By Steve Breazeale
Dante Pettis was told to think of himself as a counterpuncher when assessing an incoming punt.
The JSerra Catholic High School product-turned-standout-punt returner and receiver for the University of Washington’s football team will watch an opposing team purposefully boot a punt into the stratosphere with him on the other side of the field. He instinctively wants to make a play, but has learned to be content with biding his time and calling for a fair catch.
He’ll sometimes go quarter after quarter without seeing a punt he likes. He’ll be neutralized while the Huskies’ opponent lands a few special teams jabs.
But Pettis, like any good counterpuncher, knows a slipup will eventually happen, opening the door for him to deliver the knockout blow.
When a punt comes his way that looks returnable, the 6-foot-1-inch San Clemente native turns into a combination of speed and power that torches would-be tacklers and punt coverage schemes on a regular basis.
He has returned a punt for a touchdown an NCAA-record eight times, tying Oklahoma’s Antonio Perkins and Texas Tech’s Wes Welker for the most in college football history with a 77-yard house call against Fresno State on Sept. 16.
The return was vintage Pettis.
After fielding the ball at the Huskies’ 23-yard line he broke down the sideline, cut back to midfield, shed three would-be tackles and strolled into the end zone.
The play capped off a stretch of three consecutive games in which he returned a punt for a touchdown, which also tied an NCAA record. One week earlier, against Montana, Pettis returned his seventh career punt for a touchdown, breaking the old Pac-12 record previously held by DeSean Jackson.
While his highlight reel plays on special teams have grabbed national headlines this season, Pettis is making a huge impact at his natural position of wide receiver. He’s caught 44 passes for 472 yards and six touchdowns in seven games.
“(Pettis) is probably the most impressive field position player in this conference, to me, in terms of how he understands the game,” said Pac-12 Network analyst Yogi Roth. “He’s also an artist. I don’t think we talk enough about the artistry of the (receiver) position. When I look at him, he defines that. You look at how he comes out of breaks, how he understands angles, how he utilizes his body to find spaces in zones. (Washington) has such a unique offense and he’s been doing those things ever since he got there.”
Pettis has five games to break the punt return for a touchdown record and stand alone in NCAA history. The Huskies are also 6-1 and chasing a second straight Pac-12 title.
The San Clemente Times caught up with Pettis to talk about his place in history, how he visualizes while on the field and what makes him such a dynamic player.
San Clemente Times: Have you had time to reflect back on that record-tying punt return and where it places you in NCAA history?
Dante Pettis: To be honest, I haven’t thought about it too much. I know that in five to 10 years I’ll look back and say ‘Dang, that was pretty special’. But right now, it’s just not something I’m very focused on. We’re in the middle of the season and trying to play the best football we can play and get better every week. So focusing on something like an individual award like that isn’t really going to help us out.
Is it frustrating when teams kick away from you now?
That’s nothing out of the ordinary. Coach Petersen always tells me we’re counterpunchers. There will be times we might have four punts in a row and I’ll have to fair catch it. But then, all of a sudden, we’ll get one that they hit a little too far and then it’s like, ‘OK, here’s our chance’.
How much do your improvisational skills or instincts play into you returning a punt?
You always want to trust the return. You never want to fully abort it unless something is wide open. You get through the first line by trusting (the scheme) then after that you kind of have to make something happen on your own. That’s where the improv ability kind of takes over. You have to scan the field, see some openings and try and make somebody miss.
What’s better, catching a touchdown pass or returning a punt for a touchdown?
Definitely running back a punt for a touchdown. There aren’t too many of those that happen. Especially because you know it’s a full team effort. Receiving touchdowns are (a team effort) too, but there can be a broken coverage or something (on defense). In a punt return, every single person on that field is blocking for you only so it’s a pretty special feeling.
What’s the biggest thing you’ve worked on over the years to improve on the field?
I think it’s been my strength and my confidence. I definitely got a lot stronger to where I can run through some arm tackles. I got a little faster too, which comes with the strength. And my confidence, just thinking I can break through or break a tackle is important.
How important is it to you to break the NCAA punt return touchdown record? Is that a goal you have set for the rest of the season?
I wouldn’t say it’s a goal I have set. I would like to do it, obviously. That’d be pretty special. But at the end of the day, if I break the record and the season doesn’t go like we want it to go, I don’t think I would be too happy about that.