August 18, 2022

College Football’s 15 best return specialists in 2020

College Football's best return specialists

Colorado wide receiver K.D. Nixon celebrates after a 34-31 overtime win over Nebraska Saturday September 7, 2019 at Folsom Field. (Lynn Harrington/stayaliveinpower5)

They can change the momentum of a game in a split second.

Opposing kickers and punters try to do their best to avoid kicking to them, but once the ball falls into their hands they are a threat to take to the house every time. Speed, agility, vision and quickness is what separates them from the rest. They’ve all utilized those skills on the gridiron, which are the main reasons why they’ve been successful with their returns.

All of these players are household names in their respective conferences and they look to continue their dominance in the return game this fall.

15. K.D. Nixon, Colorado: He’s the Buffaloes most experienced receiver, who’s also a team captain. Nixon hauled in 35 passes for 465 yards and three touchdowns last season. Not to mention the former four star prospect had 374 kick return yards, including 98 in the road win over Arizona State. The Texas native flirted with foregoing his senior season to enter the NFL Draft, but reneged and decided to return to school. Nixon’s leadership will be needed because Colorado has an entire new coaching staff for the 2020 season.

14. J.D. Spielman, Nebraska: Although he took a temporary leave of absence from school this past March, he’s still on scholarship with the Huskers. Spielman is the most explosive receiver Nebraska has had over the past few seasons. The Minnesota native caught 49 passes for 898 yards and five touchdowns in 2019, including 100-yard games against Colorado, Illinois, Purdue and Maryland. The former three-star prospect also had 112 punt return yards, including one he ran in for a score in the win over South Alabama. Spielman also had a 99-yard kick return touchdown in 2017 and he has two career punt return scores.

13. Giles Jackson, Michigan: The former four-star prospect contributed in many ways for the Wolverines with a solid true freshman campaign last season. Jackson returned the opening kickoff 97 yards for a score in the win over Maryland. Not to mention the California native had 158 all-purpose yards in the bowl game against Alabama. Jackson had a 23-yard touchdown catch in the win over Rutger and scored on a jet sweep against Ohio State. The five-foot-nine, 188-pounder was also named Michigan’s Special Teams Rookie of the Year and one of two freshmen in school history to ever have a kick return touchdown.

12. Travis Levy, Boston College: The Maryland native played backup running back to A.J. Dillon, but still contributed in other ways for the Eagles. On top of Levy’s three rushing scores, he also had 760 kick return yards, including 135 against Louisville. The former three-star prospect also had two punt return touchdowns in 2018. Levy’s return production might decrease this fall if he wins Boston College’s starting running back job. Regardless of the matter, the 5-foot-11, 205-pounder will be a valued asset for new Eagles coach Jeff Hafley to have at his disposal for the 2020 season.

11. Velus Jones, Tennessee: The receiver earned second-team All-Pac-12 as a return specialist for USC last season. Jones returned a 100-yard kickoff for a touchdown in the season-opening win over Fresno State. The Alabama native also had 102 kick return yards in the win over Utah. Jones finished last season with 704 kick return yards, with a 24.2 average. Not to mention the former four-star prospect has 1,243 career kick return yards with the Trojans. Jones decided this past January that he’s going to play his last Collegiate season with the Volunteers as a graduate transfer.

10. Jerrion Ealy, Ole Miss: He was the Rebels top recruit last season and proved to be a great weapon for the team. Ealy had a rushing touchdown against Southeastern Louisiana, California, Vanderbilt, Texas A&M, New Mexico State and Mississippi State. Not to mention the Mississippi native hauled in 20 passes in 2019 and had a touchdown catch against Alabama. Ealy finished his true freshman campaign with 317 kick return yards, including 172 and a score in the win over the Lions. The five-foot-nine, 180-pound all-purpose back eclipsed the century mark in rushing against LSU and finished the season with 722 yards on the ground. Ealy also garnered Freshman All-SEC honors as a return specialist.

9. Demetric Felton, UCLA: The former three-star prospect scored in three different ways for the Bruins last season. Felton had 331 yards on the ground, including 111 and a rushing score against Oregon State. The five-foot-nine, 185-pound running back also had 55 receptions, 594 yards and four touchdowns, including one apiece against Cincinnati and USC. His best game came in the shootout win over Washington State, when he caught seven passes for 150 yards and two touchdown catches, to go along with 100-yard kickoff return for a score. Felton finished the year with 338 kick return yards and averaged 26 per pop.

8. D’Shawn Jamison, Texas: The Houston native is one of the best corners in the Big 12 and contributed his fair share on special teams for the Longhorns. Jamison tallied 35 tackles and intercepted three passes last season. The former four-star prospect had a 98-yard kickoff return for a touchdown in the win over Rice. Jamison also had 71 punt return yards in the bowl win over Utah. He finished the season with 245 kick return yards and averaged 30.6 per pop. The 5-foot-10, 190-pound corner is Texas’ best playmaker on the defensive side of the ball and could possibly contribute out of the slot on offense this fall.

