April 14, 2018 7:29:03 PM
Brett Hudson - [email protected]
STARKVILLE -- Terrell Buckley's legendary athletic career launched him right into a coaching career that is soon to hit its 12th season. An athlete of his versatility, having played multiple football positions, baseball and ran track all at high levels, certainly had a wide range of possibilities for himself in the field.
Almost all of it, by his choice, has including working with punt returners. Recently, he's been granted the opportunity to get back to it.
When Buckley was hired by former MSU coach Dan Mullen as a position coach, Mullen already had Billy Gonzales working with punt returners and elected to keep it that way. When Joe Moorhead took over, not only did he retain Buckley as the cornerbacks coach, he let Buckley go back to coaching punt returners. His presence with the unit is desperately needed as MSU goes through spring practice looking for answers after since-departed seniors accounted for 15 of MSU's 24 punt returns last season.
"The last two years I've been here, that's the first time I did not work with the returners," Buckley said. "That's my thing, I enjoy it."
Buckley proved that inclination in his college career at Florida State, where he averaged 12.2 yards per punt return over three years, returning 82 of them and scoring three times. He carried his punt return excellence through his 1991 season, when combined with 12 interceptions as a defensive back he finished seventh in Heisman Trophy voting.
Punt returning was always one of his favorite athletic exploits and continues to be his favorite to coach.
"You've got 11 guys, crazy maniacs coming at you and you have to figure out a way to get at least 10 yards," Buckley said. "You get a chance to showcase all your skills: catching ability, angles and now you're quickness, speed, escapability. Everything that it takes to be what I'd say is athletic, you need it. It's like being a point guard."
To date this spring, Buckley's work with the punt returners has been more about sorting through a crowd of candidates than it has been molding one into an ace. Buckley said earlier in the spring MSU had tried about 10 players in that role and Moorhead said after Saturday's scrimmage MSU still has roughly five rotating through reps at kick and punt return.
Among those spotted in Buckley's drills: wide receivers Deddrick Thomas, Malik Dear, Cason Grant and safety Marcus Murphy, an early enrollee freshman and West Point native. Thomas is the only one with experience from last year, returning six punts 104 yards, the highlight being an 83-yard touchdown return against UMass. Former MSU wide receivers Gabe Myles and Donald Gray account for the 15 returns lost to graduation. The other three returns? Courtesy of defensive linemen Jeffery Simmons and Braxton Hoyett, credited to them from blocked punts.
With Thomas being all MSU has in true punt return experience, it knows it has to experiment with others.
"This is the time to do it. I'd say five or six guys are cycling through there and we're going to keep doing it," Moorhead said. "Now is the time; we're going to finish practice 15 and still be 0-0, so we're going to give them all a look."
Those that subject themselves to Buckley's school for returning punts are getting more than a simple look.
Whenever Buckley runs punt return drills, he's never far away -- from the player trying to catch the punt. Often jabbing them in the hip, waving his arms around as a distraction and the like, all to make the catch as hard as possible.
"I have this theory: if you make it very tough in practice, the game will be easy," Buckley said. "That's what I did with Jaire Alexander, same stuff."
Alexander was Buckley's primary pupil for his final season at Louisville, 2015, and with Buckley's help Alexander returned 23 punts with an average just under 10 yards per return. Alexander used that ability and his defensive back exploits to declare for the NFL Draft a year early.
With Buckley's own career and a coaching track record to follow, it's easy to see why players -- and Moorhead -- let Buckley do as he pleases with the punt returners.
"Coach Buck, he barely lets you catch the ball," Dear said with a laugh. "It's just like being in his shoes when he's back there."
Follow Dispatch sports writer Brett Hudson on Twitter @Brett_Hudson