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College football

Punt returners are special breed

Good ones possess vision, courage, speed and creativity of an artist.

By BRIAN LANDMAN
Published October 8, 2004

TALLAHASSEE - Florida State's Terrell Buckley had something of a wacky notion as the Syracuse punt spiraled downward to him that day 15 years ago this week.

Time to try it, he thought.

After catching the ball at his 31, the freshman from Pascagoula, Miss., pulled off one of the most memorable deceptions in FSU history. With the ball nestled against his right hip, Buckley stood nonchalantly as if waiting for an elevator for a couple seconds, a ploy he had rehearsed the week before unbeknownst to his coaches.

"It didn't really register with me what he was doing," said defensive coordinator Mickey Andrews, who also works with the punt returners. "I was like the rest of them."

Most noticeably, the two streaking Syracuse players who assumed Buckley had signaled for a fair catch. They pulled up and relaxed. That's when Buckley took off, picked up a key block as he cut across the SU logo at midfield toward the left sideline and raced 69 yards for a dazzling touchdown.

The "Foola from Pascagoula" was born.

"I wish I could have thought that up," FSU coach Bobby Bowden said, laughing.

But as his No. 8-ranked Seminoles prepare for Saturday's nonconference game at Syracuse, their first trip to the Carrier Dome since that Oct. 7, 1989, showdown, Bowden realizes that if he had, he couldn't have just inserted it into the playbook. Then or now.

Punt returns are more art than science; more innate than learned.

Other than catching the ball, the Seminoles don't even practice that part of the game.

"A lot of it's natural," Bowden said. "It's hard to teach a guy how to return a punt. He either has it or he doesn't."

Deion Sanders had it. Buckley obviously had it. Peter Warrick did, too. But since Warrick's day, which he punctuated with a 59-yard return for a touchdown in the national championship game against Virginia Tech in the 2000 Sugar Bowl, the Seminoles have taken one (nonblocked) punt to the end zone.

That's one in four-plus seasons.

No foolin'.

"You've got to have a guy with vision; he's got to see the field and make somebody miss him every once in awhile," Andrews said. "He's got to be a person who's got some courage. He's got to be a guy with the ability to run. We've got those kids here right now."

Leon Washington, a junior tailback, owns the FSU single-game record for punt return yardage (159 against Wake Forest, including a 65-yard touchdown, last season). His lone return this year was for 3 yards last weekend against North Carolina. Were it not for a penalty, he would have gone 67 yards to the UNC 8.

Not that he would be confused with a Buckley.

He doesn't dance around or try craftiness. He simply wants to field the ball cleanly - something that "takes heart when you've got somebody running at you full speed with the potential of not being blocked" - and rely on his speed and power to go straight ahead.

"When I was on the punt (coverage) team, they teach you to spread out and cover the field," said Washington, who enjoys special teams and hopes that showing versatility may enhance his NFL stock. "They don't want you to bunch up. Frankly, if you make that first line of people miss, you've got a chance to break a long one."

Just how do you do that?

"It's instinctive and something you really can't coach," he said. "That's why a lot of guys aren't good at it or why a lot of guys don't do it."

Senior receiver Dominic Robinson, who might again assume a dual role with fellow receiver and top punt returner Willie Reid nursing a hamstring strain, said he watches a team's punt-coverage tendencies during the game. You can't study beforehand, a team could change its punt-coverage personnel.

"As a freshman, I got tackled after 1 yard on my first punt return," he said of the 2001 game against Wake Forest. "But there was something that I saw and I knew. As I was coming off, I thought that if I faked right and came back left, it'd be good."

He put that theory to the test on his next attempt that game and burst free for 20 yards, coming within a shoestring tackle of breaking it for a touchdown.

Robinson, whose appreciation for history draws him to old game films, has marveled at Buckley's gambit and has toyed with the idea of subtly lifting his arm as he cradles the ball to his side. Officials are stringent and remind punt returners what they can and can't do.

"I think it would be very hard to get away with it as he did," Robinson lamented.

That doesn't mean a homage to Buckley is impossible.

Sophomore Chris Davis, the former St. Petersburg Catholic star, strives to be more flamboyant. Witness: Against Clemson on Sept. 25, he gathered in a punt at his 22 and spun in the other direction to leave a defender grasping at grass to kick-start a 21-yard return.

"Right before I caught the ball, I'd seen a guy coming and I got him," he said with a sly smile. "You want to make it to the end zone, but at the same time, you want to make a lot of guys miss before you're doing that."

Buckley would be proud.

No foolin'.

[Last modified October 8, 2004, 00:15:29]


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