Da’Mari Scott, the Fresno State wideout and kick returner, knows that it is out there somewhere. There is a crease and clear sailing and once into the end zone, the end of a perplexing streak for the Bulldogs that is reaching an illogical level.
Fresno State last returned a kickoff for a touchdown in 2008, when A.J. Jefferson had a 92-yard return in a loss to Nevada.
That is a span of 110 games.
That is a span of 460 returns, including an NCAA season-record 75 by Isaiah Burse in 2011.
Scott almost got there last week at No. 1 Alabama. Teammates George Helmuth and Gunner Javernick planted the defenders they had marked for destruction, and Jordan Mims, Justin Rice, Josh Hokit and David Tangipa. made their blocks. That allowed Scott to take the kickoff at the 1-yard line, cut to his left just past the 20 and find a lane that carried him across midfield.
But when he was cut off on the sideline at the Alabama 45, he had to cut back and was taken down from behind by linebacker Keith Holcombe.
“Almost,” Scott said.
He made it 63 yards, which is the other puzzling part of the equation. Not only has there not been a return touchdown since 2008, the Bulldogs rarely have come close.
In all that time, Fresno State has had only one return longer. Scott in 2015 at San Jose State had a return that went for 66 yards. They have had only eight returns that went for 50 yards or more, roughly one every season since 2008.
“It does surprise me, because Fresno State was always known for kickoff returns, even when I played here” from 1991-93, said Jamie Christian, who is in his first season coaching the Bulldogs’ running backs and coordinating special teams.
There was a time when Fresno State scored a kickoff return touchdown fairly regularly – Jaime Kimbrough had one in 1998, Bernard Berrian in 2001, Nate Ray in 2003, Chastin West in 2006 and Jefferson scored twice in 2007 and once in 2008. But not lately.
Since Fresno State joined the Mountain West Conference in 2012, New Mexico has nine kickoff returns for a touchdown, San Diego State has eight and Hawaii has four.
The Bulldogs, San Jose State, UNLV and Wyoming are the only teams that have not had a kickoff return touchdown in those five-plus seasons, but the Rebels had two and the Spartans had one in 2011. And of the teams across the nation that were playing FBS football in 2008, only Army, Florida Atlantic, Wake Forest and Wyoming do not have a kickoff return touchdown since Jefferson crossed the goal line.
The biggest thing with me is getting them to buy into how good we can be on special teams and I think they’re doing that.
Fresno State special teams coordinator Jamie Christian
It’s a moment that sticks out, even all these years later.
“We were getting beat pretty bad and I had a bunch of kickoffs already and the coach just said, ‘We need a spark’ and kind of put it on my shoulders,” said Jefferson, who is playing for the Edmonton Eskimos in the Canadian Football League. “I remember going straight and then cutting left and taking it the rest of the way.
“But that was a long time ago. I can’t believe nobody has done it since then.”
What’s the key to doing it?
“The biggest thing with me is getting them to buy into how good we can be on special teams, and I think they’re doing that,” Christian said.
The pursuit got to me last game, but hopefully one of these games there’s going to be a big lane and me or Dejonte (O’Neal) or whoever is back there is going to get a chance to get it in the end zone.
Fresno State’s Da’Mari Scott
“It’s not just the guy returning it, it’s 11 guys getting their blocks and being technique sound. No penalties. You get a feel for what the kickoff team is doing and you’re matching up guys that can block certain guys. It just takes a total effort being locked into what’s going on.”
The Bulldogs work their kickoff return schemes throughout the week and walk through before games. By game day, Christian and Lucas Gingold, the Bulldogs’ special teams quality control assistant, will have broken down an opponent’s kickoff cover team looking for patterns, for soft spots they might be able to take advantage of on a return.
They make a call on how the return team will set up and after that it’s a matter of timing and execution.
“Our mindset is that any one that we get fielded and are bringing it out, we’re taking it to the house,” Christian said. “It doesn’t always work that way, but that’s our mindset. They all buy into it. If they all buy into it, then you have a chance.”
It is a long shot to happen on Saturday at No. 6 Washington – the Huskies have not given up a kickoff return touchdown in three-plus seasons under coach Chris Petersen and in their first two games have allowed an average of just 18.0 yards on 13 returns.
But Scott is confident it is out there. Somewhere.
“The key for me is I just have to see it,” said Scott, who has the Bulldogs’ two longest returns since Jefferson scored against Nevada. “Once I see it, I’m just going to hit it and once I get on the kicker I have to make him miss. The pursuit got to me last game, but hopefully one of these games there’s going to be a big lane and me or Dejonte (O’Neal) or whoever is back there is going to get a chance to get it in the end zone.
“It’s coming. I can say that. We’re going to get one. We’re going to keep striving for it.”
Robert Kuwada: @rkuwada
FRESNO STATE AT NO. 6 WASHINGTON
- Saturday: 6:30 p.m. in Seattle
- Records: Bulldogs 1-1, Huskies 2-0
- TV/radio: Pac-12 Network/KFIG (AM 940), KGST (AM 1600)
- Of note: After the Bulldogs lost 41-10 at No. 1 Alabama on Saturday, the Huskies routed FCS school Montana 63-7 in their home opener. … Washington rose one spot to No. 6 in this week’s Top 25 poll of The Associated Press.
Punt return success
Since Fresno State had its last kickoff return for a touchdown in 2008, the Bulldogs have scored on seven punt returns:
Chastin West 2
Devon Wylie 2
Isaiah Burse 2
Rashad Evans 1
Bulldogs in the Mountain West
Fresno State showed signs of kickoff return improvement last season. Here’s how they’ve ranked recently in the Mountain West Conference: