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  • Associated Press Indiana's Whop Philyor (1) carries the ball during an NCAA college football game against Michigan State, Saturday, Sept. 28, 2019, in East Lansing, Mich. (AP Photo/Al Goldis)

Thursday, October 10, 2019 1:00 am

IU not taking returns for granted this year

Special teams stars less likely to fair catch

Cameron Drummond | For The Journawl Gazette

Indiana vs. Rutgers

When: Noon Saturday

Where: Memorial Stadium, Bloomington

Records: Indiana (3-2, 0-2 Big Ten); Rutgers (1-4, 0-3 Big Ten)

TV: Big Ten Network

Radio: 1250 AM

BLOOMINGTON – A year ago you wouldn't have missed much if you took a viewing break as Indiana regained possession of the football.

Punt and kick returns were largely nondescript events for Tom Allen's Hoosiers.

More often than not, Allen instructed 2018's main kickoff return man, then-senior running back Mike Majette, to signal for a fair catch.

It was a conscious choice by Allen to take advantage of a new rule implemented before the 2018 season allowing teams to fair catch kickoffs behind their own 25-yard line and then start at the 25.

Punt returns were also usually irrelevant for the Hoosiers, aside from an 86-yard return touchdown by senior wideout J-Shun Harris II in Week 3 of last season.

But fast forward a year and the buzz is back regarding Indiana's return game.

Freshman David Ellis now returns kicks, and he has the green light from Allen to actually return them, while junior wide receiver Whop Philyor handles punt returns.

“I just think we've got some gifted returners on our team,” Allen said.

“I want to give them a chance to go create game-changing plays.”

The two units go by code names.

The “House Call” team works kickoff returns, while the “Score Team” is the punt return squad.

Blocking is of integral importance to both. Allen cites the need to win one-on-one blocks during returns as a reason why it's hard to have success in that facet of the game.

A prime example came during Indiana's last game at Michigan State when Philyor had a crucial fourth-quarter punt return of nearly 55 yards called back due to holding.

“They've taken out the double-teams. It's one-on-one, me versus you in space,” Allen said of the blocking.

This is why Allen admits he's still tempted to tell Ellis to call for a fair catch on kickoffs. The allure of 25 free yards, without the possibility of penalties is enticing.

With Philyor, it's a more fluid situation.

He's had to reacquaint himself with punt returns this season. The last time he returned punts was during his junior year at Plant High School in Tampa, Florida, before current IU teammate Juwan Burgess took over during Philyor's senior season.

“I was a little scared in the beginning, but I got a feel for it against Michigan State,” Philyor said. “So y'all might see one to the crib one of these games.”

Philyor said he returned three punts for touchdowns in high school, and his work toward repeating that feat in college involves analyzing opposing punters to see how far they kick the ball and what kind of spin is applied to the it.

He practices plenty with Indiana's fifth-year punter, Haydon Whitehead, although IU coaches advised Philyor not to take too many hits because of his role as the team's leading receiver (31 catches for 371 yards and three touchdowns).

“I want to return every single one because I've told my coaches I'm not scared, I'll take a hit,” Philyor said. “It's really easy. You could do it.”

Philyor's eyes light up and his body begins to sway when he's asked to go through his punt return routine.

His head bobs and nods as he mimics checking for the spiraling football as it descends back to earth, while simultaneously making note of on-rushing opponents.

If those opponents are five yards or further away from him, Philyor will return the kick. Otherwise he'll fair catch it.

The risk that comes with that decision, both from a health and strategy standpoint, is evident to everyone. But support for Philyor to make that choice remains.

“Anyway he can help the team by getting his hands on the ball, I'm all for it,” offensive coordinator Kalen DeBoer said. “So let him fly, let him have the ball.”