- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 2, 2015

ASHBURN — Santana Moss collided with a teammate shortly after fielding the punt at the 20-yard line, zipped through the Detroit Lions’ coverage and raised his right hand high in the air as he strutted the final 12 yards to the goal line.
It was the last time the Washington Redskins returned a punt for a touchdown. That play happened in 2008.

“Wow,” rookie Jamison Crowder said. “That’s a long time. Hopefully, if I get my chances and my opportunity, I can be the guy to put one in the end zone.”

The Redskins’ special teams play has been dismal the last two seasons, and Crowder was drafted, in part, because of his success in the return game. He was selected to the all-ACC team as a return specialist after his junior and senior years at Duke and finished his career fifth all-time in the conference in all-purpose yards.

After missing his first two preseason games with a strained left hamstring, Crowder’s first opportunity to show off his abilities happened last Saturday in a preseason game against the Baltimore Ravens, when he stumbled shortly after fielding a punt.

“We’ll see if it’s too big for him, but based on everything we’ve seen out here of him understanding the offense and the special teams role, we don’t think it is,” coach Jay Gruden said last week. “But, that’s something that preseason games are for — to throw some things at them and see how they react and how they handle them.”

The Redskins averaged 7.2 yards per punt return last season, good for 21st in the league, and 21.8 yards per kickoff return, which put them 25th. They have not scored a touchdown in either phase since Brandon Banks scored on a kickoff return in 2010, and their six-year punt return touchdown drought stands as the longest in the league.

Andre Roberts, who held both roles for the Redskins last season, has been among a number of players who have rotated in to return punts and kickoffs throughout training camp and the preseason. He’s unwilling to relinquish the role, but has competition in wide receiver Rashad Ross, who spent time on the Redskins’ practice squad last season; running back Chris Thompson, who handled return duties two years ago before getting hurt; and Trey Williams, an undrafted rookie running back.

The Redskins also have wide receiver DeSean Jackson waiting, and deploying him in a punt return role could be a game changer. A punt returner for the Philadelphia Eagles during his six seasons, Jackson earned All-Pro honors in 2009 and has returned four punts for a touchdown during his career, including a game-ending 65-yarder in a game against the New York Giants late in 2010 that gave the Eagles the victory.

Limited through much of training camp after spraining the AC joint in his right shoulder in practice on Aug. 6, Jackson jumped into the rotation of punt returners during drills at one point last week. He said on Tuesday that he would “definitely” welcome the opportunity to hold that role again.

“I think I’m a big-play receiver and a big-play special teams player, so any time I’m able to go out on the field and just help my team with big plays, that’s what I look forward to doing,” Jackson said.

Crowder handled kickoff return duties his freshman season at Duke, then served as the full-time punt returner his final two years. It’s a role he first began handling in middle school, and he believes that so much experience in the return game is part of the reason why he’s so comfortable in that role.

While in college, Crowder was drilled on the importance of catching the ball and securing possession, which he said is imperative once the decision was made to field the punt. A 10-yard gain was considered a successful return; by that standard, Roberts did that four times in his first two games last year, but just three times the remainder of the season.

Crowder didn’t reach that target in his lone opportunity on Saturday. With 2:38 remaining in the second quarter, the Ravens’ Sam Koch unleashed a 53-yard punt that Crowder, while backpedaling, fielded at his own 13-yard line. He took a half-dozen steps forward, gaining four yards before losing his footing on the artificial turf with Ravens inside linebacker Arthur Brown in position to make a tackle.

“Yeah, I definitely set high standards for myself and have high expectations in that department, so I was kind of disappointed in my performance there,” Crowder said afterward. “I slipped trying to make a break … but I definitely plan to do better in my next opportunity at punt return.”

With several starters and key contributors scheduled to sit out of Thursday’s preseason finale against the Jacksonville Jaguars, Crowder could see significant time on offense and on special teams. Ross, whose best shot of making the roster is through the return game, and Thompson, pegged to serve as a third-down back this season, also could rotate in.

“I know, for me, coming to the next level, I’m going to need those game reps, because you never know how things are going to play out,” Crowder said. “The more you get that experience out there, the better off I feel I’ll be.”

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