AMHERST — Trey Dudley-Giles stood near the goal line waiting to do what he does best, what he does better than most. The University of Massachusetts sophomore is an anomaly for the low-octane Minutemen: a threat to produce positive yardage quickly and painlessly. His 24-yard kick-return average places him among the leaders in the Mid-American Conference, and he was poised to get UMass off to a good start.
Western Michigan took the field for that opening kickoff last Saturday as a winless team, but not necessarily an unprepared team. Smartly, the Broncos angled the kick away from Dudley-Giles. The ball landed at the 10-yard line in the arms of another sophomore defensive back, Khary Bailey-Smith, who had never before returned a kick for the Minutemen. It seemed like a safe play.
A burst of 90 yards later, though, UMass had a 7-0 lead.
“It really got the crowd in the game,” said UMass coach Charley Molnar, “and it was an excellent way to start a homecoming performance.”
And an excellent way to start a kick-return career. It was not, however, the first significant contribution by Bailey-Smith. Two games earlier, the Weymouth native intercepted two Miami of Ohio passes to help secure the only UMass win this season.
The early boost vs. Western Michigan might have seemed a good omen, then, but it turned out to be an omen wasted, as the Minutemen (1-7, 1-3 MAC) fell short in the final seconds, 31-30.
Nonetheless, the UMass return game suddenly was established as a double threat.
That’s likely to come in handy this Saturday. A lot. The visitor for the game at Gillette Stadium will be Northern Illinois, ranked No. 21 in the nation and 17th in the BCS.
The Huskies are unbeaten (8-0, 4-0) and will ride into town having won 21 straight games in the MAC, a streak that includes a 63-0 walloping of UMass last season.
And the Minutemen are expected to be without quarterback A.J. Doyle and tight end Rob Blanchflower because of injuries.
Northern Illinois is led by dynamic quarterback Jordan Lynch, who in last week’s 52-20 win over Eastern Michigan showed why he’s a dark horse Heisman Trophy candidate, throwing four touchdown passes, running for a score, and even grabbing a TD reception. He has Northern Illinois averaging a MAC-leading 42 points a game.
So it stands to reason that UMass will be returning a few kickoffs.
“We’re ready,” Dudley-Giles said after practice Tuesday, casting a glance at Bailey-Smith, who was nodding. “I’m pretty excited, in fact.”
Then he gestured toward his teammate. “Now teams know they can’t just keep the ball away from me by kicking it toward Khary.”
Dudley-Giles, who was UMass’s top punt returner last season and assumed the dual role this year because of an injury to Jordan Broadnax, knows what it feels like to reach the end zone, even if it doesn’t show on the scoreboard. In the win over Miami, he returned a punt 77 yards, only to have the apparent touchdown nullified by a penalty.
Last Saturday he had the best view in the house of his teammate’s run to daylight. No tacklers within reach. No flags.
“When I saw him extend his body away from the last tackler, I knew he was gone,” said Dudley-Giles. “He ran like he knew what he was doing.”
Dudley-Giles knows what he’s doing on kick returns, of course, and he fully understands that that had a significant influence on Saturday’s big play. If the opponent wasn’t fearful of his explosiveness, his teammate never would have had the ball in his hands.
“I felt the respect, yes,” he acknowledged. “It’s a win for me.”
What will the returners do for an encore this weekend? Perhaps the question should be: What will Northern Illinois give the duo an opportunity to do?
“I could see them squib-kicking it to one of our up guys,” said Dudley-Giles. “Then again, this is a Northern Illinois team that’s very physical, very fast. So they might take on the challenge.”
If opportunities do present themselves, Dudley-Giles and Bailey-Smith cannot afford to waste them. UMass is averaging a MAC-low 10.6 points a game, so the returners likely will be asked to counterpunch the knockout power of Lynch.
The Northern Illinois senior has amassed 1,031 yards and eight touchdowns on the ground and 1,711 yards and 18 TDs via the air.
He is just the 10th FBS player ever to reach 4,000 passing and 3,000 rushing yards in a career.
“He really is the brains behind their offense when he is out there on the field,” said Molnar. “He’s the unequivocal leader for their football team.”
Yet the UMass coach has high hopes for his defense. When asked what he expects to see from his return game, Molnar subtly — and, yes, probably unrealistically — shifted attention onto the unit on his team that’ll be most severely tested.
“I’m excited to see our kickoff-return team,” he said, “but only see them once.”