Last year, the Jackets struggled mightily on special teams. Overall, Tech finished 125th in FBS out of 130 schools in special teams efficiency, a ranking that must come up if this season is to be successful. At times, the punt return units and kick return units seemed incapable of setting up the offense with good field position, and they never really looked dangerous in coming up with big plays at any point during the season. Fortunately, several newcomers figure to factor into the discussion at both return spots, and at least provide some competition for both incumbent starters. Let’s take a look at the potential return men for this season.
The redshirt junior A-Back handled 23 of Tech’s 40 kick returns last year, and was usually the deepest man when the team lined up to return. He averaged 20.4 yards per return, a figure that ranked only 80th in FBS out of 101 qualified returners. Frequently Cottrell was unable to make the first tackler miss, which was a problem because the return unit allowed far too many free runners down the field. To the credit of the coaching staff, they tried many different combinations of return wedges in front of Cottrell, but none worked especially well. While Cottrell is quite fast, as displayed on long runs from scrimmage against Virginia Tech and Tennessee, he may not be the answer as a kick returner, where vision and agility are also very important. Cottrell also fumbled on a kickoff return three times, though fortunately all three were recovered by Tech.
Stewart, a senior wide receiver, is the returning starter at punt returner. Last season he handled 16 of the team’s 17 punt returns for an average of 6.6 yards per return, ranking 34th out of 47 qualified return men in FBS. A lot of what I said about Cottrell is also true for Stewart. Stewart was often brought down by the first man to get to him, which tended to be a problem because the GT punt return team was frequently beaten down the field by opposing tacklers. He fumbled twice returning punts, but fortunately saw a teammate recover both of them. Two fumbles out of a whole season returning punts isn’t bad, but some of Stewart’s other decision making at punt returner was questionable at best last season. I can think of several occasions where Stewart fair caught a ball inside his own 10 yard line, and even all the way back to his own 3 yard line against Wake Forest. There were also times where Stewart let a seemingly catchable punt drop and roll an extra 20 yards. While that is certainly better than a muffed punt, it appeared to the naked eye that Stewart could have caught several balls that he let roll and let several others roll that he could have caught.
Jarrett was given a chance at kick returner late in the season against Virginia Tech and Duke. In those two games, the redshirt junior A-Back combined for 8 returns, but averaged only 18.0 yards per return. From his time returning, it looked like Jarrett has the speed to be a successful return man, but like Cottrell, doesn’t have the vision and agility necessary to be a standout kick returner. That could come as Jarrett gets more experience returning, so he has to be considered one of the top candidates to win the kick returner job in fall camp.
The only other possible kick returner with experience, Howard returned 4 kicks against Duke and Georgia last season as the staff looked for alternatives to Cottrell. The sophomore B-Back didn’t fare very well, averaging just 16.0 yards per return. At 215 pounds, Howard is a load for any special teams player to tackle, but he may not have the speed necessary to be a dynamic returner. It’s worth keeping an eye on him this fall, since the staff clearly felt good enough about him to give him an opportunity last season.
Thomas is a freshman defensive back out of Niceville, FL billed as a three star recruit by all the major scouting services. He has experience as a returner from high school, where he returned two punts for touchdowns his senior season and looked extremely dangerous with the ball in his hands on other returns. Thomas ran a 4.5 second 40 yard dash in high school and seems to have good field vision from his highlight video. He is a redshirt candidate this fall, but if the staff opts to play him he could give Stewart a run at punt returner.
King comes to Tech as a defensive back rated as a four star recruit by both 24/7 Sports and Rivals. The freshman from Nashville, TN returned both a punt and a kickoff for touchdowns during his career at Ensworth High School and showed great vision and burst with the ball in his hands both on offense, where he played wide receiver, and on special teams. Like Thomas, King may redshirt this fall, but if he doesn’t he has a chance to win one or both return jobs right away.
Yes, Oliver is a quarterback, but hear me out. The redshirt freshman is not a likely candidate for the starting QB job or the backup QB job, which look to be going to TaQuon Marshall and Lucas Johnson. As the third string quarterback (at best) Oliver will not see the field except in garbage time, which is a shame given the running ability he put on display in high school and even in the spring game this year. His high school tapes show a runner with outstanding elusiveness as well as impressive top-end speed. From playing quarterback, Oliver has experience scanning the entire field, and this vision may translate well to special teams. He may not be the answer at return man, but the staff should give him a look, especially if the return units start out slowly this fall.
It is my hope that special teams coordinator Lamar Owens and the rest of the staff have put what they feel to be the best return teams together this spring and given the units time to gel. Consistency was definitely lacking in the blocking units put out last season, and it may be the key to success this fall. One thing I hope the staff keeps in mind is that it is much easier to teach a returner to catch a ball in traffic than it is to teach vision and agility. While Cottrell and Stewart are low-risk options, the alternatives may seem weaker only because they don’t have experience fielding kicks.