By Jake Knabel, Sports Information Director
NOTE: The following feature first appeared in Concordia University’s winter edition of the Broadcaster (see spread at right).
Derek Blessing had not returned a punt since his sophomore year as a prep at Ogallala High School in western Nebraska. So when head coach Vance Winter approached the junior before practice this spring about taking over the hazardous role as a returner, Blessing hesitated.
“Kickoff’s great, but punt returns I’m a little nervous about,” Blessing told his coach. “In that first punt return against Benedictine, I can honestly say that I was pretty scared back there.”
Ironically, it would be opposing special teams units that appeared nervous when No. 21 trotted deep to receive punts. By the sixth game of the season, Briar Cliff didn’t seem to want any part of Blessing, repeatedly punting out of bounds for an average of 26.8 yards.
Blessing’s reputation as a return threat started in the opening game of the season. He raced 71 yards for a punt return touchdown late in the fourth quarter to give the Bulldogs a chance against then-No. 13 Benedictine on Aug. 25. The once-reluctant Blessing went on to return punts for touchdowns of 56 yards versus Dordt on Sept. 22 and 50 yards in the upset of then-No. 11 Northwestern on Oct. 13.
So, what’s it like to break away and return a punt to the house?
“It’s a feeling that I had never actually had in football before,” Blessing said. “I’ve scored before, I’ve had interceptions before, I’ve had success in other places before, but returning a punt for a touchdown is a special feeling. When you get out in that open field and look and see no guys, or one or two guys in front of you and know that you have a chance, you get excited.”
Among all collegiate punt returners in the NAIA and at all levels of the NCAA, only NCAA Division III Mount Union’s (Ohio) Chris Denton, who had four punt returns for touchdowns, took more punts to paydirt than Blessing. Blessing led the NAIA with 388 punt return yards on 21 attempts, giving him an eye-popping average of 18.5 yards per return.
Blessing’s success even made it into an opposing head coach’s game plan. “We held Derek Blessing to just 56 yards on punt and kick returns,” Nebraska Wesleyan head coach Brian Keller told the Lincoln Journal Star after the game. “That was a very big thing for us, because we were not going to let him beat us.”
Blessing, a student of the game with aspirations of becoming a football coach and teacher, understands how to be patient, how to set up blocks and also the need to get north-south quickly. Combine these traits with his solid speed and tenacity with the football and you get the type of player that forces opponents to spend extra time prepping to stop him.
“Punt returning is not an easy thing to do,” Concordia head football coach Vance Winter said. “You have to have the right personality. Derek is fearless. He maybe had some hesitancy early on in the year, but I like the way he attacked things. He has a mindset of just going out and making a play. He’s a huge weapon for us.”
Winter’s statement was underscored in the season’s signature victory versus Northwestern on homecoming. Behind Blessing, Concordia piled up 175 return yards compared to just seven for the Red Raiders. Special teams coordinator Corby Osten simply wanted someone who would reliably secure punts.
He has gotten that and a whole lot more from Blessing.
“Vision,” Osten replied when asked what attributes make Blessing a standout returner. “He sees the field. He’s physical and breaks a lot of arm tackles. You really have to square him up to tackle him.
“In the return against Northwestern he cut back across the field. He sees the field so well, he took an angle to help set up the blocks that allowed him to take it to the end zone.”
The transition to punt returner was not the only upheaval for Blessing during his career as a Bulldog. The coaching staff had also approached the former First Team All-State Nebraska high school star about a move from running back to cornerback. Blessing liked playing running back, but in his characteristic unselfish manner he agreed to make the change.
“He’s the epitome of an unselfish teammate,” Winter said. “He’s always putting team goals above individual goals. When we asked him to move he really saw how it was going to benefit the team.
“Derek is a class act all the way. He’s a great student, a great citizen off the field and just a really intense and tough football player.”
The two-time GPAC Special Teams Player of the Week has showcased a flair for making game-turning plays since high school. Blessing piled up 15 touchdowns as a senior and 15 interceptions for his career at Ogallala. With these credentials, Blessing had no shortage of potential college suitors. But one school quickly emerged above the rest.
“I came here, walked through the door and Coach Winter shook my hand. He knew me by name already.
“I felt it was a great place to go. It was definitely something that was in God’s plans for me, because I hadn’t considered it [before the visit]. All of the sudden here it was on the table and I just fell in love with it.”
Outside of football, the secondary education major spends plenty of time studying and hanging out with friends. “Just the normal stuff,” Blessing says.
It’s on the football field that Blessing is far from normal. Opposing GPAC special teams units beware.