published Friday, September 28th, 2012

Prep teams enjoying excitement of kick returns

2012 kickoff returns for TDs

97--Chad Toliver, McCallie, vs. Father Ryan

95--Scotty Lively, Trion, vs. LaFayette

94--Hassan Miller, Tyner, vs. Signal Mountain

91--Andrew Haynes, Calhoun, vs. Dalton

89--Blake Cates, Sequatchie County, vs. South Pittsburg

86--Willie Stewart, Tyner, vs. Brainerd

85--Tony Francois, East Hamilton, vs. Signal Mountain

85--Justin Ware, Walker Valley, vs. Cleveland

83--Auston Banks, Notre Dame, vs. Grace Academy

77--Tony Summerow, Lookout Valley, vs. South Pittsburg

69--Nick Chambers, Notre Dame, vs. Grace Academy

2012 punt returns for TDs

78--Chris Wimberly, Polk County, vs. Sweetwater

70--Auston Banks, Notre Dame, vs. Grace Academy

71--Isaiah Robinson, Hixson, vs. Red Bank

41--Duncan Coffey, Polk County, vs. Central

40--Travis Nunley, Dade County, vs. North Sand Mountain

22--Chase Miller, Boyd-Buchanan, vs. Chattanooga Christian

The kickoff return for a touchdown is a shrinking violet in the NFL, the number dropping from an average of 19 the previous four seasons to nine in 2011.

Area high schools already have amassed 11 slightly more than halfway through the regular season, the longest being a 97-yarder by McCallie junior Chad Toliver. There have been six punt returns for scores.

"They're one of the most exciting plays because everything is so spread out," Ridgeland coach Mark Mariakis said. "You can see more as a fan as opposed to a trap play up the middle. On a return the ball carrier is in open space and zigzagging across the field. They're exciting, but for us any TD is an exciting play."

The NFL moved its kickoffs from the 30- to the 35-yard line in 2010 with the idea of cutting down on the number of full-speed collisions and subsequent injuries. On kickoffs that are not returned, the ball is placed at the 20-yard line. The NCAA followed suit this year, moving kickoffs to the 35-yard line. If the kickoff is a touchback -- and both pro and college players can bring kickoffs out of the end zone — colleges place the ball on the offense's 25-yard line.

Through games of Sept. 22, there had been 11 TDs via kickoff returns in FBS games and another eight in FCS contests.

In making its change, the NCAA said on its website, "NCAA data indicates injuries during kickoffs occur more often than in other phases of the game."

A similar rule may be coming for high schools.

"Is it on the table immediately? I haven't heard that it is, but it could come up at the spring football rules meeting," the TSSAA's Gene Menees said. "So often, whatever [rules] are at that next level in all sports end up at our level."

As with Toliver's TD, kickoff and punt returns can be major game-breakers or momentum-switchers.

"I had just fumbled, gotten stripped and [Father Ryan] scored on the next play," Toliver recalled. "I was thinking about it when they kicked off. I took the ball at the 3-yard line and went upfield and then to the right. Coach [Ralph] Potter always makes sure everybody knows what they were doing. I got 10 blocks, everybody doing what they're supposed to do."

McCallie led 21-0, then 21-7 after Father Ryan capitalized on the third-quarter fumble. Toliver's long return pretty much iced the Blue Tornado's victory, demoralizing the Irish.

"The kickoff return sticks with me more than the [84-yard] run [from scrimmage]. Kickoff returns are more rare," said Toliver, a 5-foot-10, 183-pounder who already is receiving inquiries from Mississippi State, South Carolina, Tennessee and Vanderbilt.

"The kickoff return is one of the most important plays in the game," East Hamilton coach Ted Gatewood said. "It can set up positive position for the offense or leave the defense in a bad way field position-wise."

Many high schools spend at least 15 minutes each Tuesday and Wednesday on special-teams play — kickoff and punt returns and coverage — and much of their Thursday walk-throughs are centered on special-teams play.

"It's every day for us," Mariakis said. "After we stretch we go right to our kicking circuits. We're down to five minutes now, but it was longer earlier in the year. We work a lot on punt and kickoff teams because a punt or kick return can get you beat in a hurry."

The keys to returns are to have playmakers fielding the ball, a good blocking scheme and then throw in a little luck, Mariakis added.

"There's probably more [luck] than coaches want to admit," he said.

One way to avoid the kickoff return is to have the ball kicked into the end zone. High school returners are not allowed to bring the ball out of the end zone.

"It's a huge advantage when teams have to start on their own 20," said Gatewood, whose kicker, Cameron Carter, has put all but three of his kickoffs into the end zone this year. "It helps the defense from a field-position perspective, and it probably gives your defense a little more freedom where it can be a little more aggressive."

about Ward Gossett...

Ward Gossett is an assistant sports editor and writer for the Times Free Press. Ward has a long history in Chattanooga journalism. He actually wrote a bylined story for the Chattanooga News-Free Press as a third-grader. He Began working part-time there in 1968 and was hired full time in 1970. Ward now covers high school athletics, primarily football, wrestling and baseball and University of Tennessee at Chattanooga wrestling. Over a 40-year career, he has covered ...

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