BLACKSBURG – His first appearance as a college punt returner was nothing short of forgettable, but Virginia Tech's Dyrell Roberts isn't one to dwell on such details, especially when the initial experience might as well have been a lifetime ago.
In 2008, Roberts was given the chance to return punts in his first college game as a true freshman against East Carolina. He spent the afternoon in Charlotte's Bank of America Stadium watching punts roll around on the turf and treating them more like live grenades as opposed to opportunities to make a favorable first impression.
"I was kind of nervous," said Roberts, a Smithfield High graduate. "I think I let every single one of them hit the ground. I told everybody to get away from it."
After Tech's 27-22 loss to ECU, he never got a chance to return another punt. The duties shifted in '08 to former Tech player Victor Harris.
Nearly four years and two season-ending injuries later, Roberts isn't scared of much. Yes, he has misgivings about returning kickoffs – even though he's Tech's career leader in kickoff returning yardage with 1,577 – but he'll do it this coming season if it feels right.
In addition to his wide receiver duties, he's looking for new opportunities to get his hands on the ball. Another crack at returning punts might be in his future.
"(Punt returns) are a little different (than kickoff returns) because you've got to catch the ball and see all those people coming, but once you get it in your hands, you can use quick moves and go," said Roberts, who is working at punt returner this spring along with sophomore Kyshoen Jarrett. "I like the freedom of punt returns. It's going to take time for me to get used to it, but I like where I'm at right now."
During Tech's scrimmage on Saturday, Jarrett managed to find an opening on a punt return and was credited for 88 yards and a touchdown, even though the return was whistled dead at least 35 yards before he reached the end zone. Roberts didn't return any punts during the live scrimmage periods.
After breaking his left arm Sept. 17 last season in Tech's third game of the season, a 26-7 win against Arkansas State, Roberts was redshirted to preserve his final season of college eligibility.
The broken arm came on the heels of Roberts losing the last five games of the 2010 season due to compartment syndrome, a condition that resulted in emergency surgery to relieve pressure in his left thigh after sustaining the injury in a game against Georgia Tech.
"I was supposed to be out of here last year," said Roberts, who has 63 career catches for 965 yards and five touchdowns, and who is working with the first team offense this spring along with Marcus Davis to try to replace Jarrett Boykin and Danny Coale – only the two most prolific receivers in Tech history. "Everybody was thinking I was going to be gone and out of Tech after I broke my arm, but it seems like everything worked out."
Though Roberts admitted being tentative this winter when he first returned from his arm injury, he said he hasn't lost any of his speed, clocking a hand-time 40-yard dash of just over 4.3 seconds during winter conditioning drills.
Offensive coordinator Bryan Stinespring said he won't shy away from putting the ball in Roberts' hands. As a matter of fact, Stinespring wants to utilize him more, if Roberts is ready for it.
"We would like to be able to get the ball in Dyrell's hands as much as we can," said Stinespring, who added there are various packages in place to put Roberts in motion behind the line of scrimmage.
"I don't care how long you've played this game. I can't tell you it's like riding a bicycle. It's not. You just don't get right back on it. There's a lot of reps to get back into the feel of the game and the flow of the game and get his timing back. That's still part of it, but there's nobody working any harder to get it done than Dyrell."
Roberts said he had a meeting with coach Frank Beamer prior to spring practice to express his misgivings about returning kicks and a desire to "get away from it," but Roberts said he'd still do it if required. With so many chances to touch the ball potentially on the horizon, Roberts recalls a simpler time when he got about as many touches as he wanted.
"I feel like I'm in high school again," Roberts said. "I think the identity of our team has evolved…I like moving around and doing different things. I think it shows our versatility, and it can show that I'm back."Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times