Seeking Happier Returns
Prosper Nwokocha, Columbia's last kick return threat (CREDIT: Columbia Athletic Dept.)
25 yards. That's a nice chunk of football real estate to make on one play, unless there's 3 seconds left and you're already down by more than a touchdown. It's also not so impressive if a 25-yard gain represents the longest kick return your team produced in an entire season.
That was the reality for the 2006 Columbia Lions, who averaged just 14 yards per kickoff return and 5.8 yards per punt return. For an offense that struggled mightily in 2006, the weak kick return game offered little help in the way of field position. It's another one of the things that must change in 2007 for the Lions to move up in the Ivy League standings.
On the other side of the ball, the Lions allowed a hefty 22.9 yards per kickoff return with a much more manageable eight yards given up per punt return. The kick coverage stats may have been overlooked by a lot of fans because Columbia didn't allow any kick returns for a TD and none of the big opposing returns ever seemed to really hurt the Lions. But that's more of a testament to the Columbia defense than anything else.
A good example of that was the Cornell game, when freshman returner Bryan Walters had one strong punt return after another; the last one a 27-yarder that gave Cornell the ball at the Columbia 32 with 1:38 left and the Lions ahead by just 21-14. But Drew Quinn picked off Big Red QB Nathan Ford two plays later and the game was over.
To be fair, the Lions made do with what they had last season. The good news was Columbia didn't fumble away even one kickoff or punt in 2006 and that was probably the coaches' main goal for the return team. Just holding on to the ball started becoming the focus midway through the 2004 season when the coaches replaced the speedy Brandon Bowser with the more sure-handed Tad Crawford to handle the punt returns. Bowser was a great wide receiver, especially on the deep routes, but he just wasn't fielding the kicks cleanly with any regularity. The trade-off for Crawford's surehandedness was he never seemed to come even close to breaking one. Crawford averaged just 5.7 yards per punt with a long of 15 yards. Tad also handled more kickoffs than anyone else on the team last year, breaking off that 25-yard season-high return against Yale that turned out to be the meaningless last play of 21-3 loss. Freshman Josh A. Williams did a nice job for a rookie, fielding 8 kickoffs, but only for a 14.2 yard average.
I expect Columbia's offense to struggle at least somewhat again this coming season, and field position will be key. The target will be to average 10 yards per punt return and and 20 yards per kickoff return. But more important than averages, will be the need to have someone who can at least put the fear of God into the opposing coverage teams with someone who can break one at least once in a while.
Among the returning veterans other than Williams, senior cornerback JoJo Smith may be the fastest guy on the team and he was expected to return some kicks last season. But that never happened, and I tend to think Smith will stay off the special teams again this coming season as he has become too important to the defensive backfield.
QB M.A. Olawale was exciting and fast the few times he touched the ball last season, but with starting QB Craig Hormann either just recovering in time to start the season or still recovering on the bench, Olawale is probably too valuable to risk as a returner.
Another option could be senior Tim Paulin, who lost more and more playing time at wide receiver last season and may be hungry to make a contribution on special teams. But one of Paulin's problems last season was holding on to the ball as he had a costly fumble against Georgetown and some tough drops in other games. He may not be worth that kind of a gamble.
Some of the backup running backs like Ray Rangel and Grant Jefferson might get a shot as returners too.
But the best hope may come from the projected recruiting class where football and track star Zack Kourouma is posting 4.4 speed in his senior season. And there are some other potential speedsters in Nico Guitierez, Calvin Otis, and Augie Williams just to name a few. Of course freshman returners, especially punt returners, can make for stomach-churning afternoons on the football field.
Adding to the mystery is the fact that most football teams don't practice full-contact kick returns as much as they'd like. Those of you watching the televised spring game at Oklahoma this Saturday probably noticed that all the punts were fair-caught by rule to avoid injury. I guess having 22 guys running full speed at each other in a scrimmage is never very appetizing for the folks on the training and conditioning staff.
Good Times Past
Columbia's return game has had its stars in recent years. Prosper Nwokocha had a kickoff return for a TD in the season-opening win over Fordham in 2005 and remained a feared weapon for the rest of the season. Travis Chmelka provided a lot of excitement in 2003 with a number of big punt returns. And in 2000 and 2001, star running back Johnathan Reese returned kickoffs with great success.
But for the most part, the last 25 years of Lions history has been mostly about hoping to avoid the worst when it comes to returning kicks. The good news is with the great kicking and punting Columbia is getting from Jon Rocholl, even a slightly better return game would make the Lions special teams one of the best in the Ivies. The door is wide open for someone to take that spot and run with it.