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Photo by Lindsay Caudle, TexAgs
Texas A&M Football

Aggies eager to force more returnable punts for elusive, elite Kirk

March 23, 2017

Imagine sitting at a traffic light revving the engine of a sleek sports car.

But the light won’t turn green.

That’s kind of how Texas A&M special teams coach Jeff Banks has felt the last two football seasons when opponents punted. He has Christian Kirk — the Ferrari of collegiate punt returners — just waiting to take off. But far too often, Kirk just can’t get the green light.

“They’re going to put the ball up short, close to out-of-bounds, and not give any space,” Banks lamented after Thursday night’s spring practice session. “So Christian’s going to have to fair catch everything.”

There may not be a more calming sight to opposing coaches than Christian Kirk waving his arm to signal fair catch as a punt descends to him.

Kirk almost led the nation in punt return average last season. Actually, he did. He averaged 21.7 yards, which was more than four yards better than national leader Brisley Estime of Syracuse.

But NCAA rules require a player to average at least 1.2 returns per game to qualify among statistical leaders. Kirk only had 13 chances. He also didn’t qualify in 2015 when he returned 14 punts an average of 24.4 yards.

National leader Cameron Sutton of Tennessee only averaged 18.6 yards.

Kirk’s career average is 23.1 yards. That’s a higher average than any individual for one season since 2005 when UCLA’s Maurice Jones-Drew averaged 28.4 yards. Further, Kirk has returned five punts for touchdowns in only 27 attempts. That’s an average of a touchdown every 5.4 chances.

Lindsay Caudle, TexAgs After returning two punts for scores against New Mexico State, Kirk shocked Mississippi State (and its fans) by taking another to the house the next week.
“He’s the best punt returner I've ever coached,” Banks said. “He's unbelievable. His ability to field the ball and to make great decisions, make the first guy miss and have speed to finish returns in the SEC … He’s unbelievable. He'll do it in (the NFL) for a long time."

He’ll do it at A&M for at least one more season.

Spring is a time for experimenting. Positions are changed. Players change roles. Newcomers get a look to see if they can be more effective than a veteran. But not on punt returns.

“No, no, no, no,” Banks said. “That would make me a bad coach.”

So instead of experimenting with personnel, Banks should be working this spring to devise strategies that force opponents to kick to Kirk. Actually, he’s been doing that for two years.

He had the idea of applying heavy pressure on the punter. That way, in theory, the hurried punter may panic and hit a low kick that would be returnable.

That hasn’t really worked.

A&M forced 74 punts last season — the fourth-highest total in the Southeastern Conference. But the Aggies only returned 14 (Nick Harvey had a return for a touchdown against Prairie View) as opponents went out of their way to avoid Kirk.

“Auburn knew from the year before Christian is very talented,” Banks said. “We knew (Auburn punter Kevin Phillips) was going to sky it over to the sidelines 38, 37, 35 yards. We’re pressuring it all day and we got pretty close.”

Kirk didn’t get a return in that game. But as the season progressed he got a few more chances.

“(Opponents) would see we haven’t had success six weeks in, and somebody is going to kick it to us,” Banks said. “On film they might be saying, ‘This guy was pretty good last year, but they haven’t done anything this year.’

He’s the best punt returner I've ever coached. He's unbelievable. His ability to field the ball and to make great decisions, make the first guy miss and have speed to finish returns in the SEC … He'll do it in (the NFL) for a long time. - Texas A&M Special Teams Coach Jeff Banks
“Then New Mexico State came in and we got those two. Sometimes you’re getting a 38- or 37-yard punt and you just have to live with it. That’s just the way it is.”

Kirk returned two punts for touchdowns against New Mexico State. The next week he brought one back 93 yards for a touchdown against Mississippi State.

“You’ve got to get a little lucky,” Banks said. "But they can mis-kick balls, too. You play later in the season and it goes into the wind and they don’t have as much control, so here’s where you have a chance. And that’s what happened.”

Kirk only got two more chances to return punts the rest of the regular season. But he did have a 66-yard kickoff return against LSU.

Hey, when you’ve got a Ferrari you drive it every opportunity you can.
Discussion from...

Aggies eager to force more returnable punts for elusive, elite Kirk

7,027 Views | 3 Replies | Last: 7 yr ago by hlsr
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Mr. Black
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Captain Kirk!
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I'd be thrilled just to see the defense force more punts, period. If they're returnable, that's just "gravy".
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