Returning: Dante Pettis (PR), Deontae Cooper (KR), Jaydon Mickens (PR)
Losses: John Ross (KR)
Additions: Chico McClatcher, Austin Joyner, Myles Gaskin, Andre Baccellia
There are few plays in football as momentum-changing as a kickoff return for a touchdown. Coming (usually) after a score by the other team, taking a kickoff back to the house takes the wind right out of the sails of the kicking team - it feels like a free score, a cheat almost.
Few players in the country had the ability to take a kickoff to the house like John Ross. In just two seasons he's already housed 3 of them (with countless more called back due to penalties). He's already tied for the Husky career lead in kickoff returns for touchdowns and has a shot to match the all-time NCAA career mark of 7. So his loss of this season to injury is a real blow - players like Ross are hard to come by. Can the Huskies hope to make up for his loss?
Actually, yes - there's hope. Dante Pettis returns for his sophomore year and he was a revelation as a punt returner. Not only did he field a good percentage of punts rather than let them roll dead, he was elusive and fast enough to often pick up good yardage, including a spectacular 87 return for a TD vs. Colorado. While it will be difficult to replicate his numbers from 2014 (28 returns/288 yards/10.3 avg/1 TD), he's proven himself to be a highly productive punt returner and could be setting himself up to be among the Husky career leaders in the category.
If he continues being the lead punt returner that is - the Huskies actually boast a wealth of options at the punt return and kickoff return spots. With Budda Baker on the roster and guys such as Chico McClatcher, Austin Joyner, Myles Gaskin and Andre Baccellia set to enroll next month, Special Teams Coordinater Jeff Choate has a multitude of guys he can line up back there. Baker has terrific quickness and was a highlight reel on offense and in the return game for Bellevue H.S., and he showed his return skills with his 44 yard interception return in the Cactus Bowl. McClatcher earned the nickname the "Blue Mamba" in high school with his dynamic play and ability to score from any point on the field with the ball in his hands. He'll get a long look as a return man in addition to competing for playing time as a slot receiver. Both Joyner and Gaskin were terrific return men in high school and will get the opportunity to state their case to bypass a redshirt year by showing their stuff on special teams. Baccellia as well possesses the kind of quickness and hands that typify a college punt returner.
Deontae Cooper was the other primary kickoff returner last year, and while he typically acted as the lead blocker for Ross, he has recovered most of his straight-line speed and has enough toughness to not go down on first contact. I would expect to see guys like Baker, McClatcher, Joyner, Gaskin and potentially guys like Jomon Dotson and Isaiah Renfro also get looks on the kickoff return unit.
Verdict: Neutral. Perhaps I'm being too optimistic here. While I don't expect any of the newcomers to match the TD threat that Ross provided, I do think Pettis will remain a terrific option as a punt returner, and I expect the penalties and self-inflicted errors in the kickoff return game to decrease. With a number of very fast, very quick players available to step in for Ross, I don't think it's going out on a big limb to think that the kickoff return average could come close to matching the 21.8 the Huskies posted last year, and the overall return game should be similar to what Washington did last year.