Dexter McCluster brought back a punt 94 yards for a touchdown in his first NFL game for the Chiefs in 2010, sparking hope he could surpass Chicago’s Devin Hester as the NFL’s next great return specialist.
That hasn’t happened yet, but the Chiefs aren’t giving up on the idea. This offseason they hired away the Bears’ Dave Toub, the special-teams coach who worked with Hester and helped him become one of the all-time greats with 17 career return touchdowns.
And Toub is a fan of McCluster’s.
“McCluster is somebody that’s very intriguing to me,” Toub said. “He can really make you miss, and I just think he’s got a lot of untapped potential as a punt returner.”
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A McCluster revival is just part of what the Chiefs have planned for their return game. They’re also looking at rookie running back Knile Davis to return kickoffs, though Davis never brought back a kick in college at Arkansas.
That plan, too, is part of the effort to awaken a long dormant return game. The Chiefs haven’t returned a kickoff for a touchdown since 2009 or a punt for a score since McCluster did it in the season-opening game in 2010 against the Chargers.
The Chiefs traded one of their main return specialists from the last couple of seasons, Javier Arenas. They have others working in the mix, including wide receiver Devon Wylie. But for the time being, at least, they appear to have settled on McCluster and Davis.
McCluster, 5 feet 8, 170 pounds, hasn’t had many chances to return punts since his rookie season in part to keep him fresh for offensive plays. But the new coaching staff led by Andy Reid doesn’t have that idea.
“We’re kind of dusting him off in that area,” Toub said. “He has all the skills that you like to see as a punt returner.”
Davis is an interesting option as a kickoff returner. He hasn’t returned a kick in a live game since he was in high school and was a frequent fumbler at running back last season.
But the Chiefs see a fast runner with a big body who could be difficult for opponents to bring down in the open field.
“He’s a big guy and he can run (fast),” McCluster said. “He just needs a little more repetition and I think he’ll be really good.”
Reid said Davis has good vision, which is key for a returner.
“That position, you want the guys that are willing to hit it up the field,” Reid said. “We’ll see how he does. I’m not saying he’s the guy necessarily right now. But he’s working at it, and we’ll see how he does through training camp.”
Judging from offseason practice, Davis will get plenty of work at running back in the regular season even though Jamaal Charles is the starter. But Davis said returning kickoffs would be another way for him to contribute.
“Any way I can touch the field,” he said. “It’s no fun sitting on the sideline.
“I like the idea. The biggest difference from college to the league is that here, they want you to catch it forward so you can have that momentum going up the field.
“The key is hitting it full speed. But it’s a lot harder to judge it and catch it that way. You’ve got to judge it just right or it will be a big mistake. In college, you can kind of stand there and judge it and catch it on your back leg. I’ve pretty much got it down, for the most part.”
The Chiefs are withholding judgment on that last part.
“We’ve got a long way to go,” Toub said. “We’ve got to find out when the (games) start whether this guy will be able to hold on to the ball. That’s going to be the key for him on kickoff return.
“There’s a lot for him to learn. It’s a totally different feel (than at running back). He’s got the ball in his hand like at running back, but still it’s totally different. It’s about closing the distance. It’s about (getting up the field) real quick. There are a lot of collisions out there. You’ve got guys running 10, 15 yards, running full speed at you. There will be a learning curve for him.”