Photo courtesy of LSU Athletics
By Nicholas DeLorenzo, Associate College Football Editor
PHILADELPHIA, Pa. (Sports Network) - With the battle for conference titles and BCS glory often coming down to the wire, having a home run-hitting return man capable of breaking open a game is crucial.
To acknowledge just how important these players are, the FBS implemented the Johnny Rodgers Award last spring -- named for former Nebraska Heisman Trophy winner Johnny "The Jet" Rodgers -- with Arkansas return specialist Joe Adams claiming the inaugural award.
The following list highlights some of the favorites for this year's honor. Although each of these players has the ability to score whenever he touches the ball, the best of the best will come up with big returns when their teams need them the most.
Tyrann Mathieu, LSU - A Heisman finalist in 2011 thanks mostly for his nose for the football on defense, but in limited opportunities as a punt returner, Mathieu was just as electrifying. He ranked fourth in the nation with a 15.6 yards per return and his 421 punt return yards were the sixth-most in school history. He had a knack for finding the end zone in huge spots as well, returning a 92-yarder to the house in a critical game against Arkansas, as well as a 62-yarder in the SEC Championship Game against Georgia. Mathieu became just the second player to return a punt for a touchdown in the game's history, and he is more than capable of repeating those type of theatrics again for the Tigers as they eye another run at the national championship.
T.J. Thorpe, North Carolina - Although his impact as a receiver was minimal in his freshman year (2 catches, 70 yards), Thorpe quickly developed a reputation as a top threat in the return game. He became just the second player in school history to have a 100-yard kickoff return for a touchdown when he did so against Clemson in mid-October, and finished the season ranked second in the ACC in kickoff return yards (960) and first in average (26.7) -- culminating the season as one of the four finalists for the Rodgers Awards.
Tyler Lockett, Kansas State - Lockett only suited up for six games during his freshman year at Kansas State, but he managed to make every one of them count. On just 16 kickoff returns, he amassed an astounding 563 yards, and his 35.2 yards per return would have ranked at the top nationally had he played in enough games to quality. He became the first player in school history to return kickoffs for touchdowns in consecutive games when he posted a 100-yarder against Texas Tech on Oct. 15 and a 97-yarder against Kansas on Oct. 22. He earned Second Team All-Big 12 Conference honors as a return specialist, and if he can stay healthy this year, the sky is the limit.
Raheem Mostert, Purdue - Mostert didn't take over as Purdue's kick returner last season until the Oct. 1 bout with Notre Dame, but after amassing 96 yards on his first opportunity, he never relinquished the role. The true freshman led the nation and set a single-season school record with a 33.5 yard average on 25 returns, which included four that covered 71 yards or more. Mostert capped off a fantastic rookie campaign in style with a 99-yard return for a score against Western Michigan in the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl.
Jamal Miles, Arizona State - The Second Team All-Pac-12 Conference return specialist in 2011 made a splash in both aspects of the return game, bringing back 30 kickoffs for 788 yards (26.3 avg) as well as 14 punts for 232 yards (16.6 avg). On top of returning two kickoffs for a touchdown, Miles also brought back a punt 78 yards for a score in a win against Oregon State. The senior has grown into a natural playmaker, accounting for 10 touchdowns last season. He was the only player in the nation to score a touchdown on a reception, a kickoff return, a punt return, and with a pass.
Jared Abbrederis, Wisconsin - As both an incredibly reliable receiver and an electrifying return man, Abbrederis was an all-purpose yards freak in 2011, ranking second in the Big Ten and 13th nationally with 1,999 of them, which included damage as a kick returner (689 yards, 24.6 avg) and a punt returner (315 yards, 15.8 avg). His 346 all-purpose yards in the Rose Bowl versus Oregon was just one yard shy of Ron Dayne's school record. The junior has become a invaluable part of the UW offense, so there's always the possibility that his touches on special teams goes down, but considering how effective he's been so far in his career, coach Bret Bielema would be best suited leaving his role unchanged.
Justin Gilbert, Oklahoma State - The speedster was able to contribute to the Big 12 Conference champions in a variety of ways last season, but his impact as a kickoff returner was able to sway many games in the Cowboys' favor. Gilbert recorded 703 return yards and ranked second to only TCU's Greg McCoy in return average (27.0). He joined Barry Sanders as the only players in school history to have a 100-yard touchdown return when he did so against Tulsa, and as just a sophomore, Gilbert has already matched the OSU record with four kickoff returns for touchdowns in his career.
Tavon Austin, West Virginia - One of busiest players in the nation a season ago, as on top of being the Mountaineers' top receiving threat (100 catches, 1,180 yards, 8 touchdowns) as well as an occasional runner (189 rushing yards), Austin put in plenty of work as both a kick (938 yards) and a punt returner (268 yards). He returned two kickoffs for touchdowns in 2011 on his way to the Big East Special Teams Player of the Year award, and he hopes to carry that success over as West Virginia moves to the Big 12 this season.
Shane Wynn, Indiana - On an Indiana squad that surrenders plenty of points, Wynn has ample opportunities to return kickoffs and he made the most of them in his freshman campaign. He led the Big Ten Conference with 1,015 kickoff return yards, which after just one season already ranks ninth most in school history. Wynn's 2011 season highlight came when he returned the opening kickoff against Illinois 99 yards for a touchdown.
Jordan Poyer, Oregon State - Much like his fellow Pac-12 mate Miles, Poyer is dangerous both as a kick returner and a punt returner, gaining 821 total return yards a season ago. He was most explosive as a punt returner however, and his 14.1 yards per average ranks fourth-best for a single season in school history. He set a Reser Stadium record with an 85-yard punt return for a touchdown against UCLA on Sept. 24, earning Pac-12 Special Team Player of the Week honors as a result. Poyer is also a key member of the Beavers' defense, earning Second Team All-Pac-12 honors as a defensive back.