ORONO, Maine — Micah Wright was a true freshman on the University of Maine football team and was about to return a punt against Towson (Maryland).
“Being a freshman, I was trying to be a little risky,” said Wright. “So I ran up 20 yards and caught it. I should have called a fair catch. When I caught the ball, I looked up and a 280-pound linebacker smacked me.
“He separated my shoulder. That’s why I became a (medical) redshirt. I sat out the rest of the year. After that I smartened up a little bit,” added Wright.
His mother and grandmother let it be known they would prefer that he not return punts any more.
“But I love it. It’s hard to stay away,” laughed Wright.
Being a punt or kickoff returner takes a special breed of player. Opponents are running toward them at full speed, intent on landing a huge hit and possibly dislodging the ball.
The Black Bears have two of the Colonial Athletic Association’s top returners in Wright, who is a junior, and sophomore Earnest Edwards.
UMaine leads the CAA in kickoff return average with 24.1 yards per return and in punt return average (17.7).
Wright and Edwards are constant threats to take the ball all the way and have provided the Black Bears with valuable field position. They both enjoy returning kicks even though they are know they are at risk of injury.
“It’s exciting. I feel at home back there. All you have to do is make a couple of people miss and the blocking takes care of itself,” said Wright, a All-CAA second- team punt returner in 2016 (11.1 ypr), including a 67-yarder for a touchdown against William & Mary.
Wright’s second career punt return TD came last Saturday, a pivotal 77-yarder late in the first half that gave UMaine the lead en route to a 51-27 victory over Rhode Island.
Edwards’ 26.1 yards per kickoff return lead the CAA. He has also run back four punts (6.2 ypr). Last year, he averaged 24.5 yards on 20 kickoff returns.
“I enjoy it. That’s why I’m back there,” said Edwards, who returned a kickoff 97 yards for a touchdown against Villanova last season.
He knows the dangers but said, “it’s part of football. I’ve got to make (the tacklers) miss.”
He said his mother doesn’t mind him returning kickoffs.
“She wants me to get the ball,” grinned Edwards.
Edwards and Wright said special teams are a priority at UMaine.
“Coach Nick (special teams coach Nick Charlton) and Coach H (head coach Joe Harasymiak) take pride in special teams,” said Edwards.
“They strive for us to be the best,” said Wright.
When Edwards approaches a kickoff, he first looks to see where his blockers are.
On kickoff and punt returns, there is a designed blocking scheme of which the returners hope to take advantage.
“I usually follow our up returner, Jeff DeVaughn,” said Edwards. “I try to find a hole and hit it as hard as I can.”
Wright and Edwards also are two of UMaine’s top wide receivers and Edwards said he considers returning kickoffs as “part of the offense. We’re trying to score.”
Wright said he watches for a variety of things on a punt.
“When (the punter) gets the ball off, I’ll take a split second to look at the line to see who is unblocked and who is blocked and what is open,” he said.
Wright said returning a punt for a touchdown provides a special thrill.
“There’s nothing like it,” said Wright. “I like to think of myself as a playmaker and I’m in position to make plays when I return punts.”
“They are two very special returners,” said Charlton. “They make a lot of plays. They have been very reliable for us.”
Charlton was quick to point out that in addition to Wright and Edwards, “there are 10 other guys doing their jobs and they’re a big part of it, too.”
Charlton said both returners are “fearless and skilled.” Wright is shifty and elusive while Edwards has blazing speed.
“Some guys have it and some guys don’t,” he added.
“They’re confident they can catch the ball in tight spaces and make plays,” said Harasymiak.
“You can change a game on special teams. This also gives us a way to get the ball into their hands.”
Edwards, Wright and the Black Bears are back in action Saturday when they visit Albany for a 3:30 p.m. game.