STILLWATER – Even with a glare of sunlight beaming in his face, Chuba Hubbard is studying.
His heels encroach the goal line, his eyes peering at the kicker and the 10 people flanking him. Their mission: stop Hubbard. Hubbard’s mission: get to the end zone.
But it’s not that simple.
The Oklahoma State football team has not returned a kickoff for a touchdown since 2014. That season, the Cowboys returned 50 kicks. In 2017, they returned only 29 in 13 games.
This year, that number is 13 through six games.
Kickoff have changed over the years, too. With player safety in mind, the kickoff line was moved up to help kickers be able to boot touchbacks more simply than before. This season, teams are able to fair catch kicks and have the ball moved up to the 25. OSU has done this on multiple occasions.
OSU coach Mike Gundy said the kick return unit this season works on watching the ball flight when deciding whether to return a kick or take it from the 25.
“We have to make a good decision based on that,” Gundy said. “The ball needs to be somewhat shorter or doesn’t have as much hang time in order to facilitate a return.”
Special teams haven’t been a strength for this OSU team. It has struggled in all phases of the kicking game. The last time the Cowboys recorded a special teams score was on a punt return in 2015.
In 2014, OSU had one of the most electric returners in school history: Tyreek Hill. He is stressing NFL defensive coordinators out now, and OSU is looking for a big return play.
“I’m just like, ‘Let’s return whenever we can’ because I know one is going to come,” Hubbard said. “We’re getting close. It’ll come sooner or later.”
In the loss to Iowa State, Hubbard had four kick returns for 102 yards. Coming into the matchup, he returned only seven kicks for 148 yards.
Gundy said he saw on film how the Cyclones’ kicker booted a lower ball, so it made it easier for OSU to set up a return.
Hubbard’s speed is his best trait, and his quick, shifty movements are flashbacks to when Hill was eviscerating opponent’s schemes. When the redshirt freshman gets into the open field, no one is going to catch him.
Although he hasn’t burst out of a bunch of defenders yet, Gundy said it’s not long before it happens.
“He’s a fast guy,” Gundy said. “He’s gonna come out of there.”
Gundy mentioned he was a fan of the rule changes on kickoffs. If executed properly, a team will start on its 25 every time. But with players like Hubbard who are capable of shredding kick coverages and scoring, it makes for a decision.
When weighing the risk/reward for kick returns, Gundy admitted Hubbard is worth a gamble.
“He’s worth the risk because if we get a crease with him, he’s so fast that it should work out good for us.”
For Hubbard, he’s waiting for his chance. He knows it’s coming, but when the ball is wobbling toward him, Hubbard’s prepared to score.
“I just want to get us back on our feet so they can’t say our special teams are lacking because it’s really good this year,” Hubbard said. “I really believe that, and one (return touchdown) will come sooner or later.”