7. Connor Wedington, Stanford: The Washington native provided a ton of production for the Cardinal last season. Wedington finished second on the team with 51 receptions for 506 yards. Not to mention the receiver had a touchdown catch against USC to go along with 103 kick return yards. The former four-star prospect also had 147 kick return yards in the win over Oregon State. The six-foot, 198-pounder will be one of the leaders of the receivers this fall as the Cardinal rallies behind quarterback Davis Mills after the departure of two-year starter K.J. Costello. Stanford will need a spark on offense after finishing 11th in the Pac-12 in scoring, averaging a mere 22.2 points per game last season.

6. Hassan Hall, Louisville: The former three-star prospect rumbled for 501 yards on the ground and five touchdown last season. Hall had a rushing score against Eastern Kentucky, Boston College, Wake Forest, Miami and Syracuse. The Atlanta native had a 100-yard kickoff return touchdown in the shootout win over Wake Forest. Not to mention the six-foot, 198-pound running back had 142 kick return yards in the win over Syracuse and 133 against Miami. Hall finished third in the league with 793 kick return yards and averaged 30.5 per pop. His production on special teams earned him third-team All-ACC as a return specialist.

5. Ihmir Smith-Marsette, Iowa: The New Jersey native scored in three different ways multiple times for the Hawkeyes last season. Marsette had 44 receptions for 722 yards and five touchdown catches. Not to mention the former three-star prospect had 108 yards on the ground to go along with three rushing scores. However, the receiver did most of his damage on special teams with a 95-yard kick return touchdown in the win over Nebraska. Plus he followed that up with a 98-yard kick return touchdown in the bowl win over USC. The six-foot-one, 183 pounder finished the year with 503 kick return yards and averaged 29.5 per touch, which was No. 2 in the Big Ten.

4. Damond Philyaw-Johnson, Duke: The Florida native didn’t start returning kickoffs until game seven against Virginia. However, Johnson finished the season with 549 kick return yards, tied for second in the ACC with two touchdowns and averaged 32.2 per pop. The former three-star prospect had 251 kick return yards and two scores against Wake Forest. Not to mention he had 122 kick return yards against Notre Dame. Plus he added 92 more yards in the season finale win over Miami. The six-foot-one, 170-pound receiver earned second-team All-ACC as a return specialist and is poised to do more damage in the league this fall.

3. Mykael Wright, Oregon: The former four-star prospect was one of the Ducks’ top recruits last season. Wright had a solid true freshman campaign after generating 21 tackles and he picked off a pass in the win over Montana. The California native finished the season with 380 kick return yards and averaged a jaw-dropping, 38 per touch. Wright had a 100-yard kickoff return for a touchdown in the win at USC. He also had a 98-yard kick return touchdown in the win over rival Oregon State. The cornerback will look to capitalize on the momentum he built last season with another conference title run for Oregon.

2. Joshua Youngblood, Kansas State: He only caught nine passes last season, but made a name for himself at returning kickoffs. Youngblood led the entire FBS with three kick return touchdowns last season as a true freshman. The former three-star prospect had a kick return touchdown in three of Kansas State’s last four games of the regular season. The Florida native used his blazing track speed to score on a 98-yard kickoff return against Texas. Not to mention he had a kick return touchdown in back-to-back weeks in wins over Texas Tech and Iowa State. Youngblood finished with 502 kick return yards and led the Big 12 with a 35.8 average per touch. The 5-foot-10, 180-pound receiver also had a rushing score in the win over Oklahoma. Youngblood earned Freshman All-America honors as a return specialist and was named the Big 12’s Special Teams Player of the Year.

1. Jalen Waddle, Alabama: The former five-star prospect is a big play waiting to happen anytime he touches the pigskin. Waddle scored in three different ways for the Crimson Tide last season. The Houston native hauled in 33 passes for 560 yards and six touchdown catches. Not to mention he led the entire FBS with 487 punt return yards and averaged 24.3 per touch. Waddle returned a punt 77 yards for a score against LSU. He also returned a 98-yard kickoff for a score against Auburn. The 5-foot-10, 182-pound receiver’s production earned him first-team All-SEC as a return specialist and second-team All-America honors. With Jerry Jeudy and Henry Ruggs III now on NFL rosters, Waddle and Devonta Smith form one of the best wide receiver duos in the country for Alabama this fall.

Honorable Mention

Michael Carter, North Carolina: Not only did the former three-star prospect rush for 1,003 yards, but he also caught 21 passes, had 466 kick return yards and scored five total touchdowns last season.