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Better/Worse/Neutral: Punt and Kick Returns

How the return game takes shape could depend on how John Ross is replaced on kick returns.

NCAA Football: Washington at Utah
Dante Pettis saves the day against Utah.
Russ Isabella-USA TODAY Sports

While the punt returns should remain roughly the same, the biggest shake up this season will come on kick returns. John Ross was the go-to kick returner for his entire career, and now it’s up to Austin Joyner and Chico McClatcher to fill the void. Dante Pettis returns and is probably good for a TD or two on punt returns.

Adding it all up, will the Huskies be better or worse in 2017?

Why the return game will be better

Despite the presence of the dynamic John Ross, there’s opportunity for improvement in the kick return game. Washington ranked only 61st in kick off returns, though the fear of Ross’ speed meant many kicks went deep into the end zone. Consider that he averaged 34 kick off returns a season in first two years at UW, but had only 17 last year. Not to mention his return TD in the opener against Rutgers was a pretty clear statement to the country that his knee was healed and you should avoid kicking to him.

Taking over for Ross will be a combination of Chico McClatcher and Austin Joyner. McClatcher is a quick, exciting player who can make defenders miss and will be the primary kick returner. He should have the occasional big return and might take one to the house. Joyner plays defensive back but with his athleticism could get the chance to return some kicks. Some think running back is his best position, so it’s clear he’s good with the ball in his hands. Between those two, and more experienced depth blocking in front of them, there’s every chance to improve on last season’s average of 21 yards per return.

On punts, Dante Pettis is another year older and experienced. He’s taken 5 punts to the house in his career and at this rate will probably get another 1-2 this year. He rarely, if ever muffs a punt and another year of experience should see that continue.

Why the return game will be worse

Even though the Huskies can improve on their raw kick off return yardage numbers, all those touch-backs and non returnable kicks for John Ross meant pretty good efficiency stats. UW was 29th nationally in kick return efficiency and might see that decline if McClatcher and Joyner aren’t as electric as Ross. You can’t take Ross’ school record 4 career return TDs for granted, either. Before his arrival in 2013, the last kick return TD I can remember was Louis Rankin in the 2007 Apple Cup. That kind of production is not easily replaced, even if by talented players like Joyner and McClatcher.

Pettis has built up a reputation as one of the most dangerous returners in the country and returned 2 for TDs last year, including his game winner against Utah. Realistically speaking, the only way I can see him doing better than that would be with huge improvements in blocking due to the overall talent and depth improvements on the team. I can’t say he’ll be worse, but Pettis might have fewer opportunities this season as punters look to avoid him.


Neutral. I expect a lot more of the same in the return game this season. Washington’s punt return efficiency was 108th last year and through 3 years, we’ve seen Pettis is usually all or nothing on his returns (though his nothings mean a sure handed fair catch), so I’d expect the efficiency numbers to remain steady. That being said about efficiency, I don’t think there’s another punt returner I would rather have back deep than Dante Pettis.

On kick offs, Joyner actually returned 8 last year but only averaged 12 yards a pop. McClatcher’s introduction should improve that quite a bit, though I suspect a slight drop off here. Though, Ross occasionally took returns out of the end zone that should have been touch backs (see return against Alabama), and maybe McClatcher and Joyner will be more conservative.

Ultimately, with a secure-yet-dangerous punt returner coming back and some small questions at kick off returner, I’m going to be boring and say neutral.

What do you think?


Kickoff and punt returns this season will be:

This poll is closed

  • 26%
    (68 votes)
  • 21%
    (56 votes)
  • 52%
    (135 votes)
259 votes total Vote Now