In the past few seasons, Miami has learned the hard way about the importance of special teams. And, for the most part, it appears that the Canes have eradicated the key segments of the oft-forgotten third facet of football with the solid play of kicker, Jose Borregales, and punter, Lou Hedley. The U’s special teams roster has also been electrifying by way of blocking field goals, one of which resulted in a scoop and score touchdown against Clemson.
Even though the kicking game is starting off 2020 on the right foot, there is another peripheral portion of Miami’s special teams that has haunted them in the past year-plus, including very much so early in this season: Punt Returning. However, over the past couple weeks a true freshman has emerged, who, in the limited sample size we have seen so far, is showing immense promise as a potential staple for the next few years - the X-man, Xavier Restrepo, who was also named the starting punt returner this week.
So how did Miami reach the point where a minuscule area of the game is plaguing them and even relevant to the Canes’ success? Let’s flash back to last season’s opener against the rival Florida Gators. Late in the second quarter, Miami was leading 13-10 but lost the lead after WR, Jeff Thomas, muffed a punt deep in the Canes’ own territory that was recovered by the Gators. It allowed the Gators to regain the lead and momentum at the neutral site, while also proving the third area of a team can make or break games as Miami ended up losing by four points to their in-state foe.
Fast forward to this year where Junior, and highly touted 2018 recruit, Mark Pope, won the punt return job at the beginning of the season. To say Pope has been disappointing in his punt return duties is an understatement. First, in the season opener against UAB, Pope fumbled a punt deep in Miami’s territory that led to an early Blazers’ touchdown. Two weeks later, Pope muffed another one against FSU.
Neither had dire consequences as Miami ended up winning those games, but the problem became hard to avoid as Manny Diaz started to include Safety, Gurvan Hall Jr., in punt return duties. And over the past couple of weeks, Restrepo has taken over and has been sure handed. The interesting part about the punt return woes is that Diaz actually addressed the importance of punt returning, and, rather, punt-catching, prior to this season’s opener.
“Our punt returner in my mind is a punt catcher.” Diaz told the Athletic prior to fall camp. “Because the first thing you got to do is catch the punt. We might have started last year 1-0 if we could have caught a punt.”
Miami’s Special Teams coach, John Patke, has echoed Diaz’s sentiment: “Like I always say, ‘You’re a punt catcher before you’re a punt returner,’” Patke said.
Prior to this year and besides the Jeff Thomas miscue in last year’s opener, Miami has had incredibly reliable “punt catchers” who, in due time, also ended up becoming explosive “punt returners.”
Jaylan Knighton has been named as starting kick off returner and Xavier Restrepo has been named starting punt returner— Robby Espin (@CanesAccess) October 19, 2020
Last year, transfer WR, K.J. Osborn, started to field punts in lieu of Thomas after the opener, and ultimately won the job by season’s end. Osborn, who was the primary punt returner at University at Buffalo prior to his arrival in Miami, ended up becoming an electrifying returner last year as he average 15.9 yards per return, which ranked fourth in the nation. Osborn’s “make-it” attitude led to being drafted in the sixth round, and, as the new man on the Minnesota Vikings, he has already earned the starting job at punt returner and kick returner.
Prior to Osborn, Miami had as steady a punt returner as you can imagine in Canes’ legend, Braxton Berrios. In Berrios’ senior year, he averaged 15.9 return yards per punt on 13 returns, which ranked 5th overall in the nation among players who had 12+ returns on the season. Berrios also was electric in his junior year as he averaged 11.3 return yards on 19 returns, which ranked 8th best in the nation average for those with more than 16 returns, and included one TD. In his freshman and sophomore seasons, Berrios spent time getting acclimated to the punt return position at the college level as he only had 15 official returns in those two years while backing up Corn Elder and Stacey Coley.
