Picture it. It's the opening game of the season, Maine has gone three and out and Black Bears punter James DeMartini is getting ready to punt the ball to UConn's Brian Lemelle, standing at his own 40-yard line. DeMartini gets the kick away and it looks like Lemelle has some running room based on the distance of the kick and the Maine coverage.
But instead of returning it, Lemelle waves his hand in the air signaling for a fair catch at UConn 37-yard line to set up the offense. Bob Diaco is happy.
This is how it's going to be this season when the UConn Huskies punt return unit takes the field. Though the crowd may not like it, Diaco has offered a solid explanation for why this will be the case.
Diaco wants to eliminate "explosive plays" by the other team. He describes an "explosive play" as a play over 10-15 yards by the opposing team.
If you fair catch the ball instead of letting it roll, you're eliminating a potential explosive play. And if you fair catch it say six times over a game on six punts, you've eliminated six of those big plays.
The other side it is catching the ball and trying to return it. With rule changes to the game, it is a lot easier for punt coverage teams to get down the field, especially the long snapper, who is open at the line.
Let's say Lemelle or Tyraiq Beals tries to return a punt and only get two yards. It may seem like an uneventful occurrence, but to Diaco, the risk is too great. Those two yards aren't worth a fumble or potential injury from a tackler who's been sprinting for 20 yards. The returner could break one open and flip the field, but the coaching staff has determined that the risk does not outweigh the potential benefits.
Last season, UConn had six punt returns for a total of two yards. The longest return was nine yards. The last time a punt was returned for a touchdown was in Diaco's first season when Deshon Foxx returned one 72 yards for a TD against Stony Brook.
Fans may not like the conservative approach, and media may question it. But it makes sense.