Deion “Prime Time” Sanders, Devin Hester, Billy “White Shoes” Johnson, Gale Sayers — some of the most exciting players in the history of football have been kick returners.
Lately, though, it seems like NFL, college, and even youth league administrators are trying to take the foot out football. They’re trying to kick out the kickoff returners.
Player safety is the primary concern— studies have shown that more injuries happen on kickoffs than on any other play in football.
Pop Warner leagues in May eliminated all kickoffs for ages 10 and under. The NFL in 2011 and the NCAA in 2012 minimized returns when they moved the kickoff up five yards from the 30 to the 35, creating 50 percent more touchbacks.
Fewer returns mean fewer injuries and, if you ask FIU kick returner Anthony Jones, less excitement, too.
“Football has been played for many years, and the world loves football,” said Jones, a sophomore who starred at Miami Central High. “I think they should let it be — don’t change the game. Football is the best game, and that’s why I play it.”
As for safety concerns, Jones said he doesn’t feel kickoffs are any more dangerous than any other play.
“All my players are going to give me good blocks,” Jones said.
“With kickoffs, you can change the game, score touchdowns and put the offense in good position.”
FIU certainly hopes its kick returners can do those things consistently this year because the Panthers have built a solid tradition at the position.
T.Y. Hilton — who played for FIU from 2008 to 2011 and is now an NFL standout for the Indianapolis Colts — holds virtually every school record regarding returns.
Richard Leonard, whose eligibility was exhausted after last season, followed Hilton and was FIU’s primary return man from 2012-15. In fact, while Hilton’s 2011 season average of 30.4 yards per kickoff return is an FIU record, Leonard’s 2012 average (29.2) ranks second.
The only other returners in FIU’s history to record seasons in which they averaged over 25 yards per kickoff were Greg Moss (2002-04) and Lionel Singleton (2004-07).
When you add it all up, FIU football, which began its program in 2002, has had just two winning seasons but has had an uninterrupted string of solid return men every year.
Jones, who is the half-brother of Florida State star running back Dalvin Cook and Miami Central running back James Cook, hopes to be next in line as an FIU return star.
At Central, Jones, who is 5-11 and 190 pounds, made first-team All-State as a running back and led the Rockets to the 2014 Class 6A state title. He also averaged 32 yards per kickoff that season.
As a freshman last season, Jones showed flashes that he could indeed keep the Panthers tradition going. He returned three kickoffs for a 32-yard average against Middle Tennessee.
But because FIU had Leonard, Jones only got opportunities to return kickoffs in three other games.
Kirk Doll, who has been coaching special teams for more than three decades, and also coached NFL linebackers for two years with the Denver Broncos, said it’s too early to announce who will return kicks for FIU this season.
But he knows what he’s looking for at the position.
“He has to have that good burst, initially, to find that crease because it closes so quickly,” Doll said. “He has to be able to catch, secure the ball, and see a seam. He has to make good decisions, and he has to become a blocker when the ball is not kicked to him.”
Asked about the safety concerns regarding kickoffs, Doll said that issue is “above my pay grade.”
“Personally,” Doll said, “I enjoy kickoffs and kickoff returns. I can’t tell the percentage [of players who] have concussions or injuries. But I personally have not [seen a lot of injuries on kickoffs]. I think kickoffs are part of the game.”