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The Punt Returner is Not Returning. Next Man Up?

NCAA Football: Pac-12 Championship-Oregon vs Utah Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

With 11 seconds left in the half, Coach Whitt called a timeout. Utah had dominated the Ducks in the first half to the tune of 21-0, but he wanted to give his star punt returner a chance to crush what hope remained for the Ducks. Britain Covey fields the punt at the 22-yard line, and 78 yards later, the half was over, and the Utes were up 28-0.

Britain Covey announced via social media that he is preparing for the 2022 draft, and the Rose Bowl will be his final game in a Utes uniform. From 2018-2021, the seasons after he returned from his mission, Covey accumulated 846 punt return yards, more than any other player in college football during that time. Covey holds the Utah football career record for punt returns (92), punt return yards (1,092), and punt return touchdowns (4). When Covey leaves the program, the University of Utah football team will be losing an all-time great.

All of this begs the question, who will replace the GOAT?

In no particular order, listed below are five of the best candidates to take over the punt return duties in 2022, with a small primer on each of them and what they would bring to the position.

Clark Phillips III, SO – 5’ 10” / 185 lbs

During the Washington State game, CP3 had a pick-six and demonstrated just how dynamic he can be with the ball in his hands. CP3 was also a punt returner in high school who showed good vision to identify a crease and the speed to fly through an opening when he sees it. He’s a player who will take some contact to get an extra few yards rather than run out of bounds. CP3 would be a great option for punt returns, but would it be worth the increased risk of our star cornerback getting injured on a punt return?

Devaughn Vele, SO (RS) – 6’ 4” / 205 lbs

A former walk-on player, Vele burst onto the scene this year with 21 receptions for 356 yards. He demonstrated good hands with an ability to win the contested catches. Vele owns the distinction of being the only player on the roster to have returned a punt other than Covey. Vele returned one punt for 27 yards earlier this year against BYU. Vele has the size, speed, and athleticism to be a dynamic punt returner in his own right.

Micah Bernard, SO (RS) – 6’ 0” / 202 lbs

Bernard has been in the program a few years now, and we’ve had the opportunity to see plenty of him so far. Bernard has demonstrated great acceleration, change of direction, and a penchant for gaining yards after contact. Bernard is also the owner of the stickiest hands in the running back room as he has become the clear dual-threat RB gaining 236 yards receiving in 2021.

Money Parks, SO – 5’ 10” / 166 lbs

Money Parks is a dynamic receiver with explosive playmaking ability. He has quick burst and elusiveness to combine with breakaway speed as he was a track and field athlete in high school with a 10.92 second PR in the 100-meter dash. His high school tape is full of him making smart cuts then flying away from would-be tacklers.

Ryan Peppins, FR – 5’ 8” / 168 lbs

A 3-star wide receiver out of Alabama, Peppins just signed with the team on Wednesday during the early signing period. He played football, basketball, and ran track in high school. Peppins was a punt returner in high school, and his tape demonstrates incredible quickness, change of direction, and a seeming inability to be taken down the first time. Watching his tape, you could almost believe it was high school tape of Covey himself.

In 2022, Utah football will take the field without its famed first team, All-Pac-12 return specialist. However, this loss is softened by the impressive depth of in-house returner options. Utah fans can take comfort that whoever takes over the punt return responsibilities will have the potential for dynamic, game-changing returns when the Utes return to defend their Pac-12 championship title.

Honorable Mention: Jaylen Dixon, SR; Caine Savage, SO