Shutting down ace kick returner crucial versus USC
After the Arizona football team's practice Tuesday, special teams coordinator Joe Robinson walked off the practice field and spotted three reporters coming his way.
Before any of the media members could say a word, Robinson chimed in.
"I know why you guys are here," he said. "I've got a feeling Reggie Bush's name comes up in this."
If there was ever a question about the impact a quality return man can have on a game, junior running back Bush of Southern California is the answer.
With top-ranked USC and returner extraordinaire Bush up next for the Wildcats, Arizona's return game, especially junior punt returner Syndric Steptoe, has come into focus.
"If you can get a good return out of your return man it sets up a lot of things on the offense," Steptoe said.
In Arizona's 28-0 loss to California last week, Steptoe had a career-long 34-yard return, but even more impressive was the one that didn't count.
Steptoe ran back a punt 79 yards, but it was brought back because of a holding penalty.
Both Steptoe and Robinson said the Wildcats changed their return game plan last week from a block-punt mentality to focus more on giving Steptoe space to try and make up yards on the return.
The results were a season-high 44 punt return yards.
"I think we're trying to play to our strengths," Robinson said. "Right now we think one of our strengths is Step. We're really working on trying to get him some seams and some more space."
Arizona head coach Mike Stoops agreed.
"He's good when you give him a little room," he said. "He's been a big-play guy for us the last two years, and we need to continue to get the ball in his hands. He's a playmaker."
Steptoe compared returning punts to playing sandlot football, where you are out there just trying to make people miss and get up the field, something he said he likes.
"It gives returners a lot more freedom to show their natural abilities," he said.
While trying to improve their punt-return production, the Wildcats will also have to focus on shutting down USC's.
Bush averaged 15.7 yards per punt return last season with two touchdowns.
Robinson jokingly gave his game plan for shutting down Bush.
"We're going to try and kick it into the stands," he said.
The Wildcats might not need to go to that extreme if they can duplicate their performance on Bush from a year ago.
In November, Bush managed just one punt return yard off eight Danny Baugher punts.
Arizona forced Bush into three fair catches, and didn't even give him a chance to catch the other four punts, either downing them or kicking them out of bounds.
"He is explosive in the open field and we've got to do some things to try and contain the field," Robinson said.
One player who should help the Wildcats is Baugher, who leads the nation in per-punt average with 49.1 yards a kick.
But, as Stoops said last week, it will not be about how far Baugher kicks but rather the hang time and coverage that always go into stopping a quality returner.