Returning Dividends

Returning Dividends

A year after kickoff and punt returns were a disaster for the Badgers, No.9 Wisconsin has two solid weapons - Luke Swan and David Gilreath - that are making things happen.

MADISON – When fans think about 2006 and Wisconsin special teams, the cringe are the usual gut reaction. Plagued by inconsistent fielding, turnovers and broken confidence by its main return man, finding reliable players to provide a spark was issue number one heading into fall camp.

Through three games in 2007, those cringes are turning to cheers.

Employing the services of fifth-year senior Luke Swan and true-freshman David Gilreath, Wisconsin has developed a return game that is making a big impact.

What makes Swan and Gilreath's stellar performances somewhat of a surprise so far is that both are fielding kicks for the first time on the college level.

Having his breakout season last year as a wide receiver, Swan was named starting punt returner 10 days before the opener by head coach Bret Bielema. Bielema's reason was simple – put in the veteran with the best hands on the team.

"We need someone back there who can catch the ball consistently and has the speed to get the ball down the field and that's Swanny," Bielema said.

Although fumbling on his first punt return, Swan has been solid since, fielding five punts for 37 yards – a 7.4 average – and no turnovers. While his main job is still to catch the ball, Swan's mindset going into the role is entirely different.

"You have to know what is coming at you and trying to make those guys miss," Swan said. "As a receiver, you're on the field knowing your assignment, knowing you have to run this route or block this guy. You have to really switch gears when you go from one position to the other. You have to go back there and be hungry for yards."

Although solid, Swan didn't field one single kick against The Citadel because freshman Gilreath has been on a tear.

Fielding kickoffs all three games and punts against Washington State and The Citadel, Gilreath has returned seven punts for 139 yards, including longs of 33 and 37 yards. To put things into perspective, Wisconsin's longest punt return last year was 36 yards and Jarvis Minton led the Badgers with 282 kickoff yards.

As effective as Gilreath has been on kickoffs, making things happen on punt returns is what has earned him recognition. Fielding seven punts in two games (none against UNLV), Gilreath has 135 return yards with a long of 35 yards. In just two games, Gilreath has nearly eclipsed Zach Hampton's 178 punt return yards from a season ago and already bested Ben Strickland's team-long 33-yard punt return in 2006.

With his 25-yard average on his kickoffs, 18.3 average on his punts and 148 total return yards against The Citadel, Gilreath earned his first Big Ten Special Team Player of the Week honor. Still, Gilreath isn't satisfied, as the young returner is a perfectionist on the field.

"I wish a couple things would have gone a little better, but overall I am pleased so far," Gilreath said.

Returning kicks and punts is nothing new to Gilreath, who was the primary returner at Robbinsdale Armstrong H.S. in New Hope, Minnesota. A three-time all-conference selection, Gilreath returned 13 punts and 16 kickoffs as a senior, returning one kickoff for a touchdown. For Gilreath, the differences between fielding punts between the two levels are minimal, which is good news for Badger fans.

"The punts are a little higher and more of a spiral," Gilreath said. "The ball does more things in the air [in college]. In high school, punts were usually end-over-end and they were easier to judge because they were more of a line drive. Punts are a lot higher but kick returns aren't much of a difference."

Although they have two similar styles and are five-years apart, Gilreath and Swan have developed a bond as they both learn a new position and constantly bounce ideas off each other. Likewise, both players think the other is doing a special job on the Wisconsin special teams.

"For being out there for the first time, Luke looks real natural doing it," Gilreath said about Swan. "He fields the kicks like there's nothing to it. We talk a lot about different ideas and help each other out."

"I am excited about David," Swan said about Gilreath. "He's an explosive player and we have him going on the right track."

More importantly, Wisconsin return game is on the right track in 2007.

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