Marc Mariani knows what it’s like to return big kicks and big punts in big situations.
After all, before Mariani burst onto the scene returning kicks for the Tennessee Titans this season, he had one of the most prolific careers at the University of Montana doing the same thing.
And he always had a flare for the dramatic.
Mariani returned perhaps the most important kickoff in Griz history when his team was trailing big to South Dakota State in the first round of the 2009 FCS playoffs. Mariani, who’d only returned three kickoffs that season, was put back there against SDSU to spark the struggling Griz – and 98 yards later, he was in the endzone, starting a wild fourth-quarter comeback that led Montana all the way to the national championship game that season.
And so far, Mariani is doing the same for the Titans. He leads the NFL in punt returns coming into tonight’s game with the Indianapolis Colts, and he is third in the league in kickoff returns and total return yardage. On top of that, Mariani is knocking on the door of a Pro Bowl berth in his rookie season.
But it isn’t all speed that makes a kick returner what he is, and while Mariani certainly has the blazing speed which helps make a return man so dangerous, he’s also got qualities that not everybody who plays football is blessed with.
“The thing about it is he has really good instincts,” Tennessee special teams coach Alan Lowry said in a recent interview.
And over the course of the season, Titans head coach Jeff Fisher has echoed those sentiments, saying Mariani has great vision for returns, that he sees what his blockers are doing as it happens, and that he knows where to go with the ball on punts and kicks.
Mariani honed those skills while dazzling Grizzly fans at UM. He became the starting kick returner and punt return his sophomore year, and went on to set Grizzly records in the return game, and he holds the prestigious record for most all-purpose yards in a career.
And that’s also what made him such a viable commodity as a return man in the NFL, and through hard work and the ability to continue to learn, it’s what’s led him to become one of the most dangerous return men in the league this season.
Mariani already has a 98-yard kickoff return for a score and a 76-yard punt return for a TD to his credit, something some return men go a whole season without doing.
But as much work, as much skill as it takes to be a successful return man in the league, Mariani also has a great understanding for the position and for what it takes to bust a big return. Whether it’s in college or the NFL, he knows, special teams is just that, a team.
And while punts and kickoffs are two completely different kinds of returns, there’s one thing Mariani sees as a constant.
“I’d say the similarities are you really count on the 10 guys in front of you to do the best at their jobs,” Mariani said. “Eleven guys must be doing something right on both of them for anything to happen.
And because Mariani has learned to excel at both punts and kicks, he’s taken the Titans from a team who was next to last in both categories last season, to a team who can really count on not just exciting returns and points on the board from the former Havre High three-sport star, but also to have great field position, which in the NFL, is one of the most important aspects of a returners job.
“At the end of the day, the number one job is to make sure we have the ball in the best possible situation after a kick,” Mariani said. “That’s my job, that’s my first objective. It’s great to break the big plays, it’s great when it all comes together perfectly. But in this league, you have to take care of the football, you have to secure the football, and that’s the first objective every time out.”
And just like he did at Montana, he’s taking his return job very seriously and it’s paying dividends. Because of Mariani’s ability to make plays, the Titans have averaged a start at their opponent’s 30-yard-line or better on over 70 percent of Mariani’s kickoff returns. That’s a high average in the NFL. And on punt returns, Mariani has yet to have a negative return this season.
And just like the returns themselves, where timing is everything, Mariani is making the most of perfect timing for a breakout rookie season, when many of the seventh-round draft picks from last spring are either on practice squads around the NFL or no longer in the league at all.
“Kick returning is such a timing deal,” Mariani said. “Holes open and close so fast that the timing has to be perfect. That’s why we rep it so many times in practice.
“It’s a lot of fun being out there, knowing the ball is in your hands,” he added. “It’s a tough job sometimes, but it’s one I take a lot of pride in and I’m just going to keep working at it, keep trying to get better at, so that I can continue to keep helping this team try to win football games.
“The thing about it is he has really good instincts,” Lowry said. “That lets him be a quick learner, and a quick study, so he’s able to pick things up. He really works hard at it. It means a lot to him.”
Mariani and the Titans will take on the Colts tonight at 6:30 p.m. on the NFL Network.