CORAL GABLES — It’s a hot debate for Hurricanes fans:
Steadiness or speed?
Braxton Berrios would say — and his coaches and teammates would agree with this — he has plenty of both, and that’s what Miami values at punt return.
But high school highlight tapes, snippets of practice footage and reports from Greentree make it easy to wonder if freshmen Mike Harley and Jeff Thomas have the type of speed that would make a bet on their inexperience a winner.
Think about it: let’s say three weeks from now in Tallahassee, Miami has to field a punt near its own 20-yard line. If you’re special teams coach Todd Hartley, you probably want Berrios out there, regardless of the time and score. He has proven he can take a hit. He’s proven he can make a tough catch with angry defenders buzzing around. He knows when to call for a fair catch, knows what his blockers will do.
He can also run.
Berrios, a 5-foot-9, 186-pound senior, last year ranked 12th nationally in return average (11.32 yards) and was one of 17 FBS players with two or more returns of 40-plus yards. One of them was a 41-yarder late in the fourth quarter of the FSU game, which set up the tying touchdown with 1:26 left. On his way to the end zone, he was tripped up at the 16-yard line by the Seminoles’ punter.
Now, let’s say the aforementioned scenario involves a punt to be fielded around the 40. Given the pure speed Thomas and Harley bring to the table, might they be a better option?
They’ll get a shot, but right now, Hartley likes Berrios.
“There’s a lot more that goes into catching punts than people realize,” Hartley said after Friday’s practice. “A lot more decision-making. … You’ve got to have people who have the ability, that can take it to the house, but you’ve also got to have somebody who can make a great decision. When people are in your face and that ball’s not exactly kicked like a kick is, that punt can go anywhere, you’ve got to have somebody you can trust.”
Hartley needs to see whether the two freshmen, both of whom are around 5-10 and 170 pounds, can take a hit (and of course, make the right decisions). “It’s not like catching a pass,” he said. “You’ve got 11 guys that can hit you full-speed.”
Thomas, Hartley said, is one of the top three options at kick returner, along with sophomore running back Travis Homer and sophomore corner Malek Young. Hartley said he’s looking at Berrios, Harley and freshman wideout DeeJay Dallas in that role.
Other special teams notes:
* Freshman Zach Feagles — the only punter on scholarship — has “immense talent,” Hartley said. However, that doesn’t mean he’s won the starting job.
Redshirt sophomore Jack Spicer, who walked on at Florida and did the same at UM, has grown from “a big kid who just swung his leg and hoped it would go far” to understanding directional punting.
“We’re still deciding,” Hartley said. “Those guys are neck-and-neck.”
* Hartley on 6-5 receiver Lawrence Cager, who surprisingly took a few punt-return reps early in camp: “I’ll say this: Cager is a great punt-catcher,” he said. “If you had to have the punt fielded, he does a great job of fielding the punt.”