In four seasons at Towson, Derrick Joseph has handled 102 kickoffs and punts and returned a total of five for touchdowns. Despite the seemingly insurmountable odds against him, the senior said he accepts the challenge to make big gains on every return he takes.
"I feel like if things aren't rolling for the offense, somebody has to step up and make a play," Joseph said. "So I just try to take advantage of all of my opportunities as far as punt returns and kick returns to be that playmaker, to be that game-changer. I feel like it's very important to go out there for every single return and just try to get great field position for my team."
Perhaps this season more than any other, Joseph and the rest of the special teams play an important role for the Tigers (1-2), who welcome North Carolina Central to Johnny Unitas Stadium on Saturday at 6 p.m.
With an offense that features nine new starters and is still relatively inexperienced, the kick and punt return units can set up the offense in favorable field position. For a defense that surrendered 85 points in the first two games, the kick and punt coverage units can help pin opposing offenses deep in their own territory.
That responsibility is not lost on the players or special teams coordinator Joe Tricario.
"The coverage units help the defense, and the return units help the offense," Tricario said. "So what we have to do is concentrate on what we do, and if we do what we're supposed to do and we execute, we can be good and help the offense a great deal. So yes, there's a great amount of value on the reps we take as a unit."
For some programs, special teams is considered purgatory for players who aren't starters on offense or defense. But borrowing a page from Virginia Tech coach Frank Beamer, Tigers head coach Rob Ambrose has tried to alter that mentality by allowing Tricario to use offensive and defensive starters on special teams.
"Special teams play at every level is usually done by backups, and special teams is usually the last thing to get better," Ambrose said. "So we've been having to catch up."
One example is Joseph, who started the first two games at wide receiver. Joseph, the only player in school history to return four kickoffs for touchdowns, said he never tires of playing both spots, and Tricario said Joseph has the unique ability to return any kick or punt for a score.
"He's very gifted, very talented, and he can be as good as he wants to be," Tricario said. "The ceiling on him is endless. He's good, and he can make us a lot better the more he continues to grow and build and work hard."
Conversely, the kicking game is headed by a first-time starter in junior Sam Hurwitz. He has converted 2-of-3 field goals and 4-of-5 extra points. Hurwitz, who has worked with former Ravens kicker Matt Stover, said he is still developing.
"Everything I take is a learning experience," Hurwitz said. "I'd love to be perfect, but I'm going to miss some. I'm not going to make every one. I'd like to make every one, but you can't be perfect. But you take every experience and learn from it."
Despite the presence of freshman Danny Sutton, Tricario said there is no kicker controversy.
"He's the man right now, and we have every confidence when we put him out there," Tricario said of Hurwitz. "I think he'll get better as the year goes on and he gets more experience."
Special teams suffered a few hiccups in the team's season-opening 31-27 loss to Central Connecticut State. Hurwitz missed an extra-point attempt, and Towson was penalized for roughing the punter, which aided the Blue Devils in scoring the game-winning touchdown.
But in the Tigers' most recent game, a 21-7 victory at Delaware State on Saturday, special teams proved to be the difference. Redshirt sophomore Jordan Mynatt (Wilde Lake) blocked a punt in the fourth quarter that senior Fred Overstreet recovered in the end zone for a touchdown, and Joseph added an 81-yard punt return for a score.
Towson's prowess on special teams caught the attention of North Carolina Central coach Jerry Mack.
"Very worried," Mack said of the Tigers. "I think they showed some explosiveness on special teams. It's obvious they've put a lot more energy into that phase of the ball. They're doing a very good job in terms of punt blocking and things like that."
Ambrose may not expect touchdowns from special teams for every game, but any contribution helps.
"Special teams can make or break a ball game," he said. "It's the only way to say it. Teams lose games on special teams. Virginia Tech started their history with trying to turn a program around putting all of their best players on special teams for the chance to make a difference. And they created a tradition there. So it's something we've been building toward. … Watching these guys grow into this has really made a difference."