I have been returning kickoffs for as long as I can remember.
When I was growing up in Rock Hill, South Carolina, I was always the fastest kid around — in pickup games, in school, wherever. And ever since I started playing football, when I was five or six, my coaches have always tried to make sure that they got the ball into my hands as much as they could.
When I was about nine years old, I was on an All-Star team made up of kids from my area, and we went to Myrtle Beach for some sort of regional championship game. I don’t remember all the details, but I do know that the other team was trying not to kick the ball to me. Late in the game, though, I finally got to one of their kickoffs and took it back 70-something yards. We wound up winning the game because of that.
Ever since, returning kicks has always been a big part of my game — no matter where I’ve played or how much I’ve played. I take great pride in playing on special teams. A lot of people think that most special teams players aren’t good enough to be on offense or defense. But that’s not the case. I’m a wide receiver. I caught 52 passes last season. But I’m always gonna go out there and bust my tail on a kick return, especially if, for whatever reason, I’m not catching many passes. If I make a play, it’s probably going to be a touchdown.
And what coach doesn’t love touchdowns?
I think my special teams coach in Minnesota, Mike Priefer, is the best in the NFL, and he has always had great trust in me. Even when I was a rookie. Against the Bears in the second game of the 2013 season I returned the opening kickoff 105 yards for a touchdown. It wasn’t an ideal kick for a return — it sort of nosedived as it came in and I had to drift to my left and bend down to catch it. I didn’t start with any sort of forward momentum like most coaches want, but the kick had been a low one, and that gave me a little more time before the coverage team got to me. Our call had been for a return-right, and that’s the direction I started heading. The first wave of tacklers was actually on me by the time I got to the 12-yard line, just outside the right hash marks, but the blocking in front of me was solid. More important, though, I was already at top speed.
It was perfect. I don’t think anybody laid a finger on me.
Six weeks later, the Packers were in town on Sunday night. I was averaging 37 yards a return at that point, and I knew they’d seen what I had done in Chicago … but, to start the game, they kicked it to me anyway. Well, to be fair, they tried to kick it out of the end zone. I actually caught the ball with my heels almost on the end line. It was a high kick, too, and just like in the Bears game, I had to start from a standstill. Most returners would have taken a knee and nobody would have blamed them.
But earlier that week, Coach Priefer had said to me (and this is the kind of confidence I’m talking about), “If you catch the ball in the end zone, even if you’re nine yards deep, go ahead and bring it out.”
So that’s what I did.
And the rest is history — the longest play in NFL history.
There’s so much to returning a kick. It’s more than just left, right or middle. You’ve got to know who’s blocking who and what the front line is doing. Everybody has to be on the same page. The kicker is the kicker and pretty much goes unblocked. Making him miss is my job. But the guys on either side of him have to be accounted for. You start from the outside and work in — on the left side it’s L-1, L-2, L-3, L-4 and L-5. Same on the right. The blockers up front have such a tough job because, at the same time that guys are coming at them full speed, they don’t even really know which way the ball went or where I am.
But whether you’re lined up in a 5-4-2 return formation (which is exactly what it sounds like, with two guys back deep), or an 8-2-1, there’s almost no plan that survives first contact. I think in the Green Bay game the return was supposed to go to the left. I started that way, but then I saw a hole so I cut back to the middle and squeezed through it … before I went back to the left again.
That’s the thing, once you catch the ball there’s no time at all to think about what you’re doing. I try to stick with the game plan, but all I’m thinking about is scoring a touchdown, turning the momentum and helping my team win. It’s instinct. Some guys like to follow the wedge, but I like space. Like in the Green Bay game, I like to look for openings. They close fast in this league, but I trust that my speed can get me through almost any hole before it’s gone. That’s how you gotta play this game.
And honestly, I don’t want to be thinking too much more than that back there. That’s when you start making mistakes.
Like the only thing you’re thinking when the ball is coming down is, Don’t drop it. You can’t think about anything else. After that, if you catch yourself thinking, it’s trouble.
Not that I don’t still find myself thinking all the time. There was one return my rookie season that I think was supposed to go to the right. I kind of started out that way, but then suddenly went left. I got tackled at the 10-yard line. My coach was not happy about that. But it happened to me this year, too. It’s part of the game, part of life as a returner.
That’s why I like to watch guys like Devin Hester and Darren Sproles, who have both been returning kicks so well for so long. Sproles is so fast and strong and low to the ground that he’s hard to tackle. But Hester is my favorite. He’s amazing, so smooth and so fast. I just love watching him. The Seahawks signed him off the street on January 3 and less than two weeks later he almost made the difference for them in their playoff loss to the Falcons. He returned five kicks for 194 yards and almost took a couple of them to the house. He also returned a punt 80 yards, though it got wiped out by a holding penalty. Those things happen on returns. It was too bad, but it didn’t change how incredible he was.
It made me respect him all the more because returning punts is not my thing. It’s hard. I love kicks. I do not love punts.
On a punt return, you’ve got 10 guys running down in your face and it seems like every time you catch the ball there’s a gunner right there trying knock your head off. On kickoff returns you catch the ball and you have 15 yards of space to run and get your momentum going. You hit holes before they close. But on a punt you gotta catch it, make a guy miss, make another guy miss, make a punter miss and then score. You make your own holes. It’s a lot.
But my confidence level is always so high when I’m back there — like I said, I’ve always been the fastest guy around — that I do a good job of bouncing back from a bad return. And my confidence in myself has gotten me through a lot of hard times. I didn’t go straight to college out of high school because of bad grades, so I played for two years at Hutchinson (Kans.) Community College. I was a long way from home, but I grew up a lot. I loved it there. In two years, I averaged 41.9 yards per kick return and scored 36 touchdowns, including six on kickoffs. It seemed like every time I had the ball in my hands, I scored — just like when I was a kid.
I went from juco ball to the SEC when Tennessee signed me in 2012. I only scored on one kick and one punt return that season, but I also had five receiving and three rushing touchdowns. Speed is speed, and the coaches there recognized that and used it to help the team. I did so well in Knoxville that the Vikings traded up to take me in the first round of the 2013 draft. Now I’m going to the Pro Bowl as a kick returner for the second time.
I love special teams, I really do — I don’t care what anybody else says. They give me so much joy. There’s some talk of doing away with them, and I hate the thought of that. You know I hate the thought of that. Doing away with special teams would take so much fun out of the game.
I love playing receiver, but I love returning kicks. It’s taken me a long way, and I’ve scored a lot of touchdowns.
And who doesn’t love those?