Beavers working on punt return game for Cougars

2009-11-17T21:15:00Z Beavers working on punt return game for CougarsBy Cliff Kirkpatrick, Gazette-Times Reporter Corvallis Gazette Times

For all the success the Oregon State football team has seen in most areas in recent games, coach Mike Riley wants improvement in one specific area this week.

The punt return game hasn't been as dynamic as in recent years when Sammie Stroughter, now in the NFL, was the returner.

The 20th-ranked Beavers average eight yards a return, and are tied for eighth place in the Pacific-10 Conference with Arizona State. Only Washington State is worse, with a 6.9-yard average.

"It is something we would like to work on and improve as we go," Riley said. "We haven't been bad, but we haven't been overly exciting there."

James Rodgers and Taylor Kavanaugh share the return duties. Rodgers averages 12.1 yards on 11 returns and Kavanaugh averages 3.5 yards on 10 returns.

Rodgers has had some good runs for a strong average, but hasn't been steady catching the ball. A good return in Riley's view is 10 yards.

"We are making progress," Kavanaugh said. "Punt return is a dynamic play. It depends a lot on the punt to return, and it depends on every single guy making their block and doing their job. Sometimes it's one block away from a touchdown.

"A lot of times this year we've been close. It's just putting it together to make it go."

Rodgers is used when there's an open field ahead because of his potential to break a long one. Kavanaugh is used near the goal line because of his steady hands and decision-making.

Adjusting to catching punts has been difficult for Rodgers. He wanted to take on this part-time role to be ready for full-time work next season.

"I'm way more comfortable than I was at the beginning of the season, but I'm still trying to improve and get better," Rodgers said. "It going real well. There are a few things not working (overall), but it's progressing well."

What the return game does this week comes to the forefront because punting is one of the few strengths of the Cougars.

Reid Forrest is second in the conference with a 44.2-yard average and a long of 65 yards.

He can conventional punt or rugby punt, where he runs to the side of a field and kicks on the run.

Forrest gets plenty of practice due to WSU's offensive struggles. He's punted 71 times, 14 more than the second-place punter.

"We are going to put a big challenge in front of that team," Riley said. "This week is going to be hard."

The Beavers have used two punt returners to help cover the field in recent weeks when the punter keeps the ball away from Rodgers. At first it was Rodgers and Kavanaugh, but last week Kevan Walker was used with Rodgers.

Walker is a redshirt freshman wide receiver. He has only played on special teams, but is a projected punt returner.

"Kevan Walker will returns punts for us," Riley said. "He's the most natural punt return catcher we have."

The kickoff returns have gone through a steady improvement, and Rodgers nearly scored on one last week. He returned the ball 84 yards to Washington's 1-yard line.

Rodgers is fourth in the conference in with an average of 24.4 yards. He was all-conference as a returner last year with an average of 24.8 yards and a touchdown.

"I could have done better at the beginning of the season, but we are getting better there, and in punt returns, Rodgers said. "I love being on the field. The returns are a bonus for me. I love to give the offense good field position. Since I'm on offense, we love good field position. That's what I try to do."

Riley wants his kickoff return team to get the ball to the 30-yard line. Anything further is gravy.

The average start for OSU's drive last week was the 49-yard line; Washington's was the 28.

"That team has done a good job of getting better as we go," Riley said. "Finding the right niche with what we do blocking-wise with the people we have has taken some time. Now we've come on to something that's good for us. And James is a great returner when we give him some space."

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