Jonathan Patke said it was a heads-up play by Xavier Restrepo trying to pick up punt that was touched by Clemson because, in that situation, he can try to advance it without penalty. After the other one that fortunately resulted in a touchback, he says team still confident in X.— David Furones (@DavidFurones_) October 13, 2020
While Restrepo only has two official punt returns in his freshman campaign, he has already been thrown right into the fire as he was the starting punt returner on a rainy night in Death Valley against the nation’s number one team, Clemson. Restrepo experienced some growing pains as he had to deal with fielding two tough punts that night inside the 10-yard line.
First, Restrepo made a heads up decision on a punt that hit a Clemson player. Even though Tigers’ coverage was approaching, Restrepo made an attempt to pick it up and advance it, which initially looked like an ill-advised move. However, due to the fact that a Tigers’ coverage player hit it first, Miami could field the ball with no yardage or turnover risk because the ball would be placed, at worst, where Clemson touched it.
However, later in the game, Restrepo may have been a bit overzealous as he tried to field a hot, bouncing punt inside the 10-yard line. Luckily, the ball bounced off Restrepo’s shoulder and into the end zone for a touchback because Restrepo never had possession.
While the two Clemson punts could be used as potential learning experiences, what stood out to me on Saturday against Pitt was not just the mere punt-catching, but the fact that he drew a 15-yard kick punt interference penalty, and held onto the football. It’s not like Restrepo has made electrifying returns, but he has been incredibly sure handed. Similar to Berrios, it may take some time getting acclimated to the position before he is turning heads on return plays, but the confidence in fielding the punts is a positive sign, especially with the team’s poor start in this facet of the game.
Also similar to Berrios, Restrepo expresses a similar pleasure for handling punt return duties:
Berrios, who is currently a WR and PR on the New York Jets has stated numerous times that he loves punt returning. As an NFL rookie on the New England Patriots he stated, “I absolutely love it. I think there’s something about it that it’s kind of an adrenaline rush that I get nowhere else. I truly do. I love returning. You know, I study them as players and really their whole game - as receivers, things they do without the ball and obviously punt returning, as well.” Berrios has repeated that feeling to the Jets’ media.
Restrepo has said he loves it as well: “Truthfully it just comes natural to me,” Restrepo said. “I’ve been punt returning my whole life and just watching guys in front of me like Mark Pope and Gurvan Hall, just giving me tips with when the ball comes and what to do with it. It’s everything I already know, it’s just I’m getting a lot of help from those guys.”
Often times, WRs will express a desirability for catching deep balls or even making receptions across the middle and taking a hit. However, it is rare to hear players say they love punt returning. After all, punt returning is not the most glamorous job as it requires the returner to track a ball that is 60-70 feet in the air while the opponents’ coverage unit races down field in a full speed collision course seeking to break the ball loose. Restrepo welcomes that challenge.
Eventually, Berrios ended up becoming more than just a reliable “punt catcher,” as he became an electrifying punt returner and a fan favorite at the WR position. Berrios has similarly excelled at the NFL level this season with two TDs at WR, after starting his career as predominantly a punt return specialist.
Similarly, Restrepo could definitely utilize his punt return duties as a springboard to get an opportunity at WR, which Miami is also in need of right now. In particular, Diaz just announced this week that the WR position would be an open competition as nine WRs, including Restrepo, will compete for the three open spots. Restrepo did dazzle during a scrimmage in fall camp, so could be close to earning some reps as a slot option even though he is yet to receive any targets.
As mentioned, WR is likely the more preferred position, but a steady punt return presence will be necessary for Miami’s success. And having a true freshman already showing the prowess to get it done is reassuring for the coming years. Not only that, but it should provide Restrepo with on-field confidence that could translate to more opportunities at the WR position. Restrepo has all the makings to be a fan favorite in due time as he trains with immense intensity and came out of high school as the 624th ranked recruit nationally according to 247Sports Composite rankings.
And like other recent fan favorites, he is willing - and loves - to do the dirty work at a position that is oft-forgotten but can be the difference in winning or losing games. In a time when Miami needs a steady presence at punt returner, an unlikely hero/true freshman has arrived. And something tells me the X-Man will carve out a niche at more than just punt returner during his career wearing orange and green.