Aug 19, 2023

Warriors find a return weapon in the hands of Stone

JAMM AQUINO/[email protected]

Hawaii cornerback Cam Stone (0).

As afternoon turned into twilight, Cam Stone calmly caught sky punt after sky punt during a recent Hawaii football practice.

Sometimes on-rushing teammates would yell as they approached. Stone ignored the noise.

“I actually think it’s harder to catch punts in practice than in the game,” Stone said. “Everything in the game seems slower.”

In UH’s road loss on Saturday, there was a short middle-of-the-field kickoff that was returned 97 yards for a Vanderbilt touchdown and a high snap that led to a zero-yard punt. “Correctable,” special teams coordinator Thomas Sheffield said. “There weren’t many highlights to special teams play the other night, but the one highlight was Cam.”

In returning kicks, the goal is to reach at least the 25, the automatic starting point for a fair catch or touchback. “My team did a really good job through that first level, just making holes for me to see,” said Stone, whose four kickoff returns gave the Warriors an average starting spot at the 29. “It was really easy for me to get past the 25.”

Last year, the Warriors had two kickoff returns of at least 25 yards. On Saturday, two of Stone’s returns covered 30 and 28 yards. “We’ve already matched (the number of 25-plus-yard returns),” Sheffield said. “It’s because of him. We put so much emphasis on fixing technique and fundamentals with the front-line blockers and making sure the right personnel is on the field. He has a lot of confidence with the guys who are blocking for him. It’s a positive.”

Of Vanderbilt’s three punts, two were touchbacks and one Stone fair caught in traffic at the UH 33 late in the second quarter.

“The biggest thing,” Sheffield said of Stone’s punt catching, “is he doesn’t have a lot of fear. You’re looking up. You don’t know what’s going on. On kick returns, you have more space. On punt returns, space isn’t promised to you.”

On returning punts, Stone said, “That’s for grown men, they say. That’s a risky job. But I accept the challenge.”

“It takes testicular fortitude,” Sheffield said. “I don’t know how else to put it. It’s a little bit mental and physical.”

During punt-return drills, Stone has to deal with Ben Falck’s towering kicks, the Manoa mist, and fickle wind. “Ben gives a great look,” said Stone, who transferred from Wyoming in January. “We don’t see much punts like that (in a game). If you can catch him, you can catch everyone in the conference.”

Sheffield also cranks up the JUGS machine. On Monday, the JUGS launched footballs with a six-second hang time. The average hang time in college football is between 4.0 and 4.2 seconds per punt.

“We try to give him some really difficult ones,” Sheffield said.

Stone said: “Coming out here with Sheff, getting extra punts in, he does a great job making sure I’m on top of that. You can never catch too many punts. … When the ball’s up in the air, all I can think about is catching it. That’s rule No. 1, 2 and 3 for me.”

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