Kick returner

What is the Definition of Kick Returner in American Football?

A kick returner is a crucial player in American football, responsible for returning kickoffs and punts from the opposing team. This specialized role is typically filled by fast and elusive players, such as wide receivers or running backs, who can navigate through the opposing team’s special teams unit and work to bring the ball as close as possible to the opponent’s end zone. The performance of a kick returner can have a significant impact on the team’s field position, potentially setting up the offense for success or keeping the defense far from their own end zone.

In addition to returning kickoffs, which occur to start the game, the second half, and after each score, a kick returner may also be responsible for returning punts. When the punter punts the ball to the opposition, the returner must decide whether to attempt a return or call for a “fair catch,” signaling that they will not return the ball due to the incoming pressure from the opposing team’s special teams players. The ability to make these decisions quickly and efficiently is essential for a successful kick returner, as it directly influences their team’s field position and the subsequent flow of the game.

Key Takeaways

  • A kick returner is a vital player on special teams, responsible for returning kickoffs and punts from the opposing team
  • The role requires speed, elusiveness, and smart decision-making to maximize potential field position gains
  • The performance of a kick returner can greatly impact a team’s offensive and defensive position, making it a critical role in American football

Role of a Kick Returner


The kick returner in American football is a crucial member of the special teams unit. Their primary responsibility is to catch and return kickoffs and punts from the opposing team. Ideally, the kick returner aims to advance the ball as far as possible towards the opponent’s end zone, setting up a better offensive position for their team.

In addition to regular kicks, returners also participate in handling onside kicks, where they position themselves closer to the kicker to secure possession. Since scoring touchdowns on return plays is a challenging feat, returners must also ensure that they do not fumble the ball, as this can result in a turnover.

Skills Required

Speed and Agility: A skillful kick returner needs to possess exceptional speed and agility, as they must be able to outrun defenders and make quick maneuvers.

Vision: A good returner has the ability to quickly assess the situation on the field, identify gaps in the opposing team’s coverage, and find the most advantageous route to advance the ball.

Hands: Catching the ball securely is vital for a kick returner. They must have reliable hands to avoid dropping the ball or mishandling it, which could lead to a turnover.

Decision-Making: Kick returners must quickly assess whether to catch a kicked ball, let it bounce, or signal for a fair catch. Making the right decision in these circumstances can significantly impact field position and the outcome of a play.

Types of Kick Returns

Punt Return

A punt return is a play in which the receiving team attempts to catch and return a punt kicked by the opposing team. The punt returner is typically a fast and agile player who positions himself on the field to catch the punt and run it back towards the opponent’s goal line. The main objective of the punt returner is to gain as much yardage as possible while avoiding tackles from the coverage team. The returner may use his blockers to open up a path and find a running lane.

During a punt return, the return team sets up a scheme to create running lanes and provide good blocking for the returner. The punt returner’s role in this play is crucial for setting up the offense with good field position.

Kickoff Return

A kickoff return is another special teams play in which the receiving team attempts to gain yardage after their opponent kicks off the ball to start a game or the second half. The kickoff returner(s) also aim to find open running lanes and use their blockers to advance the ball down the field, trying to reach the opponent’s goal line or set up their offense in good field position.

In contrast to a punt return, there are usually two kick returners positioned deep in the defensive backfield during a kickoff. They are often backup players who can take additional hits to preserve the health of starting players. The kickoff return team will have several lines of blockers, with larger players closer to the kickoff returners and smaller, faster players further up the field.

Kickoff return schemes also rely on proper blocking to create running lanes for the returners. One key element of these schemes is the wedge, a group of blockers who form a triangular shape to provide a protected running lane for the returner. By executing these schemes effectively, the receiving team can maximize their chances of scoring or setting up their offense in an advantageous position.

Kick Returners in Different League Formats

College Football

In college football, kick returners play a key role in field position battles. They catch and return kickoffs and punts from the opposing team, aiming to advance the ball as far as possible. Often, college teams rely on their most athletic and agile players to fill this role, as speed, elusiveness, and decision-making are crucial for success.

