Breaking down special team plays is always a little bit of a challenge because scheme approaches can change constantly due to rule changes and different skills possessed by different players. A touchback automatically moving the ball to the 25 on kickoff returns means you don’t execute a kickoff return unless you have a differen-maker at your return man. A&M has a difference-maker in Ainias Smith as their punt returner so they let him make the fair catch/return decision. Today we’re breaking down Ainias Smith’s 95 yard punt return in the South Carolina game.
Punt Return Concept
Bud Wilkson was a Hall of Fame coach at Oklahoma who won three national championships and 14 Big Eight Conference championships from 1947-1964. Besides being an excellent recruiter and tactician, Wilkinson was also known for being an outstanding teacher. He could break down complex concepts into the simplest format so all of his players could understand. Wilkinson’s weekly television show was must-watch television because he taught football to his viewers. Here is Wilkinson explaining the basics of a punt return:
For those who want to scroll through ads, skip to the 3:01 mark to see the play representation on the board.
The goal in a punt return is for the return team to form a wall to create a clear lane to the end zone. The key blocks are right after the returner receives the ball and before the return team sets the blocking lane.
Executing A Punt Return
Ainias Smith lines up as the lone punt returner.
Two key blocks here: #11 Deuce Harmon on the left gunner and #20 Jardin Gilbert on the center. The gunner is the first person down field and Harmon’s block seals him outside. To have a successful return, the first person must miss, and Harmon ensures the first person is blocked. Gilbert’s block knocks the center wide and out of his lane, which gives Smith room to operate.
First person is blocked, third person is out of his lane, and the second person overruns his lane. Smith makes the fourth person miss. Smith cuts from the west sideline to the east at the 11 yard line. From the 15 yard line, he cuts up the middle of the field. At the 20, Smith heads to the opposite hash because a punt to his right means his wall of blockers opened up the left. Smith is inside the lane and the only player left to beat is the punter. He’s gone.
In a mere 15 yards, Smith converts two key blocks and some nice running into the longest play of the season for A&M. The result of the play is a 95 yard punt return for a TD.
The overhead view from the end zone gives you a better look at both Harmon and Gilbert’s blocks on the play, and Smith’s navigation to the wall.
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