There’s no one there to aid him after the ball is booted on a punt. He’s relying on the help of ten others, yet he’s all alone. He’s a returner. And he proved to be a darn good one last season.
Jamal Golden shined last year for the Ramblin’ Reck by ending the 24-year drought in which Tech had not returned a kickoff for a touchdown. His 97-yard score in Tech’s 2012 Homecoming game against BYU sparked his return game. He went on to take one more kickoff for a score and nearly returned a punt against USC in the Sun Bowl. Golden was the only player in the country to hold a spot in the Top 10 in both kickoff and punt returns. He averaged 14.59 yards per punt return and 28.35 yards per kickoff. Not bad for a player who did not have ownership of the role until a quarter of the way through the season.
For Golden, no two returns are the same when it comes to scheming a design against opponents. “It really depends on the call and that week of game planning,” stated Golden,” to end the play with the ball is my main goal.”
To the untrained eye, one might not think there’s not much difference in catching and running with a football whether it’s a punt or a kickoff. Golden works hard on the details of a return to perfect his timing. “Kickoff return is a timing play. First off, I have to catch the ball moving forward and try not to catch it going back because that throws the timing off.”
He also is tasked with the difficulty of tracking multiple objects charging his way — the football and the cover team. The junior returner gives insight into his punt return vision. “It all depends on the height of the ball, releases of the guys on the cover team, and the blocks by my guys. Mainly what I do is try to peak at their releases before the ball is even kicked to see how good of a release they got. After that, I look at the height of the ball and if it’s pretty equal I’ll try to take a chance and return. Sometimes taking a chance comes with big rewards.”
His preparation takes place well before the kicker or punter makes his first attempt of the game. Golden is one of the first on the field for pre-game warm-ups in order to study his surroundings. “This past week at Duke we had sun. When I went out in pre-game the first thing was to take as many returns facing the sun as I could to judge it. That never became a factor in the game, but my main routine is to go out and have a feel for catching the ball, having the ball in my hands, and ball security.” Like any cozy home, Golden has felt comfortable on his home field. “Here at Bobby Dodd the sun has never been that bad for me catching punts or kicks. It hasn’t really come into effect for me, but it could Saturday. That’s why I always go out in pre-game and see how it feels and what it looks like. I try to look at the weather and see how it’s going to be by the time the game starts. “
A former star outfielder in high school, who once had a cup of coffee with the Tech nine, Golden has found similarities in tracking down a fly ball and a punt. “They’re very similar, besides the shape of the ball, the hardest ones to judge are line drives right at you, just like a baseball, and then when you have wind that can take a factor with the ball being in the air with how far it carries or doesn’t carry. There are similarities and that’s helped me out a little bit. “
While the Wetumpka, Alabama, native has no preference for a kickoff or punt return score; he does have a preference towards picking up big blocks. “All blocks are great on a punt return because on a punt return you don’t design really where a ball goes. All blocks are good, it’s just my job to find the creases and try to score.”
Last year in Tech’s win over UNC, Golden took a kickoff 100 yards to the end zone and later added 161 more all-purpose yards in the road victory. Will he take one back against the Tar Heels again this weekend?
“That’s the plan. That’s always the plan, no matter whom we are playing. Every week, try to take one back or at least set the offense up to score.”