Unhappy returns

JONATHAN HUNTINGTON -- Edmonton Sun

, Last Updated: 8:36 AM ET

The numbers aren't pretty for Tony Tompkins.

In fact, they're downright ugly these days.

After being the most dangerous punt returner in the Canadian Football League last year, Tompkins rarely finds daylight and produces a momentum-swinging return for the Edmonton Eskimos this season.

And last Friday's game against Saskatchewan might have been the most frustrating example, as the diminutive speedster finished the game with minus-11 yards on four punt returns, which has dropped his overall return average per punt to 5.7 yards, nearly half of his 2005 average.

Compared to the top 12 punt returners in the league, Tompkins's average is 11th, one spot from the bottom.

But don't spend a second mulling over the possibility of the Eskimos changing returners and giving import Richard Alston or Toby Zeigler a shot because that's not going to happen.

"That discussion (of replacing Tompkins) would not come up at any point during the course of the season," said special teams coach Malvin Hunter.

"He is our return guy and we have to do a better job of allowing him to do his job."

Upon close examination, there appear to be four main reasons why the punt-return game isn't clicking.

1. PENALTIES

"The referees are calling a lot more penalties and that is really holding us back," said Tompkins.

"We have several yards from punt returns that have been called back."

Indeed, Tompkins lost a 35-yard return against Calgary earlier this year due to a flag and a 26-yard effort against B.C., which would have made his return average 7.7 yards.

2. HIGHLY REGARDED TARGET

Leading the league with three punt-return touchdowns last year means one thing this year: a major target for opposing teams to shoot for.

"Teams are keyed-up to stop him and it's tough to generate a punt return when he is the main guy they want to take away from us," continued Hunter.

3. BALL PLACEMENT

Saskatchewan punter Luca Congi had a terrible night last Friday, averaging just 28 yards per punt - which really hurt Tompkins.

"The short punts ... screwed us up," admitted Hunter.

"Any time you catch the ball and there are eight people in your face, you are not going to generate much of a return."

Tompkins was forced to back-pedal, waiting for his blockers to set up.

Against the B.C. Lions two weeks ago, Tompkins had to deal with a different type of ball placement problem.

"B.C. was kicking the ball away from Tony no matter where he lined up - they would kick it across the field away from him," said Mike Bradley, one of the key blockers on the punt-return unit.

"It is pretty hard to have a decent return off a kick like that."

4. TIMING

This might be the biggest reason for the lack of production.

"As a unit we are doing a pretty good job blocking for him, but on each return there is usually one guy - and sometimes two - who is breaking down," continued Hunter.

"It is not always the same guy. We just have to put it together."

Added Tompkins: "If you get the block too early or you make the block too late, it will throw off the whole timing of the whole return.

"We have been practising, trying to get the timing down, and when it comes together, everybody will see."


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