There are many ways to score in the game of football, but the punt return is probably the most beautiful to watch. The best return men turn it into more than an amazing play – they turn it into an art form.
The list includes some of the usual suspects: Devin Hester, Desean Jackson and C.J. Spiller, but there are also a few surprises, including a great collection of punt returns from some of the smaller schools. And while most of the punt returns are for touchdowns, a few on the list include some amazing run backs – one even for negative yardage!
And remember one thing. If you ever hear the phrase “He’s only got the punter to beat!” you know the play is going to end up being something special.
Let’s get started.
Here are the top 25 punt returns in college football history:
Penn State vs. Notre Dame | Sept. 8, 2007
Penn State’s Derrick Williams takes advantage of (no pun intended) some outstanding blocks and returns a 78-yard punt for a touchdown against the Irish. Williams narrowly escapes a Rudy-like dive from a Notre Dame defender after nearly fumbling the initial catch. Equally impressive is the “whiteout” of 110,000+ of Penn State fans going absolutely berserk as he crosses the goal line. Joe Paterno unsurprisingly turns his back (again…no pun intended) on the celebration and almost seems angry that everyone is cheering. Perhaps he knew that this score and win would eventually be erased from the record books – like it never happened. (ok, pun intended)
24. “Hurry Up!”
LSU vs. Mississippi State | Sept. 26, 2009
Before seriously mangling his legs in a brutal car wreck, LSU safety/punt returner/baseball pitcher/general all-around baller Chad Jones took this one 93 yards on Mississippi State. The best part is watching teammate Patrick Peterson (yes…that Patrick Peterson) seemingly telling Chad to “hurry up” with his windmill attack arm. A huge FAIL goes to the 7+ Bulldogs who barely manage to get an arm on Jones after the catch.
23. “Lightning Bolt”
Clemson vs. Nebraska | Jan. 1, 2009
It seems like C.J. Spiller did a little bit of everything for the Clemson Tigers, and one of those duties included juking the crap out of the entire Nebraska punt return team at the 2009 Gator Bowl. The only reason he doesn’t score is due to some horrendous blocking around the 50-yard line – otherwise he’s GONE and this one easily makes the top five. Absolutely ridiculous.
22. “Go, Baby!”
Fresno State vs. Weber State | Sept. 10, 2005
Clifton Smith decided to get greedy against Weber State because…well, it’s Weber State and returned not one, but TWO punts for touchdowns in their 2005 meeting. The first run back is just your average “yep I’m faster than everyone, so I’m going to take this right up the middle of the field and you can’t stop me” returns, but the second return is something pretty. The most hilarious part is listening the homer Fresno State announcer cheer Smith into the end zone with a “GO, BABY!” and “TOUCHDOWN! ALL RIGHHHT!” while the other still tries to remain unbiased.
21. “Honey Badger Don’t Care!”
LSU vs. Georgia | Dec. 3, 2011
Tyrann Mathieu must have smoked some serious
chronic honey before the 2011 SEC Championship game against Georgia. His 62-yard punt return finally put LSU on the scoreboard in the 2nd quarter. The Honey Badger (not to be confused with Honey Boo Boo) darts past a pile up of bodies around the 50-yard line and nearly runs over his own buds teammates before scampering in for a score.
The most amazing thing about this punt return — it wasn’t even his best one that day. Check out the Honey Badger’s return in the 3rd quarter. It’s way more impressive, and he comes within a shoe’s length of scoring again.
If only Brent Musburger were calling this game so we could hear him say “Honey Badger” about 80 more times and then ask Tyrann to Homecoming.
TCU vs. Colorado State | Oct. 17, 2009
TCU’s Jeremy Kerley avoids a series of flying Rams with some absolutely sick cut-backs on his way to the end zone. “There are 69-yard punt returns for touchdowns…and then there are 69-yard punt returns for touchdowns!” Yes, this was definitely the latter. It was also the most impressive maneuvering by a frog since George Costanza on Seinfeld.
