It is not the most enviable place to be on a football field.
As the ball is punted high in the air, the return man moves under it, never taking his eyes off it but still trying to see if opposing tacklers are moving in for the kill. In a matter of seconds, he must decide to catch the ball and go; fair catch it; or just let it bounce.
If he catches it, there is a good chance he could get plastered before his feet even move. If he fair catches and no one is around, he looks scared. He is making these choices as large, angry men are swooping in and yelling intimidating things to try and break his concentration.
Somehow, none of this bothers Dante Gipson as much as he thought it would.
Already a quality kick returner for Lycoming College, the Bordentown High graduate was asked to handle punts midway through this season when a teammate’s drop proved costly one game earlier.
“Going into college I wanted to do kick returns but I definitely didn’t want to do punt returns because I was scared,” Gipson admitted. “You know how high that ball goes up with the punters. It’s just so different than in high school. I didn’t think I was ready for it, but I guess when I got the chance I was.”
Was he ever.
The Warriors sophomore earned honorable mention All-Middle Atlantic Conference honors this year for his return prowess. Gipson led the conference with 728 combined return yards, good for 15th in NCAA Division III. He finished sixth in the MAC with a 19.8 kickoff average (on 22 returns), and led the MAC and finished ninth in Division III with a 14.6 yard punt average (on 20 returns).
Turns out it took exactly one return for his fears to subside.
“The first time they actually put me in at a punt return I was scared out of my mind,” Gipson said. “But once I got in and took my first one back for maybe 30 yards, I started getting more confidence. I actually enjoy punt return a lot more now. It’s one of my favorite times of the game because I can flip the field and really give my offense momentum.”
If Gipson did have fears, Lycoming special teams coach Tim Landis never saw them.
“Dante has great hands and is very good at tracking the ball on punts and kickoffs,” Landis said. “However, what makes him really special is that he is fearless back there. We have a goal in Special Teams to field all catchable balls and he does that. It is not likely he will fair catch a punt; he’s going to return it. He has the ability to change direction and accelerates very quickly.”
Gipson returned kickoffs for Bordentown but never punts.
“I liked doing them in high school,” he said. “I didn’t have the success I’m having in college, but it’s still fun.”
As a Lycoming freshman, he returned three kicks for 49 yards and saw time on offense as well. This year he saw more time offensively and became the Warriors main return man – when opponents let him.
“Teams began to kick away from him late in the season, so his numbers there are misleading,” Landis pointed out.
For kickoffs, Gipson’s strategy is nothing fancy.
“Coach Landis always stresses hard, straight and fast,” Gipson said. “Just go as fast as you can and hit that hole hard because it will close really quick. For punt returns there’s so much more speed and so many more decisions to make. But both are fun.”
During punts, as he stands alone at the far end of the field, Gipson begins to concentrate on the task at hand.
“Before the ball is snapped I just calm my head, take deep breaths so I can focus on the ball,” he said.
Then comes the decision of whether or not to field the ball.
“I like to have a lot of space,” he said. “If a defender gives me at least five yards, I’m not fair catching it. Sometimes they try to do whatever they can to make me drop the ball, yelling and stuff. I just do whatever I can to keep my head straight.”
Once he makes the ball his own, the show starts.
“I’ll make a quick move; as quick as possible,” Gipson said. “As soon as it gets in my hands it’s just instincts from that point on. Usually we have a set up return for where to go, but if that breaks down I just make anything happen that I can.”
He made enough happen to become an All-Conference performer, although Gipson hoped he might have been on a higher team.
“It was a good surprise,” he said. “But I felt like I did good enough and probably should have gotten first team, but there’s always next year. Plus, I only started doing it about halfway through the season for punt returns.”
It’s important to note that Gipson is more than just a return man. As a freshman he rushed for 240 yards and caught 18 passes for 154 yards and a touchdown. This season, he rushed for 297 yards and two TDs, and caught 37 passes for 352 yards and two TDs. Those totals helped place him third in all-purpose yards in the MAC this year.
“Dante had a great sophomore season for us,” Landis said. “He can do so many things, both as a runner and a pass catcher out of the backfield. He is very elusive and rarely goes down after the initial hit. He also has great hands so he was very dangerous as a pass catcher.”
Those words make Gipson smile, as he wants to be a full-time contributor.
“I like to view myself as kind of a dual threat,” he said. “I’ve been improving on my running ability. I’m more of a running back but I can also catch the ball. Sometimes I can be out there in the slot or out wide to catch some quick screens and get into space.”
However Gipson is used, Landis feels fortunate to have him for two more years.
“Dante is a great young man to be around and coach,” he said. “He loves football and is very competitive. I’ve really enjoyed coaching him.”