August 18, 2022

College Football’s 15 best return specialists of 2022

College Football' 15 best return specialists of 2022

Kansas State wide receiver Malik Knowles catches a kickoff in the second quarter against Iowa State Saturday October 16, 2021 at Bill Snyder Family Stadium. (Lynn Harrington/stayaliveinpower5)

Speed, agility, vision and quickness is what separates them from the rest.

Return specialists are electrifying, and can change the momentum of a game in a split second. Kickers and punters tried their best to avoid kicking to them, but when they did, these 15 studs made them pay.

They’ve all showed a unique skill set, and they’re poised to have more success in their return game this fall.

15. Brian Battie, South Florida: The Florida native was one of the lone bright spots to the Bulls’ 2-10 campaign last season. Battie was amazing at returning kickoffs, and racked up 686 yards. He averaged 32.5 yards per kickoff return, which ranked fifth in the FBS. He took a 100-yard kickoff to the house against Tulsa. Not to mention he returned a jaw-dropping, two kickoffs for touchdowns against Houston, including another 100-yarder. The former three-star prospect had a 45-yard return at Tulane. Battie was also the fourth leading rusher on the team, with 324 yards on the ground. Coach Jeff Scott will need to give the explosive Battie more touches this fall.

14. Gary Bryant Jr., USC: The Californian is as elusive as they come, and does everything with the ball in his hands. Bryant led the Trojans in returns last season. On kickoffs he averaged 25.8 yards per return, which ranked 21st in the FBS. The former four-star prospect returned a kickoff for 37 yards apiece in road tilts at Washington State and Arizona State. Bryant rumbled for a 21-yard punt return against Stanford. The 5-foot-11, 180-pounder returned a kickoff for a season-high, 76 yards against rival UCLA. Not to mention Bryant returned a kickoff for 62 yards against BYU. The wideout also hauled in 44 passes for 579 yards, and scored eight total touchdowns.

13. Ainias Smith, Texas A&M: The former three-star prospect is a natural at returning punts. Smith led the Aggies in punt returns and touchdown receptions last season. He averaged 11.3 yards per punt return, which ranked third in the SEC and ninth in the FBS. The Texas native had a 39-yard punt return in the win over New Mexico. Not to mention Smith returned a punt 95 yards to the house in the victory over South Carolina. Smith also generated a 19-yard punt return against Mississippi State. On top of his return skills, Smith is an electrifying receiver. The 5-foot-10, 190-pounder finished the season with six touchdown catches, including two against Kent State.

12. Jaylen Stinson, Duke: The Alabama native is lightning in a bottle when it comes to returning kickoffs, and racked up 818 yards last year. Stinson stockpiled 66 yards on kickoff returns in the season-opener at Charlotte, and 80 against Louisville. He took an 86-yard kickoff to the house against Pittsburgh. Not to mention Stinson saved the best for last, when he returned a season-high, 94-yard kickoff for a touchdown in the finale against Miami. The five-foot-eight, 165-pound cornerback is also a solid tackler. Stinson finished fifth on the team with 43 stops, and broke up three passes. He’ll give Duke’s new coaching staff plenty of options with his skill set.

11. Jaylin Lane, Middle Tennessee State: The former three-star prospect is coming off a phenomenal season with the Blue Raiders. Lane averaged 15.5 yards per punt return, which ranked first in the FBS. He also finished third on the squad with 42 catches, and earned first-team, All-C-USA honors as a punt returner. Lane took a punt 70 yards to the house, and caught a touchdown pass in the opening win over Monmouth. The five-foot-eight, 183-pounder returned a kickoff for 43 yards in the victory over Marshall. Lane returned a punt for 63 yards in the victory over Southern Miss. The following week he had a 68-yard punt return at Western Kentucky.

10. Tayvion Robinson, Kentucky: The Wildcats landed a gem out of the transfer portal last December. Robinson averaged 13.7 yards per punt return, which ranked first in the ACC and fifth in the FBS at Virginia Tech in 2021. The former four-star prospect led the Hokies in receptions, touchdown catches and earned third-team, All-ACC honors as a return specialist. Robinson returned a punt for 59 yards in the victory over Middle Tennessee State. Not to mention he took a 60-yard punt to the house in the win over Richmond. The Virginia native had a 40-yard punt return against Syracuse. Robinson also generated a 43-yard punt return against Duke.

9. Emeka Egbuka, Ohio State: The former five-star prospect is a demon at returning kickoffs. Egbuka racked up 580 yards on kickoff returns as a true freshman last season. He averaged 29 yards per return, which ranked first in the Big Ten and 12th in the FBS. Egbuka stockpiled 56 yards on kickoffs against Oregon, 53 against Tulsa and 76 against Purdue. The Washington native had a season-high, 166 return yards in the victory over Maryland. Egbuka left a lasting impression when he generated 163 yards on returns in the Rose Bowl win over Utah. The six-foot-one, 205-pound wideout also averaged a jaw-dropping, 21.2 yards per catch.

