Field position was not kind to the Cincinnati Bearcats in 2016. To be fair, there was not much kindness to be found anywhere on the roster, but UC was particularly bad at giving itself a jump start on offense, starting most drives quite a ways from the end zone. In fact, the Bearcats ranked 125th out of 128 teams in the country in starting field position, according to Football Outsiders.
That field position problem isn’t entirely due to special teams, but lackluster results in the return game certainly did very little to improve UC’s starting point for most drives. The team ranked eighth in the American Athletic Conference in punt returns (6.13 YPR) and kick returns (19.89 YPR) with nary a return touchdown to be found. That last factoid is nothing new, as UC hasn’t had a kickoff return for a touchdown since 2011 or a punt return for a score since 2009.
That brings us to today’s discussion. Who should be returning kicks and punts for the Bearcats this season?
Last year’s returners were Mike Boone and Brayden Beart, but they aren’t the right choices for a few different reasons. Let’s start with Boone. The 5’10’ running back did accumulate 506 kickoff return yards last year, averaging 24.1 yards per return while rattling off a long of 60 yards. He also returned 17 kicks the year before, so he has experience and the precedent is there for him to take on the role. However, this year is different. Boone struggled as a running back last season, averaging only 3.7 yards per carry. Now that Tion Green is gone, the backfield is Boone’s. Sure, Gerrid Doaks and maybe Michael Warren and Jaelen Greene will factor in, but Boone is the experienced and explosive back who has done it before. With that level of responsibility on his shoulders, plus the struggles he had last year, Boone should be entirely focused on being the team’s feature back. Risking his health and focus on returning kicks doesn’t seem like the right move.
Kahlil Lewis had the second most kick returns on the team last year and averaged only 16.3 yards per return. I’d also like to see Lewis remain focused on playing offense, as he has the potential to be a star wide receiver in a new offense. However, it is from the wide receiver ranks that I’d like to see the team’s kick returner be picked. Sophomore Jerron Rollins played in a host of games on special teams last season and took his lone kick back 18 yards. His speed and elusive ability, as well as the fact that he is lower on the depth chart than Lewis and Devin Gray, mean he would be an excellent player to plug in as the primary kick returner.
On the punting side of the coin, Beard is no longer on the team, so there has to be a new contributor. The only player besides Beard to return a punt last season was Gray. The Biletnikoff Award contender should be kept off the field because he needs to be ready to rack up receptions on offense. However, I do understand that you want a player with great hands to take punts and Gray has the best on the team. He may not bust out huge runs, but the Bearcats can breathe easy knowing he will not mess up. So if the coaching staff decides to go with Gray, I won’t protest that much. I would also be fine with Rollins taking on this role as well.
When it comes down to it, the summer will forge Luke Fickell’s choice for these roles, but Rollins and possibly Gray standout as the best options.