HUNTINGTON, W.Va. - Marshall senior football player Devon Smith's goal of topping the nation in punt returns is tantalizingly close.
Smith sits fifth in the Football Bowl Subdivision at 18.5 yards per return. North Texas' Brelan Chancellor tops the FBS with 21.1 yards per return.
"It's big for me," Smith said. "It's something that we needed for special teams and I just want to keep doing that to help my team."
Marshall Coach Doc Holliday acknowledged that Smith's explosive ability to return punts has been crucial to the Thundering Herd's success and something the team will look for this Saturday when Marshall hosts a noon game at Joan C. Edwards Stadium versus the University of Alabama at Birmingham (Comcast Sports South).
"It changes field position and probably won a game for us to be honest," Holliday said.
Smith's 77-yard return for a touchdown against Florida Atlantic helped the Herd eke out a win in Boca Raton. Holliday said Smith's gifts have caused the Herd to change its philosophy in punt returns. Last season's returner, senior Andre Snipes-Booker, averaged just 5.2 yards per return with a season long of 19 yards. On top of that 77-yarder, Smith ripped off a 55-yarder against Southern Mississippi.
"I think a year ago we were more of a block team," Holliday said, "and we still have the ability to block kicks, but I think we've made more big plays with the return game (this year) than we did blocking kicks a year ago. We've got a guy back there with that kind of ability and we have to do a great job of getting the ball into his hands and making something happen."
It's not an easy task to return a punt, focusing on the ball sailing into your arms, then almost instantly looking for openings to dodge an entire team trying to tackle you. Smith said the two keys to effective punt returning are speed and vision.
"As long as you've got the speed and have the vision, it's hard to stop, even if some guys aren't blocked," he said. "There are times where you have to make guys miss. We're working with the whole field, it's hard to stop."
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AS ADAMANT AS UAB was in running the football last week versus Middle Tennessee, rushing a total of 56 times against just nine pass attempts, no one on the Herd is overlooking Blazers receiver Jamarcus Nelson.
"If Nelson is on the field then you better know where because he ran right by LSU and they have some pretty good corners," Holliday said. "He has great speed and if you don't know where he is then he will beat you or find some way to beat you during that game."