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Who Will Return Kicks for the Bearcats in 2016?

As camp opens, this is one of a number of questions that will be answered in the weeks to come.

NCAA Football: South Florida at Cincinnati Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

Field position is important. Duh. Everyone knows that. What everybody doesn’t know is who will be in charge of improving the Cincinnati Bearcats’ field position on special teams. While Andrew Gantz will handle kickoffs and Sam Geraci will be punting, UC has to decide on who will be receiving and returning kickoffs and punts.

Shaq Washington did the majority of the punt returning in 2015, averaging 10.3 yards per return on 13 tries. Max Morrison had the other two returns of the season, amassing a grand total of seven yards. With Washington and Morrison both gone, there is a glaring need on special teams.

Wide receiver Nate Cole could be next in line. As the most experienced receiver on the roster, the 6’1”, 202-pound senior fits because of actual game experience. However, Washington and Morrison were both leaner than Cole, if that is something that makes a difference. Additionally, Cole was not one of seven players to return a kickoff in 2015 and has no experience at either post, so it is unlikely that Tommy Tuberville will choose to burden his top receiver with a new role since the Bearcats will need Cole to be a leader for a young group.

Redshirt freshman wide receiver Brayden Beard is of a similar build in comparison to Washington, standing at 5’8” and weighing in at 180 pounds. He could very well fit into the possession receiver roles left by Washington and Morrison and that could be parlayed into a role as a punt returner as well.

If Tuberville and company choose to go with someone that has return experience of any kind, they can select from Mike Boone, Kahlil Lewis, Tion Green and Zach Edwards. Boone averaged 16.4 yards per return as the primary kick returner last season, but Lewis (10 returns, 19.9 yards per return) got plenty of work as well. If it were up to me, I’d keep Boone away from extra duress. With Hosey Williams now gone, Boone should have an increased workload. He has been incredibly explosive (7.2 yards per carry in 2015) and will be a key piece of the offense. Keeping him healthy is important and putting him out for kick returns would fly in the face of that goal.

Lewis makes a lot of sense as both a kick and punt returner. It would be interesting to see if the 6’0”, 197 pound receiver pulls double-duty or if he is saved in order to fill wide receiver spots left by Washington, Morrison, Chris Moore and the host of other departed pass-catchers. In addition, Green has sure hands and experience in the return game, but he will be sharing backfield duties with Boone, so, again, concerns of putting too much wear and tear on an important offensive contributor are prevalent.

Offensive players are not the only options. Safety Zach Edwards returned one kickoff last season and the top two punt returners in the American Athletic Conference last season were defensive backs (Temple’s Sean Chandler and USF’s Tajee Fullwood). Edwards may not be a flashy choice, but he is a sturdy option (6’1” 200 pounds). Other defensive backs that could be in the running are Grant Coleman and maybe even a newcomer like Bryce Beard, brother of Brayden.

No matter who ends up getting the call, and its likely more than a few will, UC could use some improvement in this area. The Bearcats ranked sixth in the AAC in punt returns last season (9.4 YPR) and eighth in kickoff returns (20.12 YPR).

With fall camp starting today, we can look forward to getting more clarity on this and many other quagmires in the weeks to come.