Nov. 5, 2013
By JACK BOGACZYK
HUNTINGTON, W.Va. – One of the biggest forces on Marshall’s 2013 football team might be the Thundering Herd’s smallest.
Devon Smith has done more than change potential field position for the Herd with his punt return skills and success. He’s also altered the mindset in coach Doc Holliday’s program about going for blocks.
For good reason … The guy nicknamed “MooMoo” shares the national (FBS) lead in long punt returns (20 or more yards) with Oklahoma State’s Josh Stewart – six apiece.
If Smith, a senior transfer from Penn State, can maintain his current pace, he will become the Marshall single-season record-holder in punt return average.
Could he be called the bellcow of Marshall special teams? You betcha.
Using the NCAA-required qualification level of 1.2 returns per game while playing in 75 percent of a team’s games, the Herd mark currently belongs to Larry Coyer, who averaged 18.2 yards (12 returns in 10 games for 218 yards) as a 1964 senior. Smith is averaging 18.5 on 19 returns (352 yards) in eight games.
So, other than his 4.3-second speed in the 40, what is Smith’s secret?
“I think it’s the vision aspect of it mostly,” the diminutive Smith said Monday during the Herd player interview session. “I just have to focus on the ball, catch it, then when I get it just knowing the spacing on the field, where everybody is …
“It’s hard. People don’t know how hard it is to be a punt returner. It isn’t just all catching the ball then running with it. You’ve got to be focused and know where the defenders are and know where the blocks are.”
Smith’s listed height of 5 feet 7 is a stretch. He’s productive as a wideout, too, ranking second to teammate Tommy Shuler in catches and yards. Smith has 22 for 433 yards. He pulled up lame on a 58-yarder early in Saturday’s romp past Southern Miss … and laughed about it two days later.
“I was going too fast,” Smith said, grinning. “I tweaked a hamstring. I’m OK now. I was still hesitant during the game after that, but once I got that (55-yard) punt return, I knew I was all right.”
As the Herd (5-3, 3-1) prepares to entertain UAB (2-6, 1-3) and seek bowl eligibility on Saturday at noon, Smith is ready for more returns for a program that in Holliday’s first three seasons often tried to block punts rather than set up runbacks.
In Holliday’s first three Herd seasons, his teams blocked 17 kicks and have been among the national team leaders in that category the past two seasons. Among those 17 blocks were seven punts. Those teams didn’t have a “MooMoo.”
“He’s been huge,” Holliday said. “It changes field position, won a game for us to be honest. I think he’s one of the top two or three in the country in punt returns. We’ve kind of changed our philosophy a little bit because of him, but also Adam (Fuller, punt return team coach) has done a great job with those guys. There were some great holdups, some great blocks on that one (Smith’s 55-yard return) Saturday.
“We’re getting better every week at that and we work a lot on it. It changes field position … a year ago we were more of a block team. We still have the ability to block kicks but we’ve made more big plays with the return game than we did with blocked kicks a year ago. And when you’ve got a guy like that back there with that kind of ability, you want to do a great job of trying to get the ball in his hands and make something happen.”
Those 2010-12 Marshall teams had – combined – six returns of 20 or more yards, the same number Smith has in eight games in 2013.
In 12 games last season, the Herd returned only 15 punts and averaged 8.3 per return. None was longer than 19 yards, unless you count Derek Mitchell’s 35-yard touchdown return on a punt block by Jermain Kelson at Purdue.
In eight games, Smith has nine returns of more than 15 yards, including a 77-yarder to start the scoring at Florida Atlantic – a real “Cowabunga, Dude!” moment.
He and his punt return unit have really warmed to the task, too. Seven of his last 10 returns (starting with a triple-overtime loss at Virginia Tech) have been for 15 or more yards.
He’s averaged 27.6 yards on his last 10 returns.
Not that much of this should be a surprise. As a Nittany Lions’ sophomore in 2010, the White Plains, Md., native ranked second in the Big Ten in punt returns, with a 12.9 average. But none was for more than 25 yards. He has six longer this season for the Herd.
“It was my main thing, really,” Smith said when asked if he expected to be returning punts after his move to Marshall. “Coach Holliday told me they were going to use me big on special teams. Doc is a special teams guy and he told me, ‘I want you to return punts for me. I need somebody back there I can trust.’ And I came in and we built a trust and he’s kept me back there.”
It’s obvious that Smith and the punt coverage unit have grown together. He caught eight punts in the season opener against Miami (Ohio), but only two returns went for more than 10 yards. He had only 4- and 2-yard returns against Gardner-Webb, and none in a loss at Ohio.
Since then, he’s had only two returns of fewer than 12 yards – a 2 at Virginia Tech and a 3 at Middle Tennessee.
“I really don’t look much at what’s coming,” Smith said when asked if he had a particular secret to bringing back the ball. “My main thing is focusing on the ball, catching it. Once I’ve got the ball in my hands, it’s just a split second to make a move and make two guys miss. And then you get into the return and get to the field and see what kind of space you’ve got, and use your speed.
“I’m not a fair catch guy (he has only one, in the opener against the RedHawks). There have to be two (defenders) right in front of me for me to call a fair catch. It’s all about being patient and then trying to relax.
“Sometimes, the ball seems like it’s up there forever, and it’s waiting for the ball, vision and relaxing. When I’m waiting for the ball, I can see a bit of what’s coming. Sometimes, it’s more a feel of what’s coming.
“It’s kind of like seeing it out of the bottom of your eyes. When I’m watching the ball, I can see what’s going on down there. And the more you’re in a game, you have an idea what the (opposing) team is going to do in punt coverage.”
Smith said there have been eight regulars on the Herd punt return team, and the other three spots have been manned by only two different players, for a total of 14 contributors.
“Sometimes it’s just a change depending on who we’re playing and what they’re doing,” Smith said. “I owe a big thanks to our punt return unit. They’ve been doing a heck of a job blocking and giving me big open spaces and helping me making guys miss.
“It’s not one guy opening things for me; it’s the whole unit. One guy, he might miss a block, but the next play he’ll come back and get the guy. It’s off-and-on. All my guys are good out there.”
So is Smith. And by season’s end, he might be the best Marshall has seen doing his specialty.