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Can OSU Finally Find an X-Factor in the Return Game?



On October 31, 2015, during a Halloween game in Lubbock, Jalen McCleskey fielded a high-bouncing punt, went right and proceeded to break the hearts of the tortilla faithful as he followed blockers into the end zone. The Cowboys would beat the Red Raiders 70-53. That was also the last time a Cowboy scored on a punt or kickoff return.

Over Mike Gundy’s tenure, the presence of a dynamic kick returner had almost become the norm. There were guys like Dez Bryant, Perrish Cox and Josh Stewart. Justin Gilbert. Tyreek Hill.

Each one of them had the ability to take the most redundant part of a football game and turn it into a dramatic momentum shift, in no time at all. Unfortunately for Gundy, the Cowboys have hit a bit of a dry spell in highlight-worthy return plays over the past couple of years.

In 2015, a good chunk of kick return reps fell to a pair of true freshmen in running back Jeff Carr and wide receiver Jalen McCleskey. At times, their inexperience showed. Neither really struck fear into the hearts of opposing coaches.

In 2016, it looked like prodigal son Barry J. Sanders might reignite the return game. After that exhilarating 57-yard punt return in the season opener against SE Louisiana — that probably should have been a TD — Sanders didn’t gain more than 12 yards in any single punt return the rest of the year. Neither did McCleskey, who split punts with the former Stanford tailback.

It’s not just that the Cowboys couldn’t score on a single return last season. They were never able to find “that guy,” even with the multitude of playmakers at different skill positions on the roster.

During practice this week, our own Hayden Barber asked Gundy if he has anyone in mind to resurrect that crucial role.

“McCleskey catches, Carr catches, Tyron Johnson will catch,” said Gundy. “And then we have to get a freshman. One of those guys. We have enough skill coming in between the running backs, receivers and corners that one of those freshmen needs to emerge back there, whoever we end up playing, we need to have one of those guys back there returning.”

McCleskey and Carr are both experienced in the role, no doubt. We know both are bigger and stronger now. We know both can make plays. Maybe just more experience is the key.

Then there’s the apparent 2017 Big 12 Newcomer of the Year, Tyron Johnson. Maybe he is the x-factor the Cowboys have been waiting for. There’s also a couple of redshirt freshmen backs in speedster La’Darren Brown and Ja’Ron Wilson who may get a shot by this fall. Or it could be Chuba Hubbard, who hasn’t even showed up for school yet.

It could be someone we’re not even talking about.

But if you’re in attendance for the Spring Game, you’ll get just a small glimpse at the kick returners. There will be no punt returns and scores will be followed by a spot on the 25-yard line but each half will have an opening kickoff.

So fight the urge to check your phone during those kickoffs. You might miss that juke or wiggle that starts a renaissance in the return game.

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