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Analysis: Should UNLV football bother to return kicks or punts?

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Steve Marcus

UNLV Rebels head coach Tony Sanchez watches players during a game against Southern Utah at Sam Boyd Stadium Saturday, Aug. 31, 2019.

The Rebel Room

Armani for the win

UNLV quarterback Armani Rogers was everything he needed to be in a season-opening win against Southern Utah. Now he needs to do it against a tougher opponent. Mike Grimala and Case Keefer discuss Saturday's game with Arkansas State, and why it will likely come down to Rogers.

UNLV demolished Southern Utah in the season opener on Saturday, so it’s hard to get too worked up over a special-teams miscue that occurred when the Rebels were leading by 35 points with less than a minute to play.

That’s when junior running back Tyree Jackson was sent in on the kickoff return squad, tasked with making a fair catch so the Rebels’ offense could run out the clock. Unclear on the rules, Jackson received the kick at the 1-yard line without signaling for a fair catch; then he took three steps backward into the end zone and kneeled.

He thought he’d get a touchback. Instead, the officials tagged him with a safety.

It only cost UNLV two points in a blowout that had long since been decided, but it was a continuation of the special-teams mistakes that have also managed to hurt the Rebels at far less opportune times.

The most obvious instance was last year’s game at Arkansas State, when Brandon Presley tried to field a punt inside his own 5-yard line and ended up fumbling it back to the Red Wolves on the goal line. Arkansas State scored a touchdown on the next play and ended up winning by a touchdown, 28-21.

Both plays were very much on Tony Sanchez’s mind at his Monday press conference.

“That was big last year,” the UNLV head coach said. “We’ve talked about that. Heels at the 7, you never back up, let it bounce behind you. You’ve just got to be fundamentally sound. And then this last Saturday, that stuff can’t happen.”

The issue is, it keeps happening for the Rebels. In addition to Jackson’s safety, punt returner Jacob Gasser also flirted with danger when he danced around a bouncing punt in the first quarter, almost daring the ball to glance off his leg and back into the hands of Southern Utah.

In four-plus seasons under Sanchez, the Rebels have generally sported offenses capable of driving the field with a powerful running game. They’ve also sported defenses that can’t afford to play on short fields after turnovers in the return game.

All of that begs the question: Should UNLV even bother to return kicks or punts?

It’s an extreme solution, but what would the Rebels really stand to lose if they avoided that facet of the game altogether?

The punt return unit is the most obvious candidate to be nixed. In Sanchez’s first four years, UNLV returned 46 punts for 169 yards. That’s an average of 3.7 yards per return. In 2016, the Rebels returned 12 punts for minus-1 yard. The program is also riding an infamous two-decade streak without returning a punt for a touchdown.

It’s no great stretch to say UNLV would be better off by committing 11 players to a punt-block formation and simply allowing all punts to bounce untouched or until downed by the kicking team. Any yardage lost on unlucky bounces or rolls would be offset (and then some) by removing the risk of turnovers that come with fielding punts.

Gasser, a junior receiver who played his first two years at Cerritos College in California, said he returned punts regularly in high school and junior college and that he was comfortable in that role in Week 1.

He also said his top priority is always ball security.

“My main job is to get the ball back to the offense, whether I get a fair catch zero-yard return or a return for a touchdown,” Gasser said. “It doesn’t matter what I do. It just matters that I get the ball back into the offense’s hands and let my offensive coordinators, the O-linemen, QB and receivers do their job.”

The kickoff return unit hasn’t been much more productive. During Sanchez’s tenure the Rebels have run back 172 kicks for 3,174 yards, an average of 18.5 per return. With the new touchback rule, the receiving team can opt for a fair-catch and get the ball placed at the 25 for the start of the ensuing drive. That means UNLV would statistically be better off calling for a fair catch on any kick inside the 7-yard line.

That’s what Jackson was trying to do. The junior running back hadn’t returned kicks since high school, and he said the finer points of signaling for a fair catch escaped him on that particular play.

“I just wasn’t there mentally,” Jackson said. “I understood the situation and I understood to fair-catch it, but the game is mental and a lot of times you have to win the battle between your ears. It was just a mental mistake that I made. I understand it more now than I did in the moment. I’ve got to erase that and come harder this week in practice and give it my all to put the team in the best position.”

On the heels of uneven play from the return units in Week 1, special teams coach Travis Burkett said this week of practice will be focused on a return to fundamentals.

“The focus is to not beat yourself, first and foremost,” Burkett said. “You’re either allowing it to happen or you’re coaching it to happen, and the bottom line is a big look in the mirror at myself. We go in the game in the fourth quarter and put on a performance like that, it’s on video forever now, and in the short term it’s on video for Arkansas State to see.

“We had issues in the punt game, we had issues in the return game with the ball on the ground on punt-block return, and obviously we had a middle-return issue with hesitating on a return and then stepping back and taking a safety. All of those things are inexcusable.”

For now, Jackson is still listed as the No. 1 returner on the depth chart, though sophomore Tyleek Collins is also getting practice reps in that role.

Burkett said Jackson is a key cog in other special-teams units, but that another mental mistake could cost him his return job.

“He’s a gunner, he’s the captain of the punt-block return unit, so he’s a valuable guy and we expect him to snap back from that,” Burkett said. “If we were playing tomorrow it would be Gasser and most likely Tyree, but Tyree is in jeopardy right now. He knows that he’s got to earn it back.”

Despite his relative inexperience in the role, Jackson said he enjoys returning kicks and that he wants to keep his job.

“I’m really comfortable with it,” he said. “I’ve just got to be able to understand the situations because it’s a lot more than just catching the ball.”

If the Rebels suffer a repeat of Week 1 at any point this season, it will once again be fair to question whether they should bother returning kicks or punts at all.

Mike Grimala can be reached at 702-948-7844 or [email protected]. Follow Mike on Twitter at twitter.com/mikegrimala.

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