With help from the head coach, Pettis set a UW record with his fifth punt-return touchdown against Utah — none more special than that.
Chris Petersen demands perfection, and Dante Pettis knows that better than any of his Washington teammates.
During one practice two years ago, Petersen wasn’t seeing what he wanted out of Pettis and the Huskies’ other punt returners, so the head coach took it upon himself to show them.
“It was my freshman year, and he went back there because no one was catching it,” Pettis recalled this week. “He was like, ‘It’s not that hard!’ He caught one (punt) and we all went crazy.”
Petersen and Pettis have grown close over the past three seasons. The only position Petersen personally coaches is those returners, and he’s studied the art of the punt return enough that he has developed a set of guidelines — guidelines he considers proprietary and doesn’t want to make public.
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“We have our own little special group back there,” Petersen said. “We have a handful of things that I don’t think a lot of people talk about. They’re simple things, but they’re hard to execute when you’re playing under pressure. …
“Dante is obviously all over it, and that makes him very productive.”
More productive, in fact, than any punt returner in UW history.
Pettis’ 58-yard punt-return touchdown in the fourth quarter against Utah on Saturday lifted the No. 4 Huskies to a 31-24 victory, giving him five return touchdowns in his career, a new school record. After the game, Petersen found Pettis on the field and gave him an emphatic high-five and a hug.
This was the most special return for Pettis — not only because it ended up being the game-winning score, and not only because it came against the best punter (Mitch Wishnowsky) he’d ever faced, but because he promised his older brother he would do it for him.
“My brother had been going through a lot of stuff and I was like, ‘I’m going to score a touchdown for you this game,’” said Pettis, whose brother, Kyler, is an actor on the NBC soap opera “Day of Our Lives.”
“So when I got back there, I was like, ‘I told him I’m going to score — this might be my last chance to do it.’ And it was the perfect time to score that touchdown.”
Before Pettis’ first punt-return TD two years ago at Colorado, Washington had gone 11 years without one. It was the longest stretch without one of any Power 5 program.
“What I think is really amazing about that,” Petersen said of Pettis’ record, “is it is much harder to return punts nowadays than it was back in the day.”
College rules allow everyone to take off in coverage before the punt; and the proliferation of rugby punts has made it even more difficult for returners to get time and find space. (That differs from NFL rules, which allows only the two gunners to release from the line before the punt.)
“A lot of people think returning is, OK, you get an athlete, put him back there and go. And that’s what it is a lot of times,” Pettis said. “But if you really want to take your return game to the next level, there’s a lot of different stuff. … There’s kind of an art to it.”
Pettis says his No. 1 priority on a return is to get the ball back to the offense, first and foremost — i.e., don’t fumble. No. 2: don’t let the ball hit the ground. Pettis and Petersen work on returns daily, usually for two or three practice periods a day, and Pettis watches film of the opposing punter each week to get a feel for what kind of kick to expect.
They’re together so often that Pettis hears Petersen’s voice in his head as he’s fielding punts.
“I’ve heard everything he has to say about it,” Pettis said. “Any time he says something to the younger guys, I’m like, ‘Yep, I could finish that sentence for you.’ …
“I’ve spent so much time with him back there, so definitely a lot has rubbed off. You want to have everything perfect in front of him. That’s really what he expects — he expects every single rep we have to be perfect. And if not, he’s on us: ‘Do that rep over.’”