The 2023 FCS football season is only a couple of months away now which means it’s time to start taking a look at the top returning playmakers on all sides of the ball. On special teams the subdivision will again be chock-full of talent from kickers and punters to return men. These 20, however, are the best of the best going into this season.
20. Austin Dunlap, P - Southeastern Louisiana
Punter Austin Dunlap has been the steady hand for the Lions special teams unit for four years now and is looking to end his college career on a high note in 2023. Last fall he averaged 43.5 yards per punt and racked up a total 2,304 yards off his foot. Dunlap only has 11 touchbacks on his entire career dating back to 2019 and he’s played 44 games during that span. His efforts a season ago earned him several accolades including a spot on the All-Southland Conference first team. He was also a national semifinalist for the FCS Punter of the Year Award. Dunlap is poised to have another spectacular year if he stays healthy.
19. Mason Gudger, KR - Georgetown
Georgetown return man Mason Gudger may have only fielded 13 kicks as a freshman last year but he made the most of them. Averaging 28 yards per runback, Gudger ran up 364 yards and broke away for two scores (both in the same game). While he will likely see a good amount of action on offense, Gudger is expected to again make an impact on special teams this year as well. Kick coverage units around the Patriot League could be in for a tall order when playing the Hoyas.
18. Jack Culbreath, P - VMI
As of late VMI football hasn’t had much to write home about but if there’s one bright spot it’s certainly punter Jack Culbreath. During his three-year career with the Keydets so far, Culbreath has punted away 60 times and averages 42.6 yards per kick. Impressively, nearly half of those punts he’s downed inside the opponent’s 20-yard line and last season alone he had 13 that went for more than 50 yards. A 2022 All-SoCon First-Team selection, Culbreath also handled kickoff duties last season. He averaged 60.3 yards per kickoff and forced opponents to fair catch 15 times.
17. Marqui Johnson, KR - Montana State
Montana State found something special last year in Sac State transfer Marqui Johnson. The speedster had a breakout season on offense but really found his footing on special teams. He fielded 28 kickoffs last year and piled up 874 return yards (third best in the FCS) finding the end zone once on a 98-yard return against Oregon State. Johnson averaged 31.2 yards per runback in 2022 and put up several big performances in the return game. Now a junior, he is back for what shapes up to be another big season with the Bobcats.
16. Chaunzavia Lewis, PR - Texas Southern
Texas Southern got a big boost on special teams last fall from then-freshman punt returner Chaunzavia Lewis. Finishing second in the entire FCS with 213 punt return yards, Lewis averaged 16.4 yards per runback. The Monroe, LA product also notched a touchdown on a 73-yard return against Alcorn State and landed on the 2022 HERO Sports FCS Freshman All-American team. Lewis also got voted in as a member of the SWAC’s Second-Team Special Teams unit. Last season was a great springboard for what shapes up to be an even better sophomore campaign for the electric Lewis.
15. Braedon Sloan, KR - Eastern Kentucky
EKU made a much-awaited return to the playoffs last year thanks in large part to playmakers like Braedon Sloan. The dynamic junior helped the Colonels greatly on offense but on special teams as well. He fielded 15 kickoffs in 2022 for an average of 32.3 yards per return. Sloan did not score any touchdowns as a specialist last year but did rack up 484 return yards. His career long runback went for 69 yards in Eastern Kentucky's playoff game against Gardner-Webb. Sloan is a weapon in several ways so don't be surprised if the team uses him heavily on special teams again in 2023.
14. Adrian Olivo, K - North Carolina Central
The Eagles had a season to remember last year and their standout kicker was a big part of it. Adrian Olivo drilled 13 of his 15 field goal tries last fall as well as 51 of his 54 extra points. Olivo’s stellar season not only helped NC Central win its first ever Celebration Bowl but also earned him a First-Team All-MEAC selection for a second consecutive year. Olivo has a career field goal percentage of 85% (34-of-40) and has been responsible for scoring 199 points since joining the team in 2019. Going into his senior campaign this fall, Olivo shapes up to be one of the best kickers in the country once more.
13. Darnell Deas, KR - Bethune-Cookman
Kicking to Bethune-Cookman’s Darnell Deas has been a dangerous game as of late and probably will be again in 2023. In his two-year career with the Wildcats, Deas has already taken four kickoffs back for touchdowns, two of which came last season. The speedy return man has also rung up well over 1,000 yards already and averages 58.1 yards per game when he’s fielding kicks. Deas finished as the SWAC’s First-Team return specialist last fall and is primed for another sensational year.
12. Richard McCollum, K - Western Carolina
Western Carolina’s Richard McCollum is 95 points shy of the program’s scoring record, a mark that’s certainly within reach for the standout kicker. McCollum, who has been with the Catamounts since 2018, has only missed two field goals over the last two seasons (29-of-31) and has a career-long kick of 45-yards. He made 40 of his 41 PATs last season as well. McCollum had several highlights from a year ago including a perfect 4-for-4 day against Samford and hitting a 33-yard game winner against ETSU. He was named the SoCon’s special teams player of the week three times in 2022. McCollum will again be the reliable leg for WCU this year.
11. Junior Bergen, PR - Montana
Montana often prides itself on its special teams play and the gem of its unit this year will likely be dynamic return man Junior Bergen. Last season as a sophomore Bergen led the FCS with 327 punt return yards and was one of just five players in the nation to score two touchdowns. With a career average of 16.9 yards per runback, he’s one of the more lethal returners in the country and for a team that just said goodbye to a generational talent with Malik Flowers, Bergen’s presence can’t be overstated. Expect opposing teams to boot it away from him whenever possible this fall. When he does have the ball, however, watch out.
