September 20, 2013

HIGH SCHOOL FOOTBALL: Punt returners play key roles for football teams

By Bill Stewart bstewart@centralmaine.com
Staff Writer

Cony senior punt returner Tayler Carrier watches the flight of the ball as it soars toward the clouds and begins its descent.

click image to enlarge

LOOK IT IN: Oak Hill’s Alex Mace has a difficult job — to catch a kicked football and make a play. Mace is just one of several area players dealing with the same task every Friday night or Saturday afternoon.

Staff photo by Joe Phelan

All around him, chaos ensues.

Blockers are crashing into would-be tacklers. There is screaming coming from seemingly every corner on the field.

"I try to block it out," Carrier said with a grin. "It's hard. Everyone is yelling to try and mess you up. I try to scan the field quickly and see if I have a play. I just focus on the ball. I have to catch the ball. It's all on me. If I don't, it's fair game."

Punt returners play pivotal roles on football teams. Their impact on a game is tied to all-important field position, which is often the difference between victory and defeat.

Their success or failure can turn a game around in a hurry. They can shift momentum quicker than a coin flip.

"There's a lot that goes into it, obviously," Maranacook coach Joe Emery said. "It's not just catch the ball and run. There's a lot of moving parts and schemes at work."

Coaches handle punt returns differently.

Some routinely look for the big play, knowing all too well the impact it can have on a game. They will take chances, allowing their players to make a play on a rolling ball even as special team gunners close in on the play. Others are content with screaming poison -- the universal call for players to run away from the ball -- shortly after it leaves the punter's foot.

"Nobody wants a turnover," Oak Hill coach Stacen Doucette said. "You can't have that. Sometimes, you just have to play it safe."

There are several factors that come into play when determining how aggressive a return unit will play a punt. The game score, quarter and field position are mitigating factors.

Furthermore, a lot has to go right for a big play to occur well before the returner handles the football. For example, blocking breakdowns or the trajectory of the ball can kill a play before it has a chance to develop.

But if everything goes right ...

"Look out," Cony coach Robby Vachon said, "because things can get interesting out there for sure."

At Oak Hill, Alex Mace handles the punt returning duties. A starting running back for the Raiders, Mace has that sought-after, big-play potential, which entices Doucette to turn him loose more often than not.

"Our expectation is to get positive yards," Doucette said. "You want to be safe, but we expect them to make a play back there. Alex can be explosive and he's a returning player. He knows how to handle the role."

But that doesn't mean it's easy, Mace said.

The shifty junior running back acknowledges there are some anxious moments while the ball is in flight.

"It's a very stressful position," he said. "I get really nervous. I'll actually start shaking out there. You have to trust everyone in front of you that they won't let anyone just smash into you. Then you have to make sure you catch the ball. You can't drop it. But whenever I catch a punt I'm thinking of making a big play."

Vachon said the opportunity to change a game is enticing.

"First and foremost, we want the ball," Vachon said. "There are a lot of factors at play, like how we are blocking it. Everything happens very quickly on a punt return. You have to be aware of everything going on around you while not losing focus of the ball. It's not easy.

"You want a guy back there with good hands. You want shifty guys who maybe aren't the fastest guys, but who can read a field."

Carrier is one of several wide receivers on a potent Cony offense. He is coming off a strong showing against Brewer, catching five balls for 88 yards and a pair of touchdowns.

Still, Carrier said there's nothing like breaking a punt return for a sizable gain.

"It gets everyone fired up," he said. "I haven't broken one for a touchdown yet but hopefully that will happen soon. It'd be a big boost for the team."

Drew Stratton is the primary punt returner for the Winthrop/Monmouth co-operative team. Stratton, like Carrier and Mace, has big-play ability and is rarely held back.

While coach Joel Stoneton said the team stresses ball security, he, too, acknowledges a thirst for a game-altering return.

"We're looking to make a return," he said. "We're looking to make something big happen. The punt return is huge. You can be in a stalemate and suddenly you get a seam and it changes everything. We spend a lot of time during the week setting up our special teams. We know what kind of effect it can have on a football game, and if we have an opportunity to change a game, we're going to try and take it."

Bill Stewart -- 621-5640

bstewart@mainetoday.com

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