SEATTLE (AP) — Maybe it’s time for Washington’s opponents to consider avoiding Dante Pettis.
Rutgers made the mistake of kicking to him in the season opener. Montana did the same a week later. Both times, the star wide receiver and dynamic punt returner for No. 6 Washington found his way into the end zone.
“Coming into this year I didn’t think I was going to get that many return opportunities,” Pettis said. “Then after last game I was like ‘I’m probably not going to get anymore.’ Now after this game I’ll probably be like, ‘I’m not going to get anymore.’ But people keep surprising me and kicking to me and I’m thankful for that.”
Pettis’ 67-yard punt return touchdown in Saturday’s 63-7 rout of Montana was the seventh of his career, giving him the Pac-12 career record by himself. He’s one shy of the all-time NCAA record held by Wes Welker (Texas Tech) and Antonio Perkins (Oklahoma) with at least 10 games remaining in his college career.
Pettis’ success as a returner can be attributed to a mix of speed and agility. He’s not the fastest player on the field, but elusive enough that every punt return that doesn’t end up out of bounds or as a fair catch is a chance for an electric moment that in some cases has decided the outcome in Washington’s favor. His most memorable return came last year at Utah when he broke a 24-all tie with a 58-yard punt return touchdown with 3:58 remaining in the game.
“Every time you’re out there, at least I’m out there, I think I’m going to return it for a touchdown. Every time I think, ‘This is about to be a touchdown right here,'” Pettis said. “Then it just depends on how the punter kicks it, if he kicks it high or short or a line drive. We know going into it generally how they’re going to punt because we watch film on them and everything, so we know if they like to kick it to the boundary or whatever it is. So normally we have a good idea what is going on.”
It helps that Washington coach Chris Petersen specifically oversees the special teams. While he was quick to praise Pettis’ ability as a returner, he was just as concerned with the mistakes he saw from his punt return group.
“I’m much more into the subtle nuances of him catching balls that are tough to catch, they might even be a fair catch, they might be backed up in the red-zone area,” Petersen said. “Other than Dante’s touchdown I really wasn’t too happy with what was going on back there. I thought we let the ball hit the ground way too much and so we’ve got work to do, including him. … We’ve got work to do and it’s all those subtle things. Everyone likes the flash plays and that’s great, they’re game-changing plays, but there is a lot of subtleties in the hidden game of special teams.”
Pettis’ athleticism shows up in other ways, whether he’s making acrobatic catches downfield as a receiver or whether he’s completely away from football. After two years of prodding, Pettis received the OK from Petersen to participate in track and field last spring as a long jumper. Pettis competed in four meets and had a non-wind aided team-best jump of 24-feet, 1 ¾-inch. He finished ninth in the Pac-12 championships.
“Long jump is a lot of control and explosiveness,” Pettis said. “Obviously that carries over a lot to wide receiver. Jumping in the air you have to be able to control your body and get up in the air. There is a lot of things that carry over from that.”
Starting next Saturday against Fresno State, the Huskies will begin to see whether teams will try to avoid Pettis. Washington went through a similar situation a year ago with teams trying different ways to avoid kicking to John Ross. But Petersen noted it’s sometimes more challenging to kick away from someone than just kicking it to them.
That’s fine by the Huskies.