Today we take a look at the potential options to return kicks and punts this fall, starting with the man who handled both duties last year.
In 2017, Nate Cottrell returned kicks for the Jackets and Brad Stewart returned punts. Both units were very pedestrian, and produced few to no big plays. When I wrote this article last year, I was very hopeful that both units would be able to take a step forward in 2018, whether that meant with Cottrell and Stewart still back deep or someone else taking over the job.
Thomas supplanted Cottrell back deep on kickoffs from day 1, and took over the punt return duties from Stewart midseason. All things considered, he did a very good job. The defensive back showed flashes of terrific vision and bend, both critical skills to a successful return man. He got better as the season went on, capping his first season with kickoff return touchdowns against Virginia and in garbage time against georgia in Tech’s final two regular season games. He averaged 25.3 yards per kick return on 24 returns, good for 25th in the country.
However, not everything was great. Taking out his two touchdown returns, Thomas only averaged 19.5 yards per return on his other 22 returns. That isn’t a great number, and neither is his 8.6 yards per punt return- albeit on only 5 returns. He doesn’t have the breakaway speed that most top-tier return guys have and there is certainly room for improvement if he is the man back deep this fall.
Brown, a true freshman receiver from Tampa, was a fantastic pickup by Coach Collins and staff late in the cycle. The former Maryland commit ran a 10.40 second 100 meter dash his junior year to finish fourth in the state of Florida, and his high school tape shows incredible elusiveness and bend to go along with his track star speed.
Brown’s only return experience in high school was two kickoffs, but with his speed I have no doubt that Coach Collins and staff will put him back deep in practice to at least see what he’s got.
They may have already- Brown enrolled early and is rumored to be the leader to start at slot receiver as a true freshman.
Burnett is another true freshman slot receiver who Coach Collins and staff also pulled straight off the track. Burnett runs a blazing 4.42 40 yard dash, and there is potential that he could be a heck of a steal, as he was lightly recruited out of high school in Pennsylvania. His skills are a little raw at receiver right now and he probably won’t make an impact there as a freshman, but there is definitely a world where he, like Thomas last year, makes his impact on special teams.
Other names to watch: DB Jaytlin Askew, WR Kalani Norris, DB Avery Showell
There is speed in this 2019 recruiting class that the groups before it have not had. I have a hard time seeing how Collins can keep the freshmen off the field despite Thomas being the returning starter. I’ll say that Brown and his speed begins the year back deep on kicks with Thomas returning punts, but I believe that Burnett will supplant him as the deep man on punts before the season is out. I also really like Norris, another freshman, and think he has a shot to get his opportunity as well.
At any rate, the biggest issue on special teams this year may be the other 10 guys on the field, specifically the quality of the blocking. A team’s depth shows through on special teams maybe more than in any other aspect of the game, and our two and three star guys who will be out there will be no match in space against the four and five star recruits that the Clemsons and georgias of the world will be playing.