Among all the complaints HokieNation made last season, one prevalent gripe was a lament every time Michael Holmes returned a punt. "Where's Jarrett?!" many exclaimed. Each time I heard it, I shook my head. It will happen again this season, and I again expect HokieNation to express frustration.
There are two reasons why Kyshoen Jarrett should never be utilized as the punt returner. First and foremost, Jarrett is possibly the most irreplaceable player on Bud Foster's defense. As previously discussed, the rover has multiple responsibilities: drawing the primary coverage responsibility on slot receivers in base defenses; run force responsibility from both the edge and backer alignments in base defenses; and traditional two-deep zone run support and pass coverage responsibilities. Jarrett is a unique hybrid player perfectly suited for the multiple responsibilities. He was a highly rated cornerback coming out of high school, and his experience at the position allows him to be comfortable in both zone and man coverage. Attrition at the cornerback position also means that a premium will be placed on Jarrett to cover secondary receivers and occasionally double elite talents like Amari Cooper. In 2009, the Hokies had a great deal of success bracketing Julio Jones with a deep safety and an underneath corner. I'd expect to see the Hokies deploy similar tactics with two freshmen getting work at the field corner position.
As he demonstrated last season, Jarrett is also an exceptional run defender who seems to be much more comfortable playing inside the box. He has a unique ability to avoid blockers and fill assigned gaps, and he is a sure tackler who can deliver helmet rattling hits. Alabama has a talented, but inexperienced offensive line. The Hokies scheme will attempt to confuse Alabama's offensive line with stunts and slants, leaving Jack Tyler, Tariq Edwards, and Jarrett one on one with the tailback. Jarrett is athletic enough to get T.J. Yeldon in the backfield before he gets momentum up field.
From the base 4-4 alignment, I anticipate that Bud Foster will try to use Jarrett as a robber from his position inside the box to trick quarterbacks into quick underneath throws leaving Jarrett to jump the route. If you thought Jarrett's punt returns were electric, imagine him running back a couple of interceptions this season.
Backup rover Desmond Frye is more of a 4-2-5 rover, with nice size and solid run support skills, but he isn't as comfortable playing close to the line of scrimmage or in man coverage. Zack Snell is a former linebacker who was involved in numerous tackles during fall scrimmages, but isn't as comfortable in coverage and has had difficulty staying healthy. Anthony Shegog is a promising freshman, but inexperienced. Attrition has sapped the depth at other secondary positions. Jarrett is the only player on the roster with the skill set at rover to allow Foster to run his old system against pro-set offenses that can move back to safety against spread formations.
Second, as Frank Beamer has often stated, the punt return game has changed significantly over the last decade. In response to innovative punt block schemes, teams have resorted to different strategies to prevent blocked kicks. Some of those new techniques include rugby style kicks, spread out kicking formations, and the use of shorter alignments and one-step punting. Each strategy has resulted in fewer blocked kicks, not only for the Hokies, but across the college football landscape. It also means that kick distance and hang time has decreased significantly. In order to take advantage of shorter kicks and better field position, Beamer resorted to utilizing two punt returners. Last season, Beamer placed Jarrett and Holmes as his returners, and teams kicked to Holmes as the lesser of two evils. Holmes may not have been as dynamic as Jarrett, but he consistently improved field position.
In spring, Jarrett again got work as a one of two returners, but with Holmes departed, we don't have a clear picture of who will be back returning with him. Teams will probably continue to kick away from Jarrett. Whoever ends up with the job must catch the football. It seems so simple, but allowing the punt to bounce often results additional yardage for the kicking team with no opportunity for a return. Dynamic returns are an added bonus, but short kicks place more of an emphasis on catching the ball and getting up field quickly. The use of quick rugby style kicks also means returners must often try to catch the ball on the bounce, which leaves them open to big hits. I don't think it is worth it to have Jarrett out there when his value on defense is so high. As long as they can field kicks properly, I would like to see the Hokies use one of the many explosive young players that excel in space in Jarrett's spot.
What are your thoughts? Would you risk Jarrett as a punt returner, and if so, who would make a viable replacement at rover if he is lost to injury? If not, who do you expect to return punts? I expect that Beamer will again use two returners to prevent the opposition from kicking away. Could this be a role where they can get the ball in Joel Caleb's hands?