To most Ohio fans, Homecoming is a time to return to the alma mater and watch a football game. But to punt and kick returners Travis Carrie and Donte Harden, it means a chance to take a kick “to the house.”
The Bobcats have had success returning both punts and kickoffs so far this season. The team is 37th in punt return yardage among Football Bowl Subdivision schools, and the Bobcats are 18th nationally in kickoff returns.
But coach Frank Solich said the unit is even better than on paper.
“That average is misleading,” he said. “We’re one of the best in the country, period, because (opposing teams) are pooching now, they’re squibbing now, they’re doing everything so that we’re getting the ball at the 35, 40-yard
line, but it doesn’t show up on your return yardage.”
The kickoff return unit came close to scoring last week against Buffalo when Harden returned a kick 67 yards into the red zone. He capped the drive with a 13-yard rush for the touchdown.
Harden said the end zone is his goal every time he fields a kick.
“I’m looking to take it to the house every time,” he said, hinting that he does not believe in touchbacks.
“I’m bringing it out,” he said. “Coach is kind of scared, but I’m brining it out.”
Returning punts is a similar concept but executed differently. Both require a returner with good vision and good blocking by teammates, but punts
require quicker decision-making and more spontaneity.
“You let the punt returner go where he goes, but with the kickoff, there’s a designed scheme,” special teams coordinator Pete Germano said.
Due to the differences, Ohio has different players filling each role. Harden and LaVon Brazill field most of the punts while Carrie and Ryan Clark handle kickoff detail.
“It can be exciting, but it also can be a little scary just because when you catch the ball, you only have a split second to make a decision,” Carrie said. “It does come down to some instincts. You’ve got to be careful. You’ve got to make smart decisions. You’ve got to be comfortable back there.”
Carrie is responsible for the Bobcats’ lone special teams touchdown, which came on a 65-yard punt return late in the third quarter against New Mexico State. If punts came on a menu, he knows what he would order.
“The perfect ball that I like would be the short line drive which gives me the chance to sprint up there and does not allow the coverage team to get coverage, and I can catch it on the run and I can just keep running straight,” Carrie said. “I haven’t had any of them this season, but when you can get those, they’re pretty much house calls.”
Ball State will come calling this weekend and brings its top-25 kickoff return defense with it. The punt return defense allows 4.36 yards per return, which is less than half of Ohio’s 9.8-yard return average.
But that will not change Carrie’s mentality.
“The number one goal is not to fair catch it. The number one goal is not to try an get five or 10 yards,” he said. “I go into every punt return thinking I’m going to return it for a touchdown.”