Kick returners in college football benefit from a few key rules, such as the fair catch rule, which allows them to call for a fair catch and secure possession without being tackled, and the touchback rule, which places the ball at the 25-yard line if the kick returner kneels in the end zone. These rules are in place to protect players and encourage strategic decision-making.


In the NFL, kick returners continue to play a significant role in special teams, but the expectations are even higher. Top-tier athletes that excel in speed, agility, and decision-making skills are sought after for these positions.

Like their counterparts in college football, NFL kick returners are tasked with catching and returning kickoffs and punts. However, they need to be more disciplined in their decision-making, as a poor choice can have significant consequences in terms of field position and scoring opportunities. The fair catch and touchback rules also apply in the NFL, with touchbacks placing the ball at the 25-yard line if the kick returner kneels in the end zone.

Both college and NFL kick returners must be quick with their decisions, and they often rely on pre-scripted blocking schemes to create running lanes. Additionally, they must be aware of situational factors, such as weather conditions and time remaining in the game, that can impact their approach to each return.

Famous Kick Returners

Historical Icons

One of the most iconic figures in the early days of American football was Red Grange, who became famous for a 95-yard kickoff return against Michigan. Another storied return specialist is Brian Mitchell, who played running back in the NFL for 14 seasons and holds the league records for both kickoff return yards (14,014) and punt return yards (4,999).

Michael Bates is also remembered for his contributions as a kick-returner throughout his 10-year career. Bates scored five return touchdowns and maintained an average of 24.4 yards per return, with a standout season in 1996 where he boasted a 30.2-yard average with the Carolina Panthers.

Current Stars

Among the current crop of kick returners, the NFL showcases some exceptional talent. Players like Deonte Harris, Devin Duvernay, and Ray-Ray McCloud have demonstrated their abilities to excel in kick and punt returns. Veterans like Tyreek Hill continue to be a force on the field, while newcomers such as Mecole Hardman and Demetric Felton are making their mark as some of the best NFL kick returners in 2023.

Statistical Importance of Kick Returns

Impact on Games

Kick returners play a vital role in American football as they are responsible for catching and returning kickoffs and punts from the opposing team. Their performance can significantly impact the game by affecting field position and possibly scoring touchdowns from long returns. Good kick returners can change the momentum of the game and offer their team an advantage in terms of starting field position or even points.

Records and Milestones

Several kick returners have set notable records and milestones in NFL history. A few of these milestones include:

  • Most career kickoff return touchdowns: 10, held by Josh Cribbs and Leon Washington
  • Longest kickoff return: 109 yards, achieved by Cordarrelle Patterson and Jacoby Jones
  • Most kickoff return touchdowns in a single season: 4, achieved by Cecil Turner, Travis Williams, Gale Sayers, and Devin Hester
  • Most career punt return touchdowns: 19, held by Devin Hester

These records showcase the significant impact that kick returners can have on games and demonstrate their importance in American football.


A kick returner plays a crucial role in American football as part of the special teams unit. Catching and returning kickoffs and punts from the opposing team, this player’s objective is to advance the ball towards the end zone with the intention of possibly scoring a touchdown.

Being well-versed in kickoff and punt return tactics, kick returners must display agility, speed, and decisiveness. This allows them to navigate the field effectively, eluding tackles and capitalizing on any gaps in the opposing team’s defenses. Successful kick returners often spark momentum for their team and can change the tide of a game with a spectacular return.

It’s essential to remember that kick returners contribute to the overall strategy of the game. By treating kick return plays as part of the offense and coordinating with their teammates, these players can optimize their chances of scoring points and ultimately achieving victory on the field.

In summary, the kick returner holds a significant position in American football. Through their specialized skills and teamwork, they open up scoring opportunities and impact the outcome of games, making their role an indispensable part of any successful team.