The art of returning kicks is a craft designed for the player with no fear. In fact, you have to have no pulse for about five seconds while you watch the ball in the air and make that catch with everyone on the opposing team running at you with a full head of steam.
Many guys have graced us with the ability to get into the end zone, but not many can do it in a spectacular fashion. Some players are fast, and when they hit the corner you know that they are gone. Others hit you with a couple of moves that make you say
DAMN things you wouldn't normally say but the moment brought the excitement out of you.
Today we take a look at those guys and their impact on the position. While the NFL has guys who specialize in the position, most of the spectacular takes place on the college campuses. So today we will take a look at the 15 most exciting kick returners in college football since 1985.
15. Dante Hall – Texas A&M University
One of the best that I have ever seen do it is Dante Hall. This guy had the quickest feet I have ever seen at the position. Hall could stop on a dime and make change and then outrun everyone on the field to the goal line. Dante is by far one of the best to ever do it at his size.
14. Tamarick Vanover – Florida State University
I have seen many players come and go, but I have never seen a better big-game kick returner than Tamarick Vanover. Playing for Florida State in the early 1990’s was a task in itself, but Vanover was clearly up to the challenge and he always seemed to bring his best when he was playing against another Florida school.
13. Allen Rossum – University of Notre Dame
Rossum owns the FBS career record with nine total return touchdowns. Rossum was versatile as a returner as well. He had three touchdowns on punts, three on kickoffs, and three on interceptions. He also ranks second in Notre Dame history with a 22.9 punt-return average.
12. Tim Brown – University of Notre Dame
In 1986 Tim Brown averaged 27.9 yards per kickoff return. He was just as explosive as a punt returner, averaging 37.5 yards per punt return and adding a couple of touchdowns. As a senior, Brown’s kick duties were limited, but they definitely helped him claim his Heisman Trophy. For his career, he scored six times on kick returns.
11. Wes Welker – Texas Tech University
Were it not for special teams most people wouldn’t have recognized Wes Welker in his early years at Texas Tech. Welker scored eight touchdowns on punt returns in his career, tying the FBS record. Welker was shifty in space and made his mark on about every game he played in as a returner. His senior season at Texas Tech he won the Mosi Tatupu Award as the nation's top special teams player.
10. C.J. Spiller – Clemson University
C.J. should probably be higher on this list, but I don’t want to seem like a prisoner of the moment. Spiller was as exciting as they come during his Clemson career. Not only was he a great running back, but he was also a demon as a kickoff returner. Spiller racked up 2,052 yards and seven touchdowns on kickoff returns and added 569 yards and a score on punt returns during his career. I can honestly say I have seen guys play fast, but this guy does it at warp speed.
9. Antonio Perkins – University of Oklahoma
The player on the list who I would say did the most with the least is Antonio Perkins. Perkins wasn’t the fastest person in the world, but he had a way of making people miss and pile up big yardage on returns. By the time his career was over, he was the all-time leader in touchdowns as a punt returner in college football.
8. Deion Sanders – Florida State University
In college Prime Time was born, and Deion Sanders wore that title well. Deion was a speed demon. He could run with anyone he faced, and if he had the ball and got a step on you, just forget about it. Deion’s last year at FSU was remarkable as he led the nation in punt-return average. He was also the all-time leader in punt return yards when he left school as well. We haven’t seen many people with the talent and speed of Deion.
7. David Palmer – University of Alabama
Everyone is quick to mention a lot of players as the best in Alabama history, and David Palmer has just as legit a claim to that title as any athlete in Crimson Tide history. From 1991 to 1993, he was so electric that Alabama Coach Gene Stallings had figure out ways to get him the football. He was more than a return specialist and a wide receiver. In fact, you can argue that Palmer could have played anywhere. There were games that he lined up at quarterback to run what we deem the wildcat today. He also lined up at the position and threw passes down field. He was a one of a kind player and possibly one of the best players I have ever personally seen in college football.
6. Devin Hester – University of Miami (THE U)
Hester will definitely be noted as the best to ever do it at “The U.” It just seemed that it didn’t matter how many people you put on the field when he was returning kicks. Hester had a knack for making big plays in the return game, and he never disappointed on the big stage. His success started quickly into his career. One of his most memorable returns came his freshman year. He had only played one game, and in his second game for the Hurricanes, against rival Florida, Hester took the opening kickoff 98 yards to the house.
5. Desmond Howard – University of Michigan
Howard has been the most opportunistic of all the returners on the list. He was a pretty good receiver in his own right, but man was he a special returner. Howard had the ability to go missing in space and could return punts and kicks in any weather and any conditions. It seemed sometimes as if he was wearing special cleats as everyone around him was falling and he was making cuts look routine. Howard averaged 27.9 yards per kickoff return and 16.2 per punt return in his Wolverines career.
4. Barry Sanders – Oklahoma State University
Before Barry Sanders was the runner we all know, he was a magician on special teams. Most of us know that Barry played second fiddle to Thurman Thomas at Oklahoma State, and he made the most of that time returning kickoffs. Sanders was able to showcase the fastest feet to ever play the game on returns and made his mark early and often in the biggest games and the biggest stages.
3. Raghib “Rocket” Ismail – University of Notre Dame
Respect the Rocket. The man that patented the move deemed “Get Even Then Leave Them” is by far the best of the best here from my childhood. He was a touchdown waiting to happen every time the ball was kicked to him. Honestly every time he was kicked the ball it seemed as if he was going to take it the distance. He is the only Notre Dame player that I can ever remember rooting for with any consistency. Not that I didn't like the Irish, but he was very likable.
2. Tedd Ginn Jr. – Ohio State University
Hate on him all you want, Ginn is as good as it gets when it comes to the return game. I hated to even put him this high, but when you look at the body of work he could have very easily been number one on this list. Ginn has raw speed and great vision. Sometimes you wonder how a man with his gift could be so limited in other areas on the field. When it comes to the return game though … Ginn is special.
1. Reggie Bush – University of Southern California
Reggie Bush had to have ankles that were forged at birth. Not many people can make the moves that he makes on a routine basis and still be able to walk. Bush is the closest thing we have seen to Gayle Sayers in the modern era. Bush has had to vacate his Heisman Trophy, but it wasn’t for what he did on the field. He is right up there with the most exciting that I have ever seen play the game period. I am not sure I have ever seen anyone as good as he is in space.
I am sure there are some guys that I left out, but these are the guys that I remember most. Leave a few names in the comments section that you feel I may have overlooked.
Stay Breezy ~ I’m Out!
Color Commentator for Time Warner Cable Sports Network NC/SC/OH and NCCU Sports Network. Washed up athlete who used to ball, now I write and call.