19. “White Lightning”
Iowa vs Michigan State | Oct. 5, 1996
He’s more than just a guy with a high motor. Tim Dwight was known for many other things, including regularly shaving his entire body with a razor. (After all, there’s nothing better than a freshly shorn Dwight, right???) He also returned some pretty solid punts, and even set the career BIG-10 record for punt returns for touchdowns (5) until some guy named Ted Ginn, Jr. broke it. This return vs. Michigan State is probably his best (despite not scoring), but his body of work speaks for itself. Check out Tim Dwight’s other punt return highlights – you won’t be disappointed, because he’s white…and he’s lightning.
18. “Not Once! Not Twice! Not Three Times!”
Kansas State vs. Texas | Sept. 19, 1998
David Allen never had a chance to score on this 93-yard punt return vs. Texas, but he did anyway. In fact, it was his third game in a row returning a punt for a touchdown – an NCAA record. The announcer comparing Allen to Mark McGwire is hilarious, because you should only be able to run like this when you’re on ‘roids, right? Then I wonder how many punt returners were compared to Lance Armstrong circa 2002 and I laugh even more. The only disappointing part of this clip is during the extra point, when Martín Gramática doesn’t do his trademark jump after the kick. He probably didn’t want to tear his ACL like his brother did.
17. “The Little Guys”
Here I honor a few of the greatest punt returns…from the not-so-greatest colleges and universities:
UVa-Wise vs. Emory & Henry | Sept. 17, 2011
UVa-Wise wins the Division III Southwest Virginia Bowl over Emory & Henry on a miracle last second punt return. Thank you to the referees for not calling the obvious roughing the kicker penalty.
Blinn College vs. Fort Scott CC | Dec. 6, 2009
Chad Froechtenicht (bless you) scampers 83 yards to give Blinn College the NJCAA Football Championship with under one minute remaining. I love how the commentator acts liked he called his shot with “don’t rule out a punt return!” like he’s Nostradamus.
Linfield vs. Whitworth | Nov. 3, 2001
Linfield’s Mike Cooney weaves his way into the endzone and shocks the unbeaten Whitworth Pirates for a share of the NWC lead. The music is inspirational too.
Trinity College vs. Amherst College | Nov. 1, 2003
There’s a difference between “miracles” and “stupidity,” and this one was the latter. Trinity retains their unbeaten record after three members of the Amherst return team forget that you have to actually TOUCH the ball before it’s ruled dead. Annnnnnd, that’s why you go to Amherst.
Steven F. Austin vs. Sam Houston State | Oct. 12, 1996
Sam Houston’s Yohance Bree takes the punt 71 yards to the house for the game-winning score to win the “Battle of the Piney Woods” – which is also an excellent name for a horror movie.
UNI vs. Indiana State | Nov. 10, 2007
Johnny Grey earns the nickname “Mr. Excitement” with this sweet punt return against Indiana State. His cutback on the 20-yard line is absolutely sick.
16. “Hello, Heisman!”
Michigan vs. Ohio State | Nov. 23, 1991
Michigan fans knew it. Keith Jackson knew it. The nation knew it. Desmond Howard knew it. The Heisman was his to lose. Howard put the Heisman Trophy on lockdown with this punt return vs. rival Ohio State. The return by itself would barely make the top 50, but that’s not why it’s one of the best of all-time. Simply known as “The Pose” – Howard etched his name in college football history when he mimicked the famous Heisman Trophy statue in the end zone. And then – following in the footsteps of many previous Heisman winners – Desmond fell flat on his face in his bowl game against the Washington Huskies. Howard’s Rose Bowl performance was so bad that Husky receiver Mario Bailey mocked his Heisman pose.
15. “To The House”
Miami vs. Virginia | Nov. 7, 2009
If you pause the video clip at 11 seconds, you might think that Miami punt returner Thearon Collier is completely screwed. His coverage team brought the house on a block attempt and left him alone to face seven Virginia defenders. At first, he runs straight into the approaching band of Cavaliers before realizing that it’s a terrible idea. After narrowly escaping, he runs toward the opposite side of the field as his teammates administer a couple of serious
concussions blocks to the helpless Virginia players. I swear that guy at the 40-yard line died.
