The First Bank & Trust Company Friday Q&A: Kickoff And Punt Returns, And Offseason Priorities

Virginia Tech
Virginia Tech typically uses running backs as kickoff returners. (Jon Fleming)

1) Why are kick returners and punt returners different? And why are kickoff returners mostly running backs? – st_andrew

Chris Coleman: Great question. By nature, kickoff returns are more like running plays. It’s why, for the most part, we see running back coaches oversee the kickoff return team (Billy Hite did this for years at Virginia Tech).

Though the kickoff team and the kickoff return team line up far apart, the return basically sets up like a running play. This is a good read about kickoff returns, and it applies to the college level, as the author (a high school coach) says he learned the play in college.

A “wedge” return (where 5-6 players line up shoulder to shoulder in the shape of an arrow and try to pulverize their way through the kickoff team with the returner following) is basically like a dive play in the running game. You can also set up outside returns, and that’s the example I’ll use here. I’m taking the pics directly from the article, but here’s an example of a return formation…

As you can see, the front five blockers are actually labeled as offensive linemen, all the way from left tackle to left guard. Then you’ve got a couple of “ends” who are sort of interior tight ends, along with a couple of lead blockers (LB and RB). This is basically an offensive formation without a quarterback and without wide receivers.

And now, here is the author’s example of the play design…

I linked the article above so you can go through and read it yourself, and if you do, you’ll notice the author talking about pin blocks, traps, etc., which are all staples of running game play designs. That’s what kickoff returns are: running plays. The only differences are that the players start off a long distance from each other and the ball is kicked rather than handed off.

Thus, your kickoff returner is generally going to be a guy with good vision, and more times than not, that’s probably going to be a running back, though there are always exceptions. There are also more full-speed collisions because both blockers and defenders get up a full head of steam when they make contact, so ideally your return man is more solidly built and is used to taking heavier contact than a wide receiver or a defensive back.

Good examples are Virginia Tech’s most recent two starting running backs. Khalil Herbert handled kickoff return duties last season with the Chicago Bears, and Raheem Blackshear is doing it this year for the Carolina