Jaylin Lucas was named an All-American last year for his kick returning prowess, but he’d never handled punts before Saturday’s game against Ohio State.
The return game is an easy way for Indiana to get its dangerous sophomore the ball in space. But catching and returning punts is different than kickoffs, so Lucas had work to do in the offseason. And Saturday, he looked like he’d been returning punts his entire football career.
“I was questioned last year why he didn’t return punts. And he wasn’t ready. He struggled in that area to catch the ball,” IU head coach Tom Allen said after the game. “That’s a very difficult skill set to be able to do. Especially at the kind of punters we’re going to play against.”
After the 2022 season ended — and after players returned to campus for the spring semester — Lucas started practicing with Indiana punter James Evans.
Evans boomed punts at Lucas, and he worked on receiving the kicks. They spent months working outside, through the cold of Indiana winter, because Lucas had to improve. Evans said they worked together twice a week throughout the entire offseason.
It took Lucas some time to get used to fielding punts.
“I’d just say there was a definitely like an adjustment phase. And he did make a lot of progress. But initially, especially in the cold, start of the offseason, it makes it even harder,” Evans said Monday. “It’s a little bit different catching a punt versus a kickoff, just in terms of the rotation, the variability, and the ways the ball would drop, and then also different ways of kicking the ball. But I think he’s come a long, long way catching the ball. Really, really good on him. He progressed a lot.”
Lucas recorded two punt returns against Ohio State, but he was lined up for three. That extra one came on his first trip back there, with around four minutes to play in the first quarter. OSU punter Jesse Mirco bounced his kick around 10 yards short of where Lucas was lined up, near the Buckeyes sideline. Lucas made the correct read to leave it, and signaled to his teammates to not touch it. The punt bounced out of bounds.
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In the second quarter, also around the four-minute mark, Lucas made his first punt return. He backpedaled around 10 yards, fielded it around the IU 13-yard line as he moved backwards. By the time he gathered himself, two OSU defenders were closing in on him. But instead of running into a bad position, Lucas hesitated, then cut to the left around the defenders, and got into space. He broke off a 29-yard return, making six defenders miss in the process.
The second return came early in the second half, after Ohio State went three-and-out to start the third quarter. Lucas had to backpedal again to field it, and he caught this one cleanly at the IU 12-yard line. He had a blocker in position by him this time, so he had less to do to create initial space. He picked up 22 yards.
It’s not a surprise that Lucas was making people miss in the open field. He’s shown that dynamic playmaking ability numerous times. But for Lucas to immediately field punts cleanly and make the correct reads on “tweeners” is a good sign for his long-term potential in the role.
“That’s a huge new weapon. We got to do great job of making sure we don’t get any penalties on those returns, but that’s a huge way for to us get him the ball in space — even more so than kickoff returns, regarding the nature of the way punts are,” Allen said. “We want to see him get the ball in space. That’s where he’s the most dangerous.”
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