14. “Ace in the Hole”
South Carolina vs. Missouri | Sept. 22, 2012
South Carolina’s Ace Sanders channeled his inner beast mode and broke off an insane punt return against Missouri, literally running through every person on both teams. He doesn’t quite make it to the end zone, but if he did this one is absolutely in the top five. Two weeks later he broke off a 70-yard punt return for touchdown against Georgia that was also pretty impressive. Sanders is legit. Plus, his name is Ace.
Notre Dame vs. Michigan State | Sept. 19, 1987
Notre Dame’s Tim Brown returns back-to-back punts for touchdowns against Michigan State, essentially jump-starting his Heisman campaign in 1987. He calls the first return “one of the easiest he’s ever had” and wow…he’s right. Not a single Spartan defender touched him. Afterwards, Brown is forced to suck down oxygen on the sidelines since apparently he’s also an 82-year old man with emphysema, but that didn’t stop him from scoring AGAIN – this time without any blockers. Couldn’t agree more when he says if “the punter touches you, then there’s something wrong with you,” but what about when the Notre Dame marching band member straddles him during his end zone celebration? There’s something waaaaay more wrong with that.
Mississippi State vs. Louisiana Tech | Sept. 24, 2011
Chad Bumphis should have just left this one alone after
catching fumbling the punt while running backwards, but then I bet he remembered he was playing Louisiana Tech and all was suddenly right with the world. “It wasn’t pretty, but it was effective!” the announcer exclaims, and I’m assuming he was talking about the atrocious tackling by the LA Tech defenders. Seriously, the Keystone Cops could have done a better job.
11. “Lucky 7”
Ohio State vs. Pitt | Sept. 21, 1996
The Ohio State never punted, scored ten touchdowns, and only settled for a field goal once during this 72-0 destruction of Pitt. Toward the end of the game, the Buckeyes’ return unit got a little lazy with assignments and put David Boston out to field a punt with only seven blockers. “Don’t worry…I got this, bro.” says Boston, and scored his third touchdown of the game. If this is actually a college football record then it will never be broken. This game is also probably why ESPN’s Mark May (a former Pitt player) hates Ohio State and is so biased against them. Oh, and this too.
10. “Game of the Century”
Nebraska vs. Oklahoma | Nov. 25, 1971
The defending national champion and #1 ranked Nebraska Cornhuskers marched into Norman to take on the #2 ranked Oklahoma Sooners in what was billed as the “Game of the Century.”The Huskers’ Johnny Rodgers struck first blood with a sick 72-yard punt return for a touchdown. His punt return still remains as one of college football’s signature moments, but not without controversy. Some
observers Sooner fans swear Nebraska cornerback Joe Blahak clipped Sooner receiver Jon Harrison. No penalty was called. They also claim a mystery Nebraska player should have been called for holding before running past the grassy knoll on his way to the book depository.
Notre Dame vs. Colorado | Jan. 1, 1990
Playing for a share of the national title, Colorado was up 10-9 to Notre Dame in the 1991 Orange Bowl with just 65 seconds to play. That’s when the Buffaloes decided to play with fire. Now, there are certain players you should never punt the ball to, and Raghib “Rocket” Ismail was one of them. His amazing 91-yard punt return for a touchdown should’ve won the game for the Fighting Irish, but a controversial clipping call by Greg Davis brought the return back. Tim James, the victim of Davis’ penalty, said he “would’ve tackled Ismail” had he not been clipped. I’m also sure Missouri “would’ve beat Colorado” earlier that season had the idiot refs not awarded the Buffaloes with a 5th down play and an extremely suspect touchdown call. This play also represents the only moment in my life that I’ve cheered for Notre Dame.
8. “The Wizard of Returns”
Cal vs. Tennessee | Sept. 1, 2007
Remember when I said there’s certain people you should never punt to? Well, Desean Jackson is also one of those people. Don’t believe me? Just ask the 2010 New York Giants. I should also mention another rule: If you’re a punter then just shut your mouth. Seriously, no one cares about punters unless they happen to drop one inside the 10-yard line, and then the fans only cheer because – WOW – the punter did his job! Apparently Jackson had asked Tennessee punter Britton Colquitt to “punt to him” prior to the game. And since Colquitts “don’t back down from anyone” (hahaha…LOL) he responded with “I punted to you all last year and you didn’t do anything with it.” Well, Desean certainly DID something with it this game – a 71-yarder that felt like 171 yards. And what did Colquitt get for running his mouth? A beat down by a Cal blocker around the 35-yard line. Still not convinced on how much of a baller Desean Jackson is? Check out his return vs. Oregon in 2006. Remember punters…you’re even below kickers on the football respect totem pole, and that’s already pretty low.
