FARGO — North Dakota State never posted a notice that it was looking for a player to return punts last year. That didn’t faze Jayden Price, who took it upon himself to start showing up before practice to try his hand at the trade.
Somewhere along the line, the coaching staff took notice and gave him a shot. Price’s attention-getting ploy worked.
“I just kind of made it a point to get there before everybody else in practice and just start catching them,” he said. “I made it a point to where I’m going to get that spot.”
He got that spot, and then some. Price returned a punt last week 45 yards for a touchdown and had a punt return TD in the season opener against Albany called back because of a penalty.
NDSU lost standout punt returner Trevor Heit after the 2019 unbeaten season, but has seen little falloff, if any, since then. Price returned a punt 85 yards for a touchdown last spring. When he can’t go, Braylon Henderson can.
Henderson returned a punt 76 yards for a touchdown in the spring FCS quarterfinal game against Sam Houston.
“Just the volume of returns maybe in a short window,” said head coach Matt Entz. “We’ve had good special teams players at NDSU, so it’s not the first time we’ve emphasized it. Our special teams play has been really good, we need to continue to lean on it.”
They lean on it with the all-around athlete. NDSU assistant coach Noah Pauley, who handles the returners, said oftentimes good baseball players, especially outfielders, make for good punt returners because they’re good at judging the ball in the air.
Not only did Price play baseball in Derby, Kan., but his brother Jarrett Price played baseball at Division II Newman University (Kan.).
Safety Dawson Weber, also a punt returner, was a standout outfielder in Elk Grove, Calif.
“Usually with punt returners, that’s one of the things you look for, guys that played baseball before,” Pauley said. “It’s easier for them to track the ball.”
Price averaged 20.0 yards per return in his six attempts last spring. If kickoff returner Christian Watson is an emphasis for opposing teams to avoid on that unit, sleeping on the punt returners is not advisable, either.
There was no conversation of Price returning punts when he was being recruited by NDSU. He was a quarterback at Mulvane High School who played defensive back his senior year in part because it would help his college profile. And while back there, he did return a few punts, but nothing of the touchdown variety.
“It’s a lot different than returning a kickoff,” Price said. “It took a lot to just know the nose of the ball and the angles and everything but I would be in before and after practice to know the flight of the ball.”
Make no mistake, he’s not giving up his day job as a starting cornerback. That takes most of his attention during the week. Entz said the decision as to who will receive the punt between Price and Henderson is more of an instinct.
Henderson prefers handling punts outdoors, an environment NDSU will play on Saturday when it travels to Towson University (Md.). Plus, if Price was on the field for several plays and appears tired, he’ll put Henderson or Weber on the return.
Price, however, appears to be the preferred choice.
“One thing Jayden has done a great job of is continuing to build confidence back there,” Pauley said. “He went from the spring season to where maybe he was a little reluctant to go after some of those punts to this year. Case in point was last week when he attacked one and brought it back for a touchdown.”