April 13, 2012

Robinson, Collins top candidates for punt returns

Demarco Robinson never officially registered a punt return as a true freshman.

The speedy wide receiver went in for one return in the season opener against Western Kentucky. He fumbled, and went back to the sideline. He got an earful from the coaches, and didn't go back to return another punt all season.

"I knew it," Robinson said. "I wasn't mad. I knew what was going to happen."

The Wildcats finished the year as one of the worst punt return teams in the country. Randall Burden and Gene McCaskill combined for 35 total punt return yards on the season, and no return went more than 11 yards.

With Burden gone, Robinson is getting another shot at punt returns. Special teams coordinator Greg Nord is still searching for a punt returner to replace Randall Cobb, who left after the 2010 season. Finding a dynamic punt

"It's a mindset that guys take on," Nord said. "He walks in the stadium and you can say 'There's your return guy.' He has a sense of confidence, he has a sense of respect from his teammates because they know he's going to catch everything and make somebody miss. The truly great ones, and I've been around some really good returners, they have a special confidence around them. I think (Robinson) got shook a little bit last year."

McCaskill has taken some punts in spring practice as well, though his reps are limited in an effort to prevent injury. Senior wide receiver La'Rod King has also taken some punts and while he's drawn praise for his ability to secure the ball consistently, Robinson and redshirt freshman receiver Daryl Collins are getting the bulk of the reps.

It's something new for both of them. Robinson didn't take many punts in practice after his mishap in the first game, and Collins is still getting used to handling the ball after missing last season with a knee injury. He took a few punts in fall camp, but didn't take any in practice during the season.

"It feels like it's coming back," Collins said.

Robinson said he tries to find one way to get better every day. The two are splitting reps now, and neither has emerged as a noticeably stronger candidate than the other. The situation is fluid, and could change when a crop of freshmen arrive on campus to compete for the job.

For now, the goal is to get Collins and Robinson comfortable handling returns. Each has shown some elusiveness after the catch. But that's not the only thing coaches are looking for.

"The first thing, the most important thing, is securing the ball," graduate assistant Glenn Holt said. "Once a person gets the ball, then you see how he can run with the ball. Not every guy knows how to run with the ball. To run with the ball, that's something you have to have within yourself."

Even if one player emerges as the stronger candidate in the final week of spring practice, there will still be time for the other to catch up. If one is named the starter, the other will still take reps with the second team.

Until then, Robinson and Collins will battle for the job.

"It's going to be an open competition all the way to the day we get there in Papa John's against Louisville," Nord said.

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