Time to look at the 2012 MAC football season. We're going to preview the conference unit by unit, ranking the teams one through 13 at every position and facet we can think of. Today: the return game: both kick returners and defending it.
This one might be a bit ambitious. The return game does not factor in kicking, snapping or punting. It's simply kickoff returns, punt returns, and the defending thereof. If it weren't for CFBstats I don't think I'd be able to even attempt such a daring ranking. These are probably wrong, but it's somewhere to start.
1. OHIO — The Bobcats have one of the couple players that scored a punt return TD, and that's the elusive Travis Carrie. However, LaVon Brazill was their primary PR, and Donte Harden handed most KORs, so Ryan Clark will be the guy for now.
Defensively they allowed just four yards per punt return, second best only to NIU, and 19.3 yards per KOR, albeit one touchdown, which ranks fourth.
2. Northern Illinois — The famous Returns Heard Round The MAC in NIU's 63-60 win over Toledo were two huge kickoff return touchdowns by Tommylee Lewis, now a sophomore wide receiver. Whether it was bad assignment blocking or a returning star in the making might be determined this coming season. But despite the skepticism he is still one of the more experienced return men in the MAC who averaged over 25 yards per return on 30 attempts.
NIU also gets the distinction of allowing just ten (10!) punt return yards last year. Now, maybe this is because they ranked last in yards per punt, so with only 10 returns total on them, there weren't many chances. They were eighth on KOR defense with 20.8 yards.
3. Bowling Green — Departing senior Eugene Cooper handled was the primary PR but rover BooBoo Gates is still around to return kickoffs, who had two runbacks of over 70 yards, one for a touchdown. Travis Greene saw time returning punts in the spring game with mixed results.
Defensively they were smack dab in the middle: 7th in both punt return defense (20.6 yards per PR) and KORs (20.6 yards per).
4. Miami — KORs were handled by junior cornerback Dayonne Nunley and sophomore running back Dawan Scott. The team averaged under 20 yards per return. On punts I expect Nick Harwell to shoulder the load, and we know his ability.
Defensively they had the top kick return defense, giving up just 14.25 yards per return. They were eighth with 7.6 punt returns allowed per attempt.
5. Eastern Michigan — Demarius Reed is another rare MAC man with a punt return touchdown to his name. They'll use him and perhaps Marlon Pollard on punt returns. On KORs they're saying goodbye to Corey Welch but Dominique Sherrer might be the main option there; he averaged 22.3 yards on 10 returns. A very solid unit.
Defensively, they gave up just 16.9 yards on KORs and 8.6 yards on punt returns, ranking second and ninth respectively.
6. Ball State — The Cardinals ranked almost last in FBS in punt returns with eight. Eight! Junior receiver Jamill Smith handled all of them and the 10.9 return yards per game is decent. Smith also handled much of the KR duty, gaining over 23 yards per return. Briggs Orsbon was the guy who lined up next to Smith, so they'll need to replace him.
BSU was sixth in the MAC, allowing 20.3 yards per KOR and a mighty third with just 5.38 yards per punt return.
7. Western Michigan — Jordan White was their punt returner and their top two KRs, Dervon Wallace and Aaron Winchester, were all seniors. They list junior running back Brian Fields as the primary KR/PR, with redshirt freshmen Kendrick Roberts and Timmy Keith as other options on KOs and Dareyon Chance as a backup PR. In a small sample size, last year Fields returned five kicks for 17.8 yards per.
And WMU had one of the MAC's top return defenses, third with 19.0 KOR yards allowed (although they allowed a touchdown) and 5.9 PR yards against, which ranked fourth.
8. Central Michigan — They were sixth in kickoff returns last year but everybody who ran it back at least once is returning. Titus Davis is quite good at this, averaging 21.5 yards per KO return. Jason Wilson and Jerry Harris can fill in the gaps.
The issue is on the other side. The Chips were 10th in KOR defense with 21.2 yards allowed per return and 12th with 10.9 yards per PR allowed.
9. Toledo — How do you replace arguably the best return man in the MAC in quite a while? Eric Page leaves a year early, leaving the team to hope Bernard Reedy and David Fluellen can somehow replace that impact. They won't be Page-worthy, but they'll get the job done and Reedy might turn some heads.
And yet they were one of the unsoundest on return defense. They gave up 9.6 yards per PR (with a TD), which ranked 10th, and 22.1 yards per KOR, which not only ranks 11th but is last in total KOR TDs allowed, which is three. By comparison, the rest of the MAC allowed three total.
10. Kent State — Here's another extremely young corps. Just about everybody comes back, including wide receiver Eric Adeyemi on both KORs and PRs. Sophomore Robert Hollimon did well with 23.1 yards per KOR.
But on the defensive side ... they need to work on special teams tackling. They ranked 13th in both opposing kickoff returns (23.13) and punt returns (11.06). They also allowed a TD both ways.
11. Buffalo — Goodbye, Terrell Jackson. Coach Jeff Quinn released his depth chart on both fronts with some very new names. Junior running back Brandon Murie averaged 28.4 on seven KORs, which, well, yes, use him there. On punt returns he lists sophomore WR Cordero Dixon and junior WR Alex Neutz, who didn't have a single return last year. He must know something we don't.
UB was ninth in opposing KOR average (20.9) and 11th in PR average against (10.63).
12. Akron — It would be fair to say the Zips return game was invisible in 2011. They had only two kickoff returns over 30 yards and 11 punt returns total, none over 20 yards. The good news is all of their experienced return men are back, led by senior wide receiver A.J. Price, their primary PR, along with Tyler Williams and Antoine Russell as other options. Williams returned their side's opening kickoff 97 yards for a touchdown. So things are looking up!
Their KOR defense was a generous 22.1 yards per return, 12th best. Their 7.3 PR yards against mark ranked sixth.
13. Massachusetts — The good news: last year Jesse Julmiste had two KOR touchdowns for them. Bad news! Julmiste was a senior. So did featured PR Julian Talley. So it's all bad, news, really. Expect them to lean on Chase Danska and Brian Dowling on KORs. I have no idea how good they'll be.
And all things equal, UMass's average 9.0 opposing PR yards would've been ninth in the MAC (sans Temple) and the 18.8 KOR average would've been third. Of course, this was against different competition.