Three return specialists, Laurier's Dillon Heap, Montréal's Frank Bruno and Queen's Jimmy Allin, are averaging more than 100 yards per game on runbacks, threatening the single-season record of 777. (As Windsor coach Mike Morencie said this morning, "If you punt the ball down the middle of the field to Jimmy Allin, you're dead.")
Other return men, such as Mount Allison's Gary Ross, Acadia's Devon Jones, Bishop's Steven Turner, York's Jason Marshall, Manitoba's Jeremy Botelho and Simon Fraser's Jeff Thompson have also had a huge impact on teir teams. It is a small sample size with a high potenial for anomalies, but five teams are averaging at least 14 yards on returns, which no team has done across a full season in at least the past half decade:
National leaders in punt return average:What gives? There was a small window to ask a few OUA coaches on today's conference call:
2008: Guelph, 12.52
2007: Laurier, 13.41
2006: York, 10.49
2005: Ottawa, 10.71
2004: Montréal, 13.62
Guelph's Kyle Walters noted coaches are using their starters on special teams much more than in the past: "Teams are putting a lot more emphasis on getting production from special teams. It's gone from being, 'let's not turn the ball over' and get the offence back out there to a change in the whole philosophy ... the days of the backups getting to run around while your starters sat on the bench are over. What we've also seen is an improvement in coaching. Combine that with better kids on the field on special teams and better coaching and you're seeing the result."
Waterloo's Dennis McPhee: "It's the byproduct of a couple things. Number one, there has been more emphasis on utilizing special teams talent and number two, if you research who is coachig those kids, it starts to become apparently. Take someone like (Guelph wideout-kick returner) Jedd Gardner. His coach (Walters), who was one our best special teams players in Hamilton (with the Tiger-Cats) if not the best and you get a kid who can run like Jedd, and can be coached, you can do some things with him ... If you look across the board and discover who's coaching those kids and marry the talent with the emphasis on special teams, it's no surprise you're seeing these big returns."
Queen's Pat Sheahan noted Allin and Heap are rare talents in the OUA: "I just think both kids are very talented kids. Despite what coaches might tell you, gifted returners are rare. In my 25 years (in CIS football), I've probably had three or four kids I would consider to be special. You can get guys whom you coach up and they can be productive, but it's like with the running game. You can design it the same way and block it the same way, but one guy rushes for 200 yards every week and another rushes for 75 ... in our league, we have a couple good returners. That's what I think."
No doubt fans have their own theories, too. It could change in the second half of the season as teams tighten up their coverage (or punt out of bounds, which is not a penalty in CIS like in the CFL unless the ball goes out inside the 30-yard line). It is a trend to watch, though.