Since Mardy Gilyard took his electric make-you-look-stupid playmaking abilities to the NFL the Bearcats have had a revolving door at punt returner. It’s an often overlooked position like the offensive line. To the average observer their performance typically goes unnoticed, with their eyes typically focused on whoever is holding the football. That is, until they make a big play or a mistake. Well since Mardy’s departure there have been far more of the latter during the past two seasons at Cincinnati.
Perhaps the most famous gaff of all was by D.J. Woods against the Oklahoma Sooners in 2010. Cincinnati had swung momentum back in their favor against the #8 ranked team in the country with 13 unanswered points and had most recently forced them to punt the ball back to the Bearcats. But Woods muffed the catch and Oklahoma recovered the football inside UC’s 10-yard line. They crossed the endzone a few snaps later putting the game out of reach as the clock ticked away in the 4th quarter.
In all fairness there were missed opportunities throughout this game where Cincinnati could have overtaken the Sooners. But that fumbled punt forever labelled Woods as the goat of the game, a receiver with ‘bad hands’, and brought up questions about this unit. In many ways it haunted every player tasked to return punts for the next two seasons.
And haunt them it did. In the offseason leading up to the 2011 campaign Butch Jones elected to go with the ol’ punt returner by committee approach in an attempt to breed success. In theory this makes sense and is the basis of the Butch Jones philosophy of getting those most out of his players. D.J. Woods was the incumbent but Danny Milligan was given the opportunity to supplant him.
It really didn’t work.
Woods still had butterfingers and Milligan wasn’t much better. They lost a few punts and to their credit were able to recover them but it was clear something was amiss. Ultimately all-everything runningback Isaiah Pead was tasked to hold down the fort and even he had his troubles at this position. He muffed a few punts but wound up leading the team in punt return yardage (9.25 per carry). Even with the boost Pead provided the Bearcats were statistically a below-average unit, averaging just 6.89 yards per return (78th nationally).
But so far in 2012 there has been marked improvement in the punt return unit both with respect to hanging onto the football and flipping the field, things Mardy Gilyard did very well. Junior Anthony McClung has the #1 punt return role on lockdown and he’s provided the spark the Bearcats have been desperate for the past two seasons. Thanks to him UC is averaging nearly three-times more per return (15.22 yards) good for 27th best in the country. Also their ball security in this area is noticeably improved. They haven’t lost a single punt or even mishandled one. It’s relieving to see that finally the Bearcats have firmed up this aspect of their team.
Like I mentioned it’s a unit that doesn’t get a whole lot of fanfare unless they make a game-changing play or game-changing error. But in 2008 and 2009 the punt return unit was instrumental in the success of both teams and, while it’s too early to tell if the 2012 squad will approach those levels, it looks like at the very least the Bearcats finally have some stability at this position.