7. “Little Joe”
Oklahoma vs. USC | Sept. 29, 1973
Oklahoma’s star running back “Little” Joe Washington had the GREATEST PUNT RETURN OF ALL TIME…to lose 3 yards. Joe takes the ball around the 48-yard line and just fades back, back, back, back and back to the 28 before miraculously spinning, jerking and clawing his way back up to the 45. The only way to explain his escape is that he must have drenched his body in bacon grease before the game. To be fair to Washington’s greatness, he did score on an amazing punt return vs. rival Oklahoma State in 1974. Once again, his moves are ridiculous – particularly the sick burn he puts on the OSU punter at the 20-yard line.
6. “Backyard Brawl”
Pitt vs. West Virginia | Nov. 16, 2006
With the nickname “Revis Island” you would think he can do everything by himself, but he needed a little help from his teammates during the 2006 Backyard Brawl game with rival West Virginia. Darrelle Revis made an incredible 73-yard punt return late in the second quarter thanks to a crushing double block by Derek Kinder. The return was voted the best 2007 College Football Play of the Year, and I’m like “duhhhhhh.” I thought returns like this only happened in an EA Sports game.
5. “Aloha…and Aloha”
Hawaii vs. Northwestern | Nov. 27, 2004
Chad Owens completely shredded Northwestern in their 2004 matchup, lighting them up for four touchdown passes, but it was his 76-yard punt return in the third quarter that made the Wildcats wish they were taking surfing lessons instead. Still hard to believe he escaped that 3-man bear hug around the 50-yard line. Ironically, Owens was cut by the Jacksonville Jaguars after muffing 3 punts in his NFL debut against the Indianapolis Colts, but this moment will live on forever in Rainbow Warrior lore.
4. “Galloping Ghost”
LSU vs. Ole Miss | Oct. 31, 1959
One guy was willing to give up his wife in exchange for tickets to this epic game between #1 LSU and #3 Ole Miss in 1959. I guess strange things really do happen on Halloween. With LSU trailing 3-0, Billy Cannon returned a punt 89 yards for a touchdown, breaking seven tackles and even faking out the cameraman. It was the only TD of the game. That year, Cannon won the Heisman Trophy and was again voted the UPI College Football Player of the Year.
Oklahoma vs. UCLA | Sept. 20, 2003
Antonio Perkins set an NCAA record with three punt returns for touchdowns against the UCLA Bruins. Perhaps after the second one the UCLA special teams coach would have adopted a new game plan – one that maybe involved NOT punting the ball to anyone with the last name Perkins. I doubt this record will ever be broken again.
2. “Anytime Now”
Miami vs. Duke | Oct. 8, 2005
Do I even need to ask if you should EVER punt to Devin Hester? Apparently someone does, because NFL teams are still doing it to this day. In fact, Hester holds the NFL record for most all-time kick and punt return touchdowns, and will probably be the first to enter the NFL Hall of Fame as a return specialist. I almost shouldn’t have included this return in the Top 25 because it’s against Duke, which is the equivalent of playing against the football team on Glee, except maybe with a little less jazz hands. The best part is at the 0:12 second mark, when a Duke defender grabs Hester by the waist and just holds on for dear life before being thrown off mechanical bull style.
1. “Houdini’s in the House”
Arkansas vs. Tennessee | Nov. 12, 2011
There are a few things in life that defy all description, and this incredible punt return by Joe Adams of Arkansas is one of them. No, seriously. If someone told me they had seen a leprechaun riding a unicorn I would find that more believable than watching this. Mind officially blown.Author’s note: Have you seen a great college punt return that you think should be included? Send me a link in the comments and I’ll review it. I want this to be the most relevant, current list on the internet. This list was compiled in October 2012.