we’ve got to do to win a game.”

The major point of concern with the Giants has quickly become injuries--and reaggravating them--in relation to the coaching decisions Joe Judge and his staff make on and off the field. Still, the team’s approach to player safety and development will remain balanced with special teams adjustments.

McGaughey believes that when healthy, Toney is a Tyreek Hill-like threat with his elusiveness and speedy running ability, two qualities the Giants must take advantage of. 

Toney would benefit immensely from live game reps, ensuring that his talents transition from college to the pro game successfully.

“As a special teams coach, obviously, you want things to happen. You want to play certain guys, but you’ve also got to manage a roster, too. You’ve got to be smart in how you do it,” McGaughey said.

“Once you start getting the game reps, it’s one thing to come out here and do it and catch balls off the JUGS and catch balls from (Punter) Riley (Dixon) in practice. It’s a whole other different thing to get in the game and see that ball under the lights, see it turn over and then be able to just let your natural instincts kick in. I think once he starts to get game reps at it, it’ll be different."

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