As LaVon Brazill fields a punt, he accelerates toward the Bowling Green defense like a MINI Cooper bursting into head-on traffic.
The returner instinctually finds a hole in the middle of the Falcon defense while fellow receiver Riley Dunlop picks up one Bowling Green defender. Brazill shifts into another gear, forcing two Falcon defenders to miss.
Brazill sees he has one defender to beat and, realizing he has Gerald Moore as a blocker, cuts right towards the sideline and heads for the end zone.
“When I finally see that space, I’m just thinking, ‘It’s time to go, y’all,’” Brazill said. “I’m just saying to myself, ‘Let’s go! Let’s go!”
The touchdown against Bowling Green last year highlights all the features that make Brazill a successful punt returner: vision, shiftiness, explosiveness, and breakaway speed.
Those four traits are what enabled Brazill to lead the nation with three punt-return touchdowns last year and earn numerous pre-season accolades for his accomplishments.
The most underrated trait, Brazill says, is his hands. If he can’t catch the ball, he doesn’t have any chance of making a spectacular return.
With full-speed defenders coming at him, Brazill must decide in milliseconds whether to field the punt or call a fair catch.
“When the ball's in the air, I’m only looking at the ball,” Brazill said. “I can see and feel people running and getting close to me.
“But if I have space and break a guy down, I’m not going to take a fair catch.”
As he pulls in the ball, Brazill scans the defense, reading his blockers and finding holes. If any defender sneaks through, Brazill will try to make the guy miss with a juke move before charging up field.
The returner credits wide receivers coach Dwayne Dixon’ system for his ability to find most miniscule holes. The coach runs drills where the receivers catch the ball and read defenses before making their next move.
“It’s pretty hard,” Brazill said. “But it opens up your eyes and peripherals like no other.”
Next, Brazill then heads toward the middle or a side of the field, depending on the play call. During his touchdowns last season against Kent State and Northern Illinois, Brazill’s blockers all lined up along the left side of the field, which set up a wall for the returner.
With his teammates sealing off the defenders, Brazill takes advantage of the open-field ahead of him as he sprints like a thoroughbred down the sidelines.
“I’m just relieved when I see that open field,” Brazill said. “I’m excited, happy, all that, just knowing I’m putting points on the board for special teams.”
Brazill said he prefers taking it to the sideline because he only has to deal with tacklers from one side of the field.
But usually, the situation isn’t so easy for the returner. In the middle of the field, he must use his vision and shiftiness to snake through defenses. Swarms of tacklers usually stop him, but when a seam opens like it did against Bowling Green, Brazill doesn’t let the opportunity slip away.
Special teams coach Ross Els says Brazill is so effective because of his courage to field the ball in such heavy traffic. The returner also excels at making things happen when his blocks break down.
“He’s got to find the seam like any good running back would,” Els said. “Then, he has to hit it down hill from there.”
Because of a knee injury and teams kicking away from him, Brazill hasn’t had many chances to spring a touchdown so far this season.
His lone return came against Toledo, where he fumbled the punt before falling on top of the ball.
As the returner heals, he said he knows he’ll get the chance to show off his ability like he did last year.
“Somebody’s gonna have to kick it to me,” Brazill said. “And I’m gonna make them pay for that.
“I’m dying for one.”