10. Grant Burkett, P - Missouri State
Grant Burkett is currently one of the best punters in the game. Last year his 43.2-yard punting average ranked best in the Missouri Valley Conference as he totaled over 2,000 punt yards. Of Burkett’s 48 boots last season, 22 were fair caught and 11 went for 50 or more yards. He was an AP All-American and his efforts landed him on the 2022 FCS Punter of the Year watchlist. Burkett is back for his junior campaign with the Bears and should again be a major weapon in the field position game.
9. Garrison Smith, K - McNeese
Garrison Smith’s accuracy on kicks last season was unmatched by much of the nation. The McNeese kicker had a tremendous freshman run, making 10 of 11 field goal attempts, good for a percentage of 90.9%. He was one of only two freshman to be named First-Team All-Southland in 2022 and he also earned a spot on the HERO Sports Freshman All-American team. Smith now enters year two with lofty expectations with the Cowboys but if last fall was any indication, he’ll surely be able to meet those expectations head on.
8. Chris Campos, K - Stephen F. Austin
SFA kicker Chris Campos has ice in his veins in the games biggest moments. Last year the then-sophomore drilled a career-long 51-yard field goal to lift the Lumberjacks over Abilene Christian as time expired. The Nacogdoches native has made 120 of his 122 career PATs and is currently second in the entire FCS with 51 made field goals. Last season alone he connected on 18 (24 attempts) and had six games in which he made two or more field goals. Campos also showed off his leg on kickoffs, averaging nearly 60 yards per kick and sending five through the end zone for touchbacks.
7. Keith Jenkins Jr, KR - Morgan State
Keith Jenkins Jr. rose onto the scene as a freshman for Morgan State in 2022. The electrifying return man out of Gainesville, VA put up fantastic numbers for the Bears and earned himself All-MEAC honors because of it. He found the end zone twice and averaged 29.4 yards per return (sixth best in the FCS). Jenkins accumulated 618 yards and was best in the conference in average, yards and total number of returns. Now entering his sophomore season, expect Jenkins to only go up from here.
6. Ryan Kost, P - Delaware
One of Delaware’s biggest offseason acquisitions this year was punter Ryan Kost. Coming over from CAA-rival Monmouth, Kost brings with him quite the pedigree. A First-Teal All-Conference selection in 2022, he averaged nearly 50 yards per punt and had a career-long boot against Rhode Island that went 71 yards. Kost has 39 games of experience under his belt going back to the 2019 season and has 35 punts of at least 50 yards on his career. Now in his final season Kost will look to elevate the Blue Hens special teams and help Delaware return to the playoffs.
5. Devron Harper, KR/PR - Mercer
Devron Harper is a scoring threat anytime he gets a touch whether it be offense or special teams. Mercer’s explosive senior has five return touchdowns on his impressive career (thee punt, two kickoff) two of which came in 2022. Last season he averaged just under 30 yards per kick return (18) and ran up 523 total yards. While at Gardner-Webb in the spring of 2021, Harper earned himself a spot on the Stats Perform FCS All-American team as a punt returner. The Bears will undoubtedly again use Harper heavily on kicks this season and he will certainly be a game-changer.
4. Trey Wilhoit, P - Florida A&M
One of the best punters in the country last year was Trey Wilhoit who is a new member of Florida A&M after transferring in from Eastern Illinois. As a sophomore in 2022 Wilhoit led the Ohio Valley in punting average (44.0) and was justly given First-Team All-Conference accolades. He was also named a semifinalist for the FCS’ Punter of the Year award. Wilhoit booted the ball away 52 times last year and racked up a total of 2,288 punt yards. His efforts earned him the OVC’s Special Teams Player of the Week recognition three times. Now he takes his talents to the Rattlers where he again shapes up to be one of the best punters in the FCS.
3. Matthew Cook, K - Northern Iowa
Northern Iowa’s Matthew Cook is a game changer when it comes to kicking and he has been for a while. The hometown Cedar Falls kid will be entering his final season with UNI this fall and is looking to put an impressive cap on a career that’s seen him hit 67 field goals (Cook is the current FCS active leader in this category). Last year he put up a percentage of 82.4% on his field goal tries (14-of-17) and nailed 45 PATs. His career long is 55 yards meaning that he can hit it from essentially anywhere inside the 40-yard line. Cook has scored 325 total points for the Panthers during his four years and should again be one of the top placekickers in 2023.
2. Ethan Gettman, K/P - Bryant
The top kicker in the FCS right now resides in Smithfield, Rhode Island as Bryant’s Ethan Gettman is coming off a year to remember. Last fall he connected on 14 of his 15 field goal tries giving him a percentage of 93.3%, the best mark in the country. Gettman earned the 2022 Fred Mitchell Award, given yearly to the FCS’ best placekicker. He was a perfect four-for-four on field goal attempts from 40+ yards. Gettman, now a senior, has also served as the Bulldogs punter and has a career long boot of 82 yards. He has 51 punts under his belt for a total of 1,872 yards. All around there is no stronger leg in the nation currently than Gettman’s.
1. Abraham Williams, KR - Weber State
There is no player in the country more dangerous with the ball in his hands than Weber State’s Abraham Williams. The electrifying return man is coming into his junior season and made opposing teams look silly on kickoffs last year as he racked up 898 yards on runbacks. Not only did Williams average 37.4 yards per return in 2022 (the best mark in the FCS) he also scored four touchdowns putting him just one shy of the subdivision’s single-season record. Impressively, each of those scores was a true house call, going 100 yards in length. Kicking to Williams is a death sentence most of the time and squads this fall would be wise to avoid doing it.