Last season, the Giants – as a team – only returned 28 punts in the regular season. That was good (or bad) enough for 29th overall in that category in the NFL. When they did return a punt, they only gained 6.1 yards per attempt, ranking them 29th is that category as well.
A lot could be blamed on the fact that their primary punt returner – Domenik Hixon – went down for the season with a knee injury after only two games. Hixon returned 3 punts in those two games for a total of 31 yards with a long of 18.
In Hixon’s absence, several players fielded punts: Victor Cruz, Antrel Rolle, Will Blackmon and Aaron Ross. None did anything of significance. Ross actually had only one more return (14) that he had fair catches (13).
To be frank, the Giants’ return game was simply stale without Hixon, who, incidentally, is the last Giants’ player to score a TD on a punt return, taking one 79 yards vs. Dallas on Dec. 16, 2009.
With Ross and Blackmon gone and Hixon back and seemingly healthy, it would appear he should have the inside track on the return job, but the Giants are not taking any chances. This summer, one second-year player (Jerrel Jernigan) and two rookies (Jayron Hosley and Rueben Randle) are being tried at the position.
Jernigan is fast and shifty, but had problems last season securing the football. Hosley is short and extremely quick, but is an unknown entity to the Giants at this point. Randle will be asked to step up in the offense – and with Hakeem Nicks in doubt for the start of the season – may not be exposed to possible injury as a returner.
“We need to see the three rookies that we have against live bullets back there, so that’ll be exciting for us to see,” special teams coach Tom Quinn said today. “Jernigan’s catching the ball better, he’s getting started better. Hosley has done some good things as well and he’s got some experience coming from Virginia Tech. Reuben Randle’s a guy that we’ve worked back there. I know that he’s done it in practice in college but he has been behind two very good punt returners; one that’s in the league and one that will be in the league soon.”
Jernigan would seem to have the inside track. GM Jerry Reese said today he sees a more focused player this year in Jernigan, compared to the “deer in the headlights” he saw last year. Hosley is the main competition, and if you know anything about Tom Coughlin, competition is what drives perfection. Hosley would gladly do any job the Giants want him to do.
“Seems like he is, and seems like he can handle it too,” said Coughlin when asked how Hosley is developing. “That’s a good thing. He had a nice punt return yesterday, and had a nice interception play today. Good for him. We need for that guy to really come through for us.”
Randle is a distant third right now. Quinn is not a fan of the way he handles the ball, but likes his potential:
“He has very good hands. Sometimes he’s almost too confident with his hands and he catches the ball as if he’s catching a pass instead of getting up and underneath it. He covers more ground that it appears because he’s a long smooth strider, but he does have the ability to stick his foot in the ground from what it looks like in practice.”
Each will get their opportunity in the coming weeks. But with the new rules (non-contact) it is difficult to see who will hold up.
“Until you see it with a live punter and live guys coming down you really don’t know,” Quinn stated. Either way, the Giants will finally have a player retuning punts instead of just fielding them.