Return game emerges as unexpected bright spot

Austin Laymance

Fozzy Whittaker is the nation’s leading kick returner. But his journey to the top was about as unorthodox as it gets.

Whittaker started on the front line of the kick return unit as a blocker, and then transitioned to the second returner against Iowa State and Oklahoma. There, his job was to take any kick off to the left of the hash marks.

“It’s been mix and match for me where I line up on that team,” Whittaker said.

Late in the second quarter against OU, Texas found lightening in a bottle. Trailing by 24 and searching for a spark, the Longhorns needed a big play. And Whittaker delivered with a 100-yard return for a touchdown.

You can thank the swirling winds at the Cotton Bowl for that.

“It was kind of a weird flight because [the ball] got caught up in the wind and it looked like it was going down the middle and at the last second it turned towards me,” Whittaker said. “I just fielded it.”

It was the senior’s only return of the game, but it was enough to convince the coaching staff to hand him the return duties the following week against Oklahoma State.

Whittaker responded with another 100-yard return touchdown and finished with school records in kick return yards (252), and return average (42) for a single game. Not bad for someone who only had four kick returns total between high school and college before that game.

In typical Whittaker fashion, though, he turned the attention away from himself and onto his team.

“I don’t think it’s a vision thing,” he said. “Coach Applewhite has been doing a great job putting a scheme together against the opposing kick off team. What we’ve been utilizing is a kick off that we put in BYU weekend. Ever since then we’ve been perfecting it, polishing it up. I think it’s just us getting comfortable blocking that type of scheme and the way that we do it.”

The dominoes have certainly fallen into place this year for the tailback.

Texas lost two kick returners even before the season began, with Malcolm Williams’ departure and Christian Scott’s three-game suspension. At that time, Whittaker was the last man anyone expected to see returning kicks.

“We did not put him back there initially because of his injuries,” said head coach Mack Brown. “We felt like we would keep him off of special teams.”

Injuries to the receiving corps forced Texas to pull veteran returner Marquise Goodwin off special teams. And D.J. Monroe, who has two career touchdown returns, struggled in that role this season, opening the door for Whittaker.

“We needed a really good leader back there that could stir all the guys up and excite the bunch that we might have a chance to score every time we get it,” Brown said.

That decision has been spot-on. Whittaker leads the country in kick return average (46.5 yards) and is the only player in Texas history with a kick return touchdown in back-to-back games.

But can he keep the streak alive against Kansas on Saturday?

“That’s not really a focus, but if the opportunity presents itself I’d be more than happy to try to contribute to put points up on the board,” Whittaker said.

Actually, the road will only get harder. The coaching staff said they expect opposing kickers to keep the ball away from him with squibs and sky-high kicks.

“Hopefully he’s not through,” said Brown, noting Whittaker would have his full attention as an opposing coach. “I think it will be harder now because people are going to move it around some.”

Brown said he’s been pleased with the special teams as a whole.

Texas averages 10 yards per punt return, giving the Longhorns solid field position each game. That unit also blocked a punt against ISU, with Josh Turner scooping up the ball for a 34-yard touchdown. It was the Longhorns’ first punt block return for a score since 2009 against Missouri.

Place kicker Justin Tucker has converted eight of nine field goals and hasn’t missed an extra point.

Kickoff coverage, though, has been a problem. The Longhorns gave up a 100-yard kick return touchdown against OSU, and opponents average 26.3 yards per return (slightly less than UT’s
26.6 average).

“It is a real issue for us,” Brown said. “We’ve changed personnel, we’ve changed the way we’re doing it. We’re concerned about it.”