X gone give it to ya.
In Saturday’s 35-6 win over the BYU Cougars at Darrell K Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium, the Texas Longhorns didn’t have to rely on backup quarterback Maalik Murphy to lead the offense in order to take an early lead.
Junior wide receiver Xavier Worthy handled that on his own early in the first quarter, fielding a 55-yard punt, immediately making a BYU player miss, and hitting a crease up the middle for a 74-yard touchdown, the first special teams score of his career.
Xavier Worthy PR TD! 74 yards! pic.twitter.com/HkhdpX2N6z— Ian Valentino (@NFLDraftStudy) October 28, 2023
It was also the first touchdown in the return game under Texas special teams coordinator Jeff Banks after head coach Steve Sarkisian spent weeks talking about how close the Longhorns were to breaking one.
“Obviously a huge punt return by Xavier, but a great job by the other 10 guys, right? Everybody did a really nice job of creating the running lane and Xavier trusted in his speed getting vertical to really set the tone for the game from a special teams perspective,” Sarkisian said Monday.
The return marked the culmination of Worthy’s development as a punt returner that started when he replaced D’Shawn Jamison in the 2022 season opener.
In the punt return game, Banks and Sarkisian emphasize possession first — not just avoiding muffed punts, which happened twice against Baylor in that blowout victory to open conference play, but also saving field position by ensuring the ball doesn’t hit the ground and roll 20-30 yards. After the 2021 season, when Banks and the staff charted punt returns, they found too many instances when Jamison lost yardage in the open field by failing to catch the ball.
So the staff turned to Worthy, their dynamic sophomore wide receiver, to take over for Jamison in a decision that appeared surprising from the outside when Jamison blocked a punt by Louisiana-Monroe on the opening possession of the 2022 season and fellow special teams standout Keilan Robinson returned it for a touchdown.
“Where you thought experience would have made up for that, it wasn’t showing up,” Banks said in preseason camp. “Xavier is going to train hard at whatever we asked him to do — he’s a great, coachable player to do that.”
As Sarkisian noted on Monday when asked to describe the attributes that define a special punt returner, simply fielding the ball on returns isn’t as easy as it seems, especially in making the transition from high school to college,
“I think, one, you have to be able to catch the ball,” said Sarkisian. “I know that sounds really simple, but a lot of times in high school, they just don’t get the punt like the punters in college and the pros punt the ball, they’re end over end and they’re rolling on the ground and you see so many of these guys in high school, oh, he has eight punt returns for touchdowns. Well, seven of those the ball was on the ground, he picked it up off the ground, he didn’t have to field it in the air.”
Spatial awareness is key, too — punt returners have to feel when opponents are running at them and make split-second decisions about whether to call for a fair catch or opt for a return.
And then there’s the type of contact courage that helps define the 172-pound Worthy as a wide receiver in order for the necessary instincts to kick in.
“You have to have courage to make that play and you have to have the natural instincts and feel to run the return. Like Xavier’s example Saturday, the gunner was free and we didn’t block the left gunner very well at all, but he stood his ground and literally catches it and at the same time makes him miss,” said Sarkisian.
As strange as it seems now, Worthy had to develop that contact courage on punt returns in college, thanks in part to a simple direction from Banks as a freshman, when he had three returns for 47 yards.
Xavier Worthy said he didn’t return punts in high school. Says it’s a scary job and was something he was not ever looking to do. Though that changed when he got to Texas as a freshman.— CJ Vogel (@CJVogel_TFB) October 30, 2023
“(Coach Banks) basically just told me ‘You’re on punt return.’”
Despite Worthy’s supreme natural talent, his growth into that role has come thanks to a lot of hard work, too, according to his head coach.
“So, all those things, those are qualities that he has, but also it took a lot of time to work on those things in post practice and in practice to get comfortable doing that and so I think that the greatest ones of them, all the Devin Hester’s of the world, those guys it’s just innate to have that ability to feel it and make people miss and then get vertical, and you have to have a lot of courage to do all that,” said Sarkisian.
Even early on, there were the flashes of Worthy’s potential on punt returns.
In Worthy’s debut against the Warhawks, he set up a field goal with a 21-yard return, had a nine-yard return, and fair caught his other opportunity. Over the season, Worthy averaged 9.7 yards per return, good for 15th nationally, and had positive returns in two other games, a 22-yarder in the win over the Jayhawks that set up an early touchdown, and a 26-yarder and a 29-yarder in the loss to the Cowboys that sparked drives totaling 10 points.
“Xavier did a great job of buying into it. Really had all season given us a chance to be explosive. I mean, he set up three scores from Kansas, Oklahoma State, and the first game of season in Monroe,” Banks said. “We probably were more of a pressure team than I’ve ever been last year and that probably took away from Xavier’s opportunities to return the ball, but I’m excited to see where he goes moving forward.”
With Worthy gaining more experience as a punt returner, Texas has found a better balance between sending pressure and setting up returns this season. In the season opener against Rice, Worthy’s sole return went for 21 yards in the third quarter to help key a touchdown drive. Two weeks later, Worthy looked even more dangerous against Wyoming with a 20-yard return in the first quarter to set up a field goal and a 32-yard return in the fourth quarter to help ice the game. The Baylor punt coverage unit struggled to get Worthy to the ground, too, when the ball wasn’t ending up there for them — the Texas wide receiver had a 40-yard return in the second quarter prior to a two-play touchdown drive.
“I think his confidence is extremely high right now as a return man. This has been back-to-back weeks where he’s a shoelace tackle away from taking it the distance. I think he’s really committed to understanding the schemes that we’re running and how to set up some of the blocks and what’s happening there,” Sarkisian said after the win over Baylor.
When Worthy was finally able to field multiple punts in a game and have a chance at returns again, the Texas head coach believed he was on the tantalizing verge of a touchdown after a six-yard return and a 17-yard return against Houston that was nullified by a holding penalty.
“I thought we were close on a couple of punt returns, so I think that aspect of the game is starting to grow and get better for us,” Sarkisian said after the win over the Cougars.
And then it finally happened a week later.
The combination of Worthy’s natural ability, his hard work to improve, and the improvement of the punt coverage unit’s blocking is certainly a dangerous one — now the remaining opponents this season have a more difficult decision to make about whether to kick to Worthy and take the risk of him creating another touchdown return behind the improved blocking of the Texas punt return unit.
The NFL personnel evaluating the California product also have the video evidence that Worthy provides value in the return game, spots normally occupied by specialists, an ability that should raise his draft stock next spring.