Devin Hester is back in the NFL with the Baltimore Ravens, who signed him this week and plan to use him right away as a kickoff and punt returner in Sunday’s season opener against Buffalo.
Not much I can tell you about Devin that folks around here don’t already know. He was a Parade All-America at Suncoast High School in Riviera Beach. That made him a five-star recruit but the Miami Hurricanes kept him in South Florida.
UM’s reward was a full bag of tricks displayed by Hester every Saturday. In just three seasons, before deciding to skip his senior year and turn pro, Devin scored six touchdowns on kick returns and one each rushing and receiving. He also intercepted five passes. Most memorable of all was a 98-yard return for a touchdown on the opening kickoff of a 38-31 win over Florida in 2003.
On to the NFL, where Hester established himself as the greatest return threat ever. In eight years with Chicago and two more in Atlanta he set league records for most career punt return touchdowns (14), most kickoff and punt return touchdowns combined (19) and most non-offensive touchdowns (20, including one on the return of a missed field-goal attempt).
Problem is, he’s coming off toe surgery in January, was released by the Falcons in July and is approaching his 34th birthday. So why are the Ravens interested in giving Hester a try when other teams won’t?
Here are six good reasons. We chose half a dozen because that’s what Hester always has been known for producing, a quick six.
- Baltimore coach John Harbaugh was a special-teams coordinator for 11 years before becoming an NFL head coach. He fixated on the return game for the Cincinnati Bearcats, the Indiana Hoosiers and, for nine years, the Philadelphia Eagles. If anyone knows how rare Hester’s instincts are, it’s a guy like Harbaugh.
- The Ravens were 5-11 last year and ranked 25th in the league in scoring. The return game contributed very little to that output, with one punt brought back for a touchdown and no kickoff returns past midfield. Whatever Hester brings will be a plus.
- Blazing speed isn’t the only factor in making a return work. As Hester told reporters at his Ravens’ introduction: “Everybody out here can run fast, can make guys miss, but I feel as though when you’re back there you’ve got to be able to manage the game. You’ve got to make the right decisions, pick up small instincts just by repetition, and I feel like I’ve put a lot of time in it from the returner’s standpoint.”
- Hester leads active NFL players in yards per touch. Over his career he’s been good for an average of 16.1 yards every time the ball winds up in his hands. Who doesn’t need some of that, or at least the threat of it?
- Hester has been friends with Deion Sanders since his college days at Miami. They share the same competitive drive and the willingness to take risks. Taking another shot with the Ravens and potentially doing harm to his legacy doesn’t bother Devin, who says “Not a day goes by where I don’t feel like I have to improve. Deep down inside, I still feel like I have a lot more to prove.”
- The Dolphins play Baltimore on Dec. 4, which means that Hester will probably do something crazy and have Palm Beach County fans wondering all over again how great it would have been to have this amazing athlete on Miami’s roster at one time or another. Same goes, for that matter, with Pahokee’s Anquan Boldin.