To continue with an important train of thought that initiated as a result of the “UCLA AND RETURNING PUNTS FOR TOUCHDOWNS” article over at Tom Sawyer’s distinguished “Southern Branch” blog, it is now time to address the somewhat surprising fact that UCLA Bruins All-America superstar KENNY WASHINGTON did not really run back punts during any of his three seasons of playing NCAA college football.
College football rules in the era of Single Wing football prior to World War II did not allow for the specialized substitutions that are standard operating procedure in the modern game and so most college football teams at that time tended to designate their primary ball-handler on offense (the Left Halfback, the Tailback or the Quarterback, depending upon which school’s terminology one is using) as the preferred player to be fielding punts.
It should be noted that “the Kingfish” was consistently deployed as a deep receiver on kickoffs all throughout his three-year varsity career at UCLA and, altogther, gained 428 yards with his 19 attempts for the very respectable average of 22.5 yards per return. In stark contrast, however, Washington is only credited with having run back two punts for 28 yards while with the Bruins. On the surface, one might be tempted to question either the skill set of the two-time First Team All-Pacific Coast performer or, perhaps, even the strategies & tactics of UCLA head coach BILL SPAULDING or his successor, BABE HORRELL.
It is true that the football which has been kicked from a tee placed on the ground will descend from the sky with a different speed & trajectory than the football that has been “punted”. But the Kingfish, a baseball player his first two years at UCLA, was known to be a sure-handed pass receiver and caught nine forward passes coming out of the backfield on offense while also intercepting six opponents’ aerials on defense during his collegiate career. Therefore, it is highly unlikely that the Bruins coaching staff were lacking sufficient confidence in Washington’s ability to adequately field a punt.
It is also indisputable that, after successfully securing the football, the punt returner will be confronted by would-be tacklers far sooner than the player who is running back a kickoff. What the situation truly calls for is a punt returner who not only has outstanding speed but also that distinct “shake-and-bake”, “shuck-and-jive”, “make-you-miss” about them, too. Again, though, it had been established from the moment that Washington first made his UCLA varsity debut as a sophomore against the Oregon Ducks in 1937 that the Bruins left halfback had plenty of the necessary pace and those requisite ‘swivel hips’, as confirmed by contemporary newspaper accounts published all throughout the Kingfish’s distinguished career.
So how was it, then, that Kenny Washington hardly returned any punts at all for the UCLA Bruins of the late 1930s?
It is strongly suspected that the correct answer to this question, indeed, can be found in the strategies & tactics of the UCLA Bruins coaching staff.
As touched upon briefly in the “Understanding UCLA Single Wing Football – The Basic Strategies” article here, teams not only punted the football more frequently but also, depending upon the circumstances, routinely did so on what would today would be considered to be ‘unconventional’ downs (i.e., first, second, or third). Some teams, such as the Washington State Cougars of the late 1930s, would often line up in an ‘obvious’ punting formation on an unconventional down and then just go ahead and either run or pass the football anyway. One of the reasons for this particular tactic was the fact that offensive lines were not skilled in forming a protective “pocket” for the passer — stationing a back 15 yards behind the line of scrimmage was one way to provide a would-be passer with the valuable time needed for his intended receiver to finish running his assigned pass pattern.
As noted in the “Establishing UCLA Single-Game Rushing Record” article here before, the Bruins’ longest rushing play in school history coincided with CHUCK CHESHIRE’s 93-yard touchdown scamper against the University of Montana at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum in 1934 — Cheshire’s record-setting gallop actually originated from what contemporary newspapers accounts reported to be a punt formation.
Getting back to addressing the question of why did Kenny Washington not run back punts for the UCLA, it is theorized by this blog that the Bruins coaching staff regarded the Kingfish’s defensive skills to be too important. In other words, rather than have Washington positioned 30-40 yards away from the line of scrimmage as a normal punt returner during the 1930s would typically do, perhaps the UCLA coaches thought it would be better to have the Kingfish stationed much closer to the line of scrimmage and, thus, in a far better position to help defend against any “fake punt” play the offensive might be wont to try. All throughout his collegiate career with the Bruins, contemporary newspaper reports continuously laud Washington for his solid tackling ability in addition to his penchant to be consistently involved defensively on a large number of plays over the course of any given game.