2016 Position Previews: Kick & Punt Returners
Well, this is easy. Jamal Golden began returning kicks and punts for the Yellow Jackets in 2012. In the next four years, Golden returned 76 kicks and 47 punts for a total of 123 returns. Golden flashed his most impressive season returning in 2012, when he averaged more than 28 yards per kick return with two touchdowns and more than 14 yards per punt return. In 2014, Golden had a career-high 710 kick return yards despite consistent struggles within the blocking unit to provide the lanes he needed to showcase his elusiveness.
Golden's final season at Tech was his toughest in the kick return game. Much of Golden's quickness declined as he gained mass that helped him defensively, but hurt his burst on kickoff returns. Toward the end of the year, the duties began to be passed over, but Golden remained the reliable set of hands on punt returns. He didn't disappoint -- averaging more than 10 yards per punt return including some memorable returns that proved his elusiveness never left him.
Georgia Tech has seen its' fair share of struggles in the return game that caused my true fear watching any punt come down with a defender close to the area. Golden was able to erase most of that fear as a reliable return man over the past four years. His presence will certainly be missed on defense, but also on special teams. The only other player that recorded a return in 2015 that won't be returning is Chris Milton -- he had one punt return for 17 yards.
This one is also simple. Marcus Marshall is back. Outside of Golden and Marshall, there were only eight recorded returns for Tech last season -- recorded by eight different players. Marshall emerged during the season as the go-to kick returner. His burst was a big switch-up from the steadier returns of Golden. He finished the season with 10 kick returns for 212 yards -- a 21.2 average. Marshall may have seen more action in the return game -- possibly even punt returns, where he saw none -- but his ball security lacked all season, and he was placed in the doghouse by Paul Johnson on numerous occasions. Still, it could be seen that Marshall has the potential to break out some huge returns, which is evidenced by how he ran the ball on offense for the Jackets. Mikell Lands-Davis, Brad Stewart, TaQuon Marshall, and Qua Searcy all recorded one return for the Jackets last season and will be returning.
It's always hard to project what players could jump in and get time in the return game. When a team like Georgia Tech that has so many athletes playing at A-Back and B-Back, there are plenty of guys that likely get reps in practice to show off return skills. Though Searcy did record one return last season, he's expected to get the bulk of the opportunities at punt returner if feeling fully healthy. Another name to look for is Omahri Jarrett. The redshirt freshman is quick and elusive and could provide a huge big-play ability factor to the punt return game. A safe choice that Johnson could go with at punt returner is Stewart. He possesses a reliable set of hands, though he isn't someone that will outrun the defenders for a bunch of big returns. Dedrick Mills is the true newcomer who could also be productive as a returner. He's a hard runner who would likely be suited well at kick returner if Marshall needs a breather.
What Should We Expect?
Marcus Marshall and Qua Searcy should bring a nice one-two punch at kick return and punt return for the Jackets in 2016. Marshall showcased his ability in 2015 and with better ball security could rack up a ton of all-purpose yards. Searcy has limited experience for Tech in the return game, but he has also shown impressive elusiveness as a ball-carrier and has the big-play ability that most like to see at punt returner. Players like Stewart, Lands-Davis, Jarrett, and Mills could get limited opportunities early in the season to figure out what the Jackets have behind their two main returners.
While the loss of Golden will be strange for fans who were used to seeing #4 back waiting for the kick, the Jackets' return game could very well have the most big-play ability since Golden was a quicker sophomore returning two kicks for a touchdown in one year. Most importantly, the quickness of the potential return men for Tech should bode well for better field position in 2016, something the Jackets struggled to gain last season.