What is it exactly about Pittsburgh Steelers Head Coach Mike Tomlin and his interest in attempting to turn players with little to no experience returning kicks into players who return kicks for him? This is of course not universally true, but the recent listing of rookie wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster is the latest head scratcher in this department.
During three years of college, for example, Smith-Schuster returned a total of 16 kickoffs in 40 games played. His greatest activity came back in his freshman year, when he returned 11 kickoffs for 132 yards. He only returned five kicks over the course of his next two seasons. It was never a full-time gig.
Consider some of his other candidates in recent years, though. There is Fitzgerald Toussaint, for example. In four years at Michigan, the running back, who now sits on the practice squad, had a whopping one kick return for 28 yards.
Sammie Coates was supposed to be the Steelers’ other primary kick returner last season along with Toussaint. But…on what basis? Coates did not even return one single kick or punt in the entirety of his college career. So why did Tomlin opt to do with him as their returner anyway?
While neither were primary but rather more emergency options, wide receivers Cobi Hamilton and Markus Wheaton are two other players who have been asked to line up keep and field a kick or two. Neither had much experience doing it, and in Wheaton’s case at least it definitely showed.
During four years at Arkansas, Hamilton only returned nine total kicks, and that was limited only to his first two seasons. Wheaton in four years at Oregon State returned just four kicks, as well as three punts. Both of them did, however, have a return of at least 50 yards.
The Steelers have tried to find returners. They have drafted them with the likes of Demarcus Ayers, Dri Archer, and Chris Rainey having been brought in. They even attempted to resurrect the flailing career of Jacoby Jones, a once-great returner whose production fell off a cliff.
Antonio Brown and Emmanuel Sanders were both wide receiver who had legitimate return experience, and it is no surprise that they have been among the more successful returners for the team over the past several years. Sanders had 42 kick and 13 punt returns in college, while Brown had 113 kick and 53 punt returns.
Artie Burns, listed second on the depth chart at kick returner, had 11 kick returns in college, including 10 during his freshman year. Terrell Watson, listed third, has not done any return work since high school. This doesn’t exactly inspire me with confidence.
Many are inclined to say that it doesn’t even matter because most kicks will result in touchbacks. But if teams know that they don’t have to respect your kick returner, they are far more likely to try to make you return the kickoff by kicking short of the end zone so that they can put you at a playing field disadvantage.