MADISON -- Tiptoeing down the sideline after making a would-be tackler miss, Jeremy Kerley appeared to have run out of room at the 16-yard-line. No matter, he simply stopped in his tracks and headed left.
After backtracking a few yards to avoid another defender, Kerley found a huge hole and cut back through it to his right, finding the end zone on a 69-yard punt return touchdown.
When asked Sunday about that punt return, which came on Oct. 17, 2009 as TCU blasted Colorado State 44-6, Wisconsin head coach Bret Bielema admitted he had seen it several times, and could not think of a better one he's seen.
"The thing that you see, which he has, with great returners it's almost like they can see the field before it begins to happen," Bielema said. "They can feel coverage and break to a certain part (of the field). I think it's something that is a gift that's just given to them."
Kerley, a finalist for the Hornung Award, which is given to college football's most versatile player, certainly would seem to have that gift. While he had not found the end zone on a punt return since that spectacular performance against CSU, Kerley has a big impact on every game for TCU.
On 30 punt returns this season, Kerley has picked up 388 yards for an average of just under 13 yards per attempt. That number is below his career average of 13.8 yards per return. Kerley also has 17 kickoff returns on the year, picking up an average of 28 yards. That number is actually higher than his career average of 27.3 yards on 35 attempts.
Within the TCU offense, Kerley has contributed 13 touchdowns, including two rushing touchdowns and a passing touchdown at Utah. He also has 50 receptions for 517 yards and 10 touchdowns.
"He's a beast," said senior David Gilreath. "I've been watching him for the last couple years."
While he had high praises for his counterpart, Gilreath has done something Kerley has not: return a kickoff for a touchdown. Kerley does, however, have a 2-to-1 edge on punt return touchdowns.
Gilreath's touchdown, a 97-yard sprint on the opening kickoff against Ohio State came just under a year after Kerley's impressive punt return performance. While the win over the top-ranked Buckeyes was more impressive than TCU blowing out the Buffaloes, both scores sparked their respective teams in the victories.
"I'll always remember it," Gilreath said of his return. "I was just watching it on YouTube the other day. Somebody said something, and I was like, 'Well, come check this out, man.' I try to always give credit to the blockers because I ran, but that hole was huge."
Just as Bielema admitted to seeing Kerley's return several times, Gilreath acknowledged he's watched himself start that game off with a bang many times in the last two months.
"I try to take myself back in the moment a little bit because I still think it's unreal," Gilreath said. "It went by so fast, and I look back watching it and it's still unreal to think about how that happened in that moment against the No. 1 team."
Both returners will be remembered for their thrilling return touchdowns, and both can change the momentum of a game with the ball in their hands.
While the true challenge will be on the Badgers' coverage units to stop Kerley, facing another elite returner is an exciting challenge for Gilreath as well.
"Any time I get to go against a good return guy, I pride myself on competing against them and trying to have a better game," Gilreath said. "No. 85 for Northwestern, he got me that game, but I try to compete out there and see what I can do against another good returner."
As he referenced both Kerley and Venric Mark of NU, Gilreath called them both by number: No. 85. It just so happens that the same number appears on his jersey as well.
Is the key to return success, as he sees it, having an '85' on your jersey?
"Yeah, yeah, pretty much," Gilreath answered with a smile. "That's the key."
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