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March 22, 2012Oklahoma has an oustanding history of punt returners under Bob Stoops. The Sooners' Antonio Perkins still holds the NCAA record for most punt return touchdowns in a single game after scoring three touchdowns against UCLA in 2003.
His 277 yards of punt returns that day still stands as the NCAA record for punt return yardage in a game and Perkins is tied with Wes Welker for the NCAA record in punt returns in a career (8).
Before Perkins, J.T. Thatcher helped Stoops usher in a new era of special teams excellence in 2000 with his knack for big returns. Thatcher averaged 15.8 yards per return during the 2000 season (a full 3.7 yards more than Perkins' 12.1 average in 2003).
The well didn't run dry after Perkins left Oklahoma. In fact, during the 2009 season, the Sooners had two players who one-upped both Perkins and Thatcher.
Dominique Franks averaged 17.0 yards per return while Ryan Broyles edged out Thatcher's total by averaging 15.9 yards per punt return all in that same season.
But with the loss of Broyles to the NFL, who is next in line? Who can be that guy?
"We've got some guys that we feel like will be good back there," said Cale Gundy. "Kenny Stills, Roy Finch, Brennan Clay and that's a pretty good three to start with."
But can any of these players build on the excellence of the past?
Stills took over for Broyles last season as the starting punt returner. He had plenty of opportunities to show what he could do. But his average from 2011? Still averaged 4.8 yards on a total of eight returns.
Not exactly up to the Oklahoma standards.
Stills has been working as Broyles' backup the last two seasons, but he still hasn't settled in as a returner. Stills had just one return in 2010 for 16 yards and his longest return from a year ago was 13 yards.
Finch is an intriguing candidate at the position. His change of direction and his ability to make people miss suggests he could be a natural at the position. The best part of the process for Gundy, who also coaches the punt returners, is that they have proven they can handle the most important aspect of returning punts - catching the football.
"There's not many guys on the team who can catch a punt," explained Gundy. "You've got 100 guys out there and you've got 85 on scholarship and there's probably three guys who can do it.
"It's not like catching kickoffs. Everybody can catch kickoffs. You catch punts and it's spiraling down at you or away from you - which way is the wind blowing. It's a whole different monster."
Finch might be the natural choice to take over the punt duties. But as a player who struggled to pick up the offense a year ago, OU coaches couldn't have been excited about adding even more to his plate.
The most important part of getting back to OU's former glory as a punt return powerhouse, might be in finding some blockers who believe they have a player who can hit a home run every time he touches the ball.
The punt return unit believed that could happen with Thatcher, Perkins, Franks and Broyles. Will they believe it with one of these return men?
"It all starts with the blocking up front and it's a team deal so everybody's got to be doing their job," said Gundy.
And with punt returns, making one guy miss can be the difference between a five-yard loss and a 74-yard touchdown.
"Special teams is about putting your best players out there and guys competing, playing hard," Gundy said. "If you have a special guy back there then he has the ability to make somebody miss or you make two guys miss.
"That was the unique thing about Ryan, was how good he was at it. He was always so natural. Kenny's pretty good at it and Roy's pretty good at it. First you've got to be able to catch the ball. Then you've got to know how to set things up and where you're returns are."
With so much skill talent coming into the program next season, Gundy should have more players to choose from if he doesn't feel like Stills, Finch or Clay can answer the bell. But he doesn't think it will take long to determine if he has a special one in this incoming group.
"It takes me about two or three kicks to somebody and I can tell them if they can do it or not," said Gundy. "We play anybody. If you can do it, you can do it at any position on this football team. Ryan Broyles could do it his first year. It all starts first with being able to catch it and that's the hardest thing. It's like playing golf. There's a lot of people that want to do it, but not a lot of people can."
For Oklahoma, the bigger key will not just be finding guys who can return punts, but guys who can measure up to the excellence of the past.