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Ravens WR Devin Duvernay, the NFL’s leading punt returner, is still learning on the job

“I mean, this last year, when they threw me back there at the end of the year, was my first time ever doing it," said Duvernay when asked about returning punts.

The first punt that Devin Duvernay returned in his NFL career was the first of his football career. It was hard to tell, though.

In Week 16 last season, with starter James Proche II inactive because of a roster crunch, Duvernay jogged onto the M&T Bank Stadium field against the New York Giants midway through the first quarter and prepared to do something he’d only ever done in practice. The rookie made the difficult look easy, catching Riley Dixon’s booming ball at the Ravens’ 18-yard line, eluding one tackle, shedding another and falling forward for a 17-yard gain.

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It was a flash of what Duvernay has made clear this season: You don’t need a mastery of punt returns to play like one of the NFL’s best. After a career-long 42-yard return in the Ravens’ 23-7 win Sunday over the Denver Broncos, Duvernay’s averaging an NFL-high 18.9 yards. Among players averaging at least 1.25 returns per game, the Tennessee Titans’ Chester Rogers is next best — at 13.3 yards per return.

“I’m honestly kind of learning on the fly,” Duvernay said Wednesday. “I mean, this last year, when they threw me back there at the end of the year, was my first time ever doing it. So I never did it in college, high school or anything. So I’m still kind of learning. ... Part of it is just catching the ball and just running, so that’s what I’ve been doing.”

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The running part comes naturally to Duvernay. He hit 21.76 mph on his big return Sunday, according to the NFL’s Next Gen Stats, the second-fastest time recorded by a ball-carrier in the NFL this season.

“Just try to carve out a lane in my brain,” said Duvernay, also the team’s top kickoff returner, “and just hit it.”

It’s been everything else about the position that’s taken some getting used to. Duvernay muffed a punt in the Ravens’ season-opening loss to the Las Vegas Raiders, though he quickly recovered the ball. Two weeks later, he lost a fumble on a return, this one deep in Ravens territory. But a Detroit Lions penalty wiped out the turnover, and four minutes later, quarterback Lamar Jackson found Duvernay for the first touchdown catch of his career.

On Sunday, there were more growing pains. Duvernay signaled for a fair catch at the 4-yard line and let another punt bounce to the 2. Both subsequent drives ended in three-and-outs.

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Duvernay said he doesn’t focus on the bad. He’s more interested in the good. Especially now that he knows how much fun punt returns can be.

“I was telling Coach, I’d never thought about doing it,” Duvernay said. “But he threw me back there, and [I] had some success, and I’ve loved it.”

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