8. Bryan Massey, SMU: The Texas native is very explosive at returning kickoffs. Massey racked up 686 yards on returns last season. Not to mention he averaged 34.3 yards per return, which ranked second in the FBS. He also earned second-team, All-AAC honors as a return specialist. Massey returned a kickoff for 39 yards against South Florida. The following week he took a 95-yard kickoff to the house in the victory at Navy. The next game Massey stockpiled 127 return yards in the win over Tulane. Massey returned a 100-yard kickoff for a touchdown against Houston. The safety also tallied 29 tackles, hauled in an interception and broke up six passes.

7. Brennan Presley, Oklahoma State: The former three-star prospect made a name for himself in the Big 12 last season. Presley led the Pokes in returns, but he also finished second on the team in receptions, receiving yards and touchdown catches. Not to mention Presley earned second-team, All-Big 12 as a return specialist. The Oklahoma native took a 100-yard kickoff to the house in the victory over Oklahoma. Presley returned a kickoff for 37 yards against Kansas State, 31 against TCU and 36 against Missouri State. The five-foot-eight, 175-pounder can do anything with the ball in his hands, and scored seven total touchdowns in 2021.

6. A.J. Henning, Michigan: The Illinois native is elite at returning kicks. Henning averaged 9.4 yards per punt return last season, which ranked first in the conference and 16th in the FBS. He also averaged 29.3 yards on kickoff returns. Not to mention Henning earned third-team, All-Big Ten honors as a return specialist. The former four-star prospect returned a kickoff 81 yards for a touchdown in the victory at Maryland. Henning had a 32-yard punt return against Northern Illinois. The following week he generated a 29-yard punt return in the win over Rutgers. Henning has the explosiveness to stretch the field on any defense, but he’ll need more touches to prove it in 2022.

5. Lideatrick Griffin, Mississippi State: The former four-star prospect is arguably the SEC’s best at returning kickoffs. Griffin was the MVP of 2020 Armed Forces Bowl. He averaged 33.8 yards per return last season, which ranked first in the league and third in the FBS. The Mississippi native stockpiled 144 return yards in the season-opening win over Louisiana Tech. The following week he took a 100-yard kickoff to the house in the victory over NC State. Not to mention Griffin racked up 100 yards on kickoff returns in the Egg Bowl. The 5-foot-10, 180-pound wideout also caught 26 balls for the Bulldogs, to go along with his 440 yards on returns in 2021.

4. Jayden Reed, Michigan State: The Illinois native is very versatile and can score from anywhere on the field. Reed is coming off a 1,000-yard campaign in receiving yards, but he also displayed his athletic prowess in returning kicks. He returned a 62-yard punt for a touchdown in the victory over Nebraska. The following week Reed returned a 88-yard punt for a score in the win over Western Kentucky. The former three-star prospect racked up a season-high, 96 return yards on four kickoffs against Maryland. There’s no denying Reed is one of the league’s best weapons after scoring 13 total touchdowns. Not mention he earned third-team, All-Big Ten honors.

3. Derius Davis, TCU: The former three-star prospect is so fluid and gifted at returning kickoffs. Davis averaged 29.5 yards per return last season, which ranked second in the Big 12 and eighth in the FBS. Not to mention he finished he year with 473 return yards. Davis also earned second-team, All-Big 12 honors as a return specialist. He racked up 117 yards on returns at Oklahoma. The following week he returned a 100-yard kickoff for a touchdown against West Virginia. Davis stockpiled 115 return yards at Iowa State. The wideout also ranked second on the Horned Frogs in receptions and receiving yards, plus Davis scored three total touchdowns.

2. Charlie Jones, Iowa: The former two-star prospect was part of Buffalo’s 2017 class. Jones blossomed into a star wideout with the Hawkeyes last season, and was named the Big Ten’s Return Specialist of the Year. He also earned first-team, All-Big Ten honors as a return specialist. The Illinois native stockpiled 53 punt return yards in the win at Iowa State. Jones racked up 66 punt return yards in the victory over Colorado State. Not to mention he returned a 100-yard kickoff for a touchdown against Illinois, which tied for the longest in school history. After his successful campaign, there’s no denying that Jones is arguably the league’s most productive return specialist.

1. Malik Knowles, Kansas State: The Texas native can change the momentum of a game in the blink of an eye. Knowles is flat-out, phenomenal at returning kickoffs, and racked up 662 yards last season. Not to mention Knowles averaged 33.1 yards per return, which ranked first in the Big 12, and fourth in the FBS. He earned first-team, All-Big 12 honors as a return specialist. The six-foot-three, 200-pounder returned a 99-yard kickoff for a touchdown at Oklahoma State. The following week Knowles returned a 93-yard kickoff for a score against Oklahoma. The former three-star prospect generated a 64-yard return in the victory over Kansas. Knowles was also the Wildcats’ second leading receiver.