Football is a game of field position. Other than huge turnovers and big offensive plays, special teams is the best way to tilt the field in your favor. A huge return can also get the crowd riled-up and back into the game.
Additionally, some of the most electric and dynamic players in the history of college sports were human joysticks on special teams. Devin Hester, Reggie Bush, Ted Ginn Jr., and, of course, Prime Time are just a few of the names who have made quite a living simply on special teams. Some of the most exciting and ridiculous plays each season will come from returnmen. Just ask the Tennessee Vols about trying to stop Joe Adams. And if you can perform on both the punt and kick return teams, you are that much more valuable.
So who are the college football's most exciting return men in 2012:
1. De’Anthony Thomas, Oregon (SO)
There may not be a more explosive, more dynamic player in all of the nation. Aside from playing both running back and wide receiver, Thomas excelled as a return man. He scored twice on kick returns against Washington State and then again in a clutch performance against USC. He finished with 983 yards on 36 kicks. He only had three punt returns, but averaged 17.3 yards per clip.
2. Sammy Watkins, Clemson (SO)
Another sophomore who is simply unstoppable with the ball in his hands. He runs, catches and returns kicks with ease. He returned 33 kicks a year ago for 826 yards and one huge score in the improbable road comeback against Maryland. His talents may be too great to use him in the punting game, but make no mistake, few players can take it the distance like Watkins.
3. Tyrann Mathieu, LSU (JR)
The diminutive Heisman finalist got to New York based mostly on his play as a punt returner. He is likely the top player at that position nationally and his two scores against Arkansas and Georgia shifted momentum in LSU's favor a year ago. His skills as a coverman are overrated but his ability to slide past oncoming traffic and change a game on one special teams play is undeniable.
4. Tyler Lockett, Kansas State (SO)
This freshman was hampered by injury a year ago and missed the final four games of the year. He might also have been underused to start the year or else his 35.2 yards per kick return would have ranked as the best in the nation. He also scored twice and will see more touches in 2012.
5. Tavon Austin, West Virginia (SR)
His 14.1-yard punt return average was good for sixth in the nation last fall and his 26.1 kick return average placed him in the top 20 nationally. He scored twice on special teams, taking a kick back for six points against both Marshall and South Florida. He led the nation in all-purpose yards in 2011.
6. Raheem Mostert, Purdue (SO)
As only a freshman, Mostert got 25 kick returns under his belt and he ended-up leading the nation with a 33.5 yards per return clip. He took one back to the house in Purdue first bowl win since 2007 and should return in 2012 with a year's worth of experience under his belt.
7. Quandre Diggs, Texas (SO)
Another sophomore, Diggs has NFL pedigree and NFL talent. He posted an absurd 20.1 yards per punt return on nine tries and didn't even get the job until halfway through the season. His explosive, big-play talent was evident the second he stepped onto the 40 Acres as he performs double-duty on both kick and punt returns. Special teams coaches better beware in 2012.
8. Jamal Miles, Arizona State (SR)
There were his two kick return touchdowns on 30 attempts that gave the Sun Devil a healthy 26.3 per return average. And then there was his punt return touchdown and 16.6 per return average. Had Miles qualified at punt returner (he had 14 attempts), he would have finished third nationally.
9. Tracy Lampley, Southern Miss (SR)
Another guy who is used in every aspect of the game, Lampley performed well as both a punt and kick specialist last fall. He returned one punt for a score against East Carolina and finished with per touch averages of 11.5 yards on punts and 21.3 yards on kicks. He also got 91 carries and 47 receptions. He will be used once again in 2012 in all phases of the game.
10. Jared Abbrederis, Wisconsin (JR)
Sure-handed receiver was leading the nation in PR until final weekend. Should be a bigger factor on Wisconsin's offense and special teams in 2012.
The Best of the Rest:
11. Darryl Surgent, UL Lafayette (JR)
Really came on as the year went along as dual-threat: 27 PR (11.9) and 37 KR (20.9)
12. Dustin Harris, Texas A&M (SR)
Led the nation in punt returns at 18.6 yards thanks to Kansas game (3-162-1).
13. Andre Booker, Marshall (SR)
Works double duty on both kicks (24.8) and punts (10.8).
14. Nick Hill, Michigan State (SO)
Stellar freshman season returning kicks (26.3) will add punt returns to resume this fall.
Others to Consider:
Branden Smith, Georgia (SR)
T.J. Thorpe, North Carolina (SO)
Ralph David Abernathy IV, Cincinnati (SO)
Nick Williams, UConn (SR)
Isaiah Burse, Fresno State (SO)
Rannell Hall, UCF (SO)
Derrick Strozier, Tulane (JR)
Christian Jones, Alabama (SO)
Adrian Bushell, Louisville (SR)
Dustin Harris, Texas A&M (SR)
Jordan Hall, Ohio State (SR)
-by Braden Gall
2012 College Football Awards:
Top 25 Heisman Candidates
The Nation's Top Pure Lockdown Cover Corners
The Nation's Top Dual-Threat Quarterbacks
Ranking the Nation's Top Pass Rushers for 2012
Who are the Nation's Top Return Specialists?