If you kick it to them, they will run.
That is the faint whisper that opposing coaches hear when facing Keenan’s special teams unit.
In three games this season, the Raiders have made a habit of dominating the field on kick returns.
Junior wide receiver Peter Easaw, the Raiders’ main kick returner, has taken two kickoffs and a punt in for touchdowns, and amassed 347 yards on return duty.
“If they don’t kick it to me I can’t do anything about it,” he said. “But I always hope they kick it to me. And I want to run it every time.”
And on each return, Easaw is hoping to score.
“It’s more exciting than when I score receiving,” said Easaw, who has 311 yards and two touchdowns receiving. “It’s different because it’s more of a momentum shift, when the other team just scored or had a big defensive stop and you take it to the house.”
Offensive coordinator and special teams coach Freddie Solomon said his kick return squad is something like his first line of offense.
“I take it very seriously, because of how important it is. The returns are the start of your offense, they determine your position and can set a tone,” he said. “It’s a game changer and we do believe, if they kick it to us, we can score every time.”
Of course, the obvious answer for opponents is to avoid kicking to Easaw.
“That’s what they did last year, and that’s what they did last week, they kicked it out of bounds every time,” Solomon said.
Solomon cannot blame his opponents. Lately, some competitors have asked for his advice on building a dominating special teams unit.
The key lies in desire, athleticism and intellect.
“When it comes to the returner, I don’t even look for the fastest kid,” Solomon said. “I look for the smart kid. If they can understand our blocking scheme, that makes it it so much easier when it comes to the returns.”
Though the blockers on that special teams unit are typically freshmen and sophomores, Solomon has great confidence in them.
“They have one job, to block for the returner, and they take great pride in doing it well,” Solomon said.
Easaw feels a stillness when he is back deep awaiting the kick, knowing that determined bunch is going to make way for him.
“In kick returns, I know I’ve got 10 people to block for me. It’s 11-on-11 instead on 2 against 1,” he said. “So, in kick returns, you just catch the ball and run, without a lot of dancing around.”
Otherwise, taking the kicks is not much different than when he lines up wide, waiting for a pass from quarterback Titus Hopkins.
“Once I get the ball in my hands, I think to myself that no one can catch me and then I’m just trying to score,” he said.
The scoring, Solomon said, is just a bonus.
But the return? You can count on that.