Becoming an effective kick returner certainly takes speed and athleticism. But often, even the best athletes who field kicks lack the mental part of the equation.
“I heard Derrick Williams on this radio show, fantastic player here, great guy, great kick returner,” Penn State coach Bill O’Brien said, "and one of the things he said about the kick returner himself is, he said, you can’t stutter step. You have to hit it, make one cut and go. He is exactly right.”
As a senior in 2008, Williams returned more than half of Penn State’s kicks, and the team ranked 10th in the nation in kick return yardage.
In 2012, the Nittany Lions ranked 116th of 124 teams in that same category at 18.07 yards per return. O’Brien tried a slew of different players there last year, but nothing seemed to work.
This year, it appears Penn State has found its man in redshirt freshman wide receiver Eugene Lewis. He’s returned 6-of-12 kicks this year, averaging 25 yards per, and tops the depth chart with running back Bill Belton behind him. Lewis has also caught three passes for 67 yards, made up mostly by a 54-yard touchdown in the fourth quarter of a 23-17 win over Syracuse.
Belton returned nine kicks in 2012 but averaged just 15.6 yards per return. Trevor Williams, Alex Kenney and Adrian Amos each returned four, but none averaged over 20 yards. Jessa Della Valle, aided by a 46-yard return, averaged 25.2 in six returns. Even linebacker Gerald Hodges brought one back for 12 yards.
Lewis returned kicks and punts in high school and even played quarterback his final two seasons because his coach at Wyoming Valley, Pat Keating, just wanted the ball in his hands.
"It got to the point in his senior year where nobody kicked the ball to him," Keating said. "And as a high school coach, you always hold your breath thinking somebody was going to fumble. Eugene never fumbled."
Saturday in a 34-31 loss to Central Florida, Lewis brought a kick 44 yards to Penn State’s 47-yard line — by far the team’s best starting field position from a kickoff this season.
Here’s Lewis’ 47-yard return Saturday. He keeps his feet moving forward and is quick with his cuts, which gets him another 10 yards.
“What he did on that thing is he made a decision,” O’Brien said. “He didn’t stutter step at all.”
Keating said by playing quarterback, Lewis developed vision and the ability to hit holes when they're closing fast.
In turn, he took that to the return game. Couple his athleticism -- safety Malcolm Willis said Lewis is the second best basketball player on the team behind Allen Robinson -- with great vision, Keating said, and you've got a kick returner.
"You want someone who will make a decision and go," Keating said. "That’s not something you can teach. You just do it."
Penn State ranks 44th in the country in kick return yardage at 22.67 yards per return. It’s still early in the season, but a far cry from 2012.
“Returning kicks, you have to just hit the holes with blind faith,” said safety Ryan Keiser, who has been a versatile contributor on special teams during the last two seasons. “You have to trust that the guys out there will do their job and you just do yours.”
Here’s Williams’ 94-yard kick return against Illinois in 2008. Although he had great blocking in front, Williams kept his head up and hit both holes he got with conviction. His speed certainly helped him find paydirt, but the decisiveness was there. If Lewis can do the same, he'll be a dangerous weapon on special teams.
Steven Petrella can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @steve_petrella.