Crowder, House: Duke’s Dynamic Returner

Pylon University covers everything in college football ‒ Ivy League rivalries in the rain, games with an impact on the national title race, Heisman hopefuls, what’s worth watching, and great offensive plays. Duke punt returner Jamison Crowder romped through the Syracuse kick coverage, and Chuck Zodda loves a great punt return.


Duke Blue Devil football has been synonymous with losing for most of the last 40 years. Aside from a brief stint featuring the ol’ ball coach Steve Spurrier in the late 1980s, the program has been moribund and abysmal. How bad has it been? Four winless seasons between 1996 and 2006. Only seven total winning seasons since 1975. Between 1961 and 2012, only two bowl games. Without a bowl win since 1961. The Washington Generals might have won more often over the past four decades.

However, Duke has enjoyed a tremendous resurgence under head coach David Cutcliffe. Despite leading Mississippi to four bowl wins in six years, Cutcliffe was fired in 2004 after a 4-7 record in his seventh season at the Rebels’ helm. Duke put him in charge of their program four years later. Since his arrival in Durham, Cutcliffe has made team speed and athleticism a major focus of his efforts. Fleet-footed Jamison Crowder was one of his early recruiting wins, joining the Blue Devils in the fall of 2011 and playing as a true freshman.

Crowder is listed at 5’9” and 175 pounds, making him undersized by wide receiver standards, but with outstanding quickness and burst, as well as great ball-handling skills, he has a knack for making the big play. Similar to Indianapolis Colts receiver T.Y. Hilton, he has the ability to make plays all over the field despite his lack of size. Like Hilton, he can work both out of the slot and on the edge of the field. But his dynamic kick returning skills are what shine brightest, as illustrated by his runback against the Syracuse Orange this weekend.

With 12:59 remaining in the fourth quarter, Syracuse called on their punting unit after being stopped at their own 1-yard line by the Duke defense. The still below shows Syracuse punter Riley Dixon with his heels at the back edge of the end zone:

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In a normal punt situation, college punters typically place themselves 13 to 15 yards behind their offensive line. However, because Syracuse is backed up on their own goal line, Dixon is forced to alter his placement – he is now only 10 yards behind the line of scrimmage. This speeds up the snap-to-kick time, as the ball is traveling for a shorter period of time from hike to hands. Average snap-to-kick times among FBS teams range between 2.0 and 2.3 seconds; in this case, Dixon gets the kick off in 1.65 seconds.

While a speedier kick may sound like a good thing in terms of preventing a block, it has one unfortunate drawback for Syracuse – their punt coverage team has less time to get down the field in coverage. Dixon does manage to get off a great kick, booming the ball 51 yards with an impressive 4.9 seconds of hang time. As the punt travels on its parabolic arc through the Carrier Dome, Crowder waits:

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Circled in yellow, Crowder retreats close to the 50-yard line as he prepares to field the punt. Nearly 25 yards in front of him, the Syracuse coverage team works down the field. The Duke return team is mixed in with the Orange defenders at this point, mirroring their moves down the field.

The still below shows the scene just after Crowder takes possession at his own 48-yard line:

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Circled in yellow, Crowder receives the ball just outside of the right hash marks. Looking right up the center of the field, he sees two white jerseys with no dark colors in between, indicating a clear lane for him to run through. His blockers have put themselves in tremendous position to create a hole. Despite the huge hangtime for Dixon on his punt, notice that the nearest Syracuse defenders are still 10 yards away from Crowder. The forward momentum of these initial defenders will allow Crowder to sidestep them with minimal effort.

As the play continues, Crowder burns through the first line of coverage:

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After beating the first two Syracuse defenders, Crowder accelerates as he heads upfield. Circled in yellow are the next two threats for him to address: two unblocked opponents eight yards ahead, with very little room between them. This is where Crowder’s athleticism takes over.

Crowder steps on the gas and rapidly closes the distance, splitting the narrow seam between the would-be tacklers:

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Despite what initially appeared to be a non-existent gap, Crowder manages to thread the needle between the two players. Circled in yellow on the left of the screen, he has another key block set up to continue his run up the gut of the Syracuse coverage unit.

Crowder continues to pick up speed, blasting past the Syracuse defender to his right:

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Circled in yellow, the opponent has no chance to stop the speedy Crowder, who has clocked in at 4.42 seconds in the 40-yard dash, making him incredibly difficult to catch when he gets up to full sprint. The end result? Crowder making it look easy at he heads into the end zone:

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Crowder is a game-changing talent at the college level. While NFL players are obviously bigger, faster, and stronger, Crowder has the skillset to be an immediate contributor on special teams as he seeks to pick up the offensive game on Sundays. Until then, Duke fans should continue to enjoy Crowder’s senior season, as he looks to lead the Blue Devils back to the ACC Championship Game and a potential rematch of last year’s ACC title game with Jameis Winston and the Florida State Seminoles.

All video and images courtesy ACC Digital Network.

Follow Chuck on Twitter @ITP_ChuckZ.

Chuck Zodda knows the importance of staying in your lane, how to fake a punt return, thehumanity of punters, proper placekicking technique and the Jets.

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