Mack Brown's Mistake In The Punting Game

Quan Cosby's check-in with the media on Tuesday involved a question on the kick return game, which he said he thought was "real close. Guys are out there working really, really hard. Like always, I have the easy part – just running the ball. Sometimes I don’t hit it right quite where I should. Those guys are going to continue to work and eventually, hopefully we’re able to get one in the (end) zone."

The end zone would be great, but let's start with the more modest goal of bringing the return game yardage above league average: Texas' 22.9 yards per kickoff return is 44th nationally and right in line with the '07 numbers (22.5 yards per return, 34th nationally). Cosby has returned 5 of the season's 8 kickoffs at 23.8 yards per--identical to his season average in 2007 when he returned 42 kicks for Texas, including a 91-yarder for a touchdown against Texas A&M.

For the second straight year Cosby also handles the majority of punt returns, and for the second straight season he is averaging less than 10 yards per return (8.0 so far this year; 9.3 in 2007). For as solid a receiver as is Cosby, when watching him return punts it's very obvious he's a below average punt returner, so much so that one wonders whether Mack Brown is just consciously choosing to give up the chance of big plays on the punt return by making sure no big plays go against Texas on punt returns: Not only is Cosby limited as a punt returned, but he fair catches the ball like few others in college football.

Texas has forced 22 punts through four games, but only 6 have been fielded and returned. A year ago, the Longhorns forced 70 punts and only returned 20, 84th fewest in the country and down in the cellar with teams which can't return punts because their defense can't force punts.Though that was also true of Texas too often last year, the percentage of total punts returned was far below most other teams; Oklahoma, for example, returned 45 of 89 punts in 2007, 9 of 29 so far this year.

To be fair, Quan hasn't had too many great chances yet this year, but last year's performance combined with what we can see with our own eyes, unmistakably suggests a passive approach to this element of the game. I was curious how Texas' punt return numbers since Quan assumed the job compare with a handful of other teams. Quick and dirty a small sample as it may be, the results do suggest our eyes aren't deceiving us:

Punts Touchbacks Inside 20 Blocked Fair Catches FC %
Texas 2008 22 3 6 3 7 27%
Texas 2007 70 5 19 0 19 28%
Oklahoma 2007 89 5 20 0
24 22%
Mizzou 2007 70 6 19 0 17 24%
LSU 2007 82 5 27 0 20 24%
Ohio St 2007 103 5 21 1 13 13%
USC 2007 95 9 31 0 11 12%

Is Mack Brown making a mistake? I don't think there's any doubt, for all of these reasons:

1. The risk-to-reward calculus favors taking yards where you can. Though circumstances will at times mandate a non-return (e.g. ball kicked out of bounds or hazardaously close to the goal line), where one is available, those extra yards gained justify risking a fumble. I can't prove it mathematically without data on how often players punt fumbles, but looking at the value-added of even 10 extra yards per return (helpful reference: RMN's Points Per Play chart), I'd be shocked if players fumble punt returns enough to cancel out or exceed in (negative) value that gain. Assuming that's true, Mack Brown isn't giving himself the best chance to win with the current strategy.

2. It's a wasted advantage.  At least in theory, one of the benefits of being a recruiting-rich school like Texas should be on special teams, where the sheer volume of top-end talent should assure those units are stocked with playmakers--be they starters or four-star athletes who do not. Though as Texas fans we're at times silly in how much we obsess over whether the roster goes three and four deep at every position, a strong two-deep is out of most school's reach. But Mack's wasting that advantage here by trotting out a white surrender flag. It's nice that Quan doesn't fumble, but it'd be nicer if someone like Brandon James or Trindon Holiday was back there instead. (If DeSean Hales' redshirt comes off, I'd love to see him get a look.)

3.Game 5: Still paging playmakers. The offense has crushed the weak thanks to Colt's superhuman performance, but the uncomfortable companion question has to be: What if Colt gets hurt or has an off game? Most Texas fans will answer: "We're screwed." Probably true, but that of course doesn't mean we shouldn't be hunting for help at every turn. Sticking someone dynamic on punt return to see if they take to it would be worth the effort.

Relatedly, sometimes you just don't know what you have until you see it in live action. If replacing Quan meant risking losing his solid production, we might think differently, but as is, we're just conceding the punt return game as a non-factor, rather than giving other guys opportunities to shine. Mack should be more aggressive.

 

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