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There’s some insightful words said around Richmond football that underscore the value of a big play.
“Coach [Russ] Huesman and the other coaches always say, it’s going to be five or six plays that’s going to decide a game, and you never know when those are going to come,” said Spiders running back Aaron Dykes.
That mindset motivates Dykes to “take pride in everything” he does, “whether it’s pass-blocking for [quarterback] Joe [Mancuso], even run-blocking for one of the tailbacks,” or contributing on special teams.
And does he ever contribute on special teams.
Dykes returned two kickoffs for touchdowns in Richmond’s 35-25 defeat of Delaware, a signature win in the Spiders’ late-season push for the postseason. Richmond heads into the final month at 4-4, 3-1 in the Colonial Athletic Association with an opportunity to compete for the conference championship.
“Our motto right now is ‘Backs against the wall.’ Every game’s a playoff game,” Dykes said. “The next game could be the deciding factor of our season if we don’t keep stacking these wins.”
If five or six plays determines an outcome, Dykes locked up 40 percent of the win at Delaware. His two run-backs mark just the second time any player in the FCS went to the house twice in the same game, joining CAA counterpart Earnest Edwards of Maine.
For his efforts, Dykes earned FCS STATS National Special Teams Player of the Week.
The two-touchdown showing garnered Dykes plenty of kudos, but kickoff return is just one element of the redshirt freshman’s game. He’s rushed for 50-plus yards three times this season, and caught a pass in every game but one.
His breakout against Delaware had some foreshadowing in the form of 77 yards rushing and 40 receiving the week prior vs. Yale.
Dykes is settling in nicely, showing he’s “loose, relaxed” in the college game after getting his feet wet a season ago.
#FCS Plays of the Week 🏈— FCS Football (@NCAA_FCS) October 29, 2019
2️⃣ | Round of applause for Aaron Dykes 👏👏 He became the FIRST player in @SpiderFootball history to score ✌️ kickoff return touchdowns in one game and ties the NCAA FCS record. He returns one kickoff for 100-yards and one for 88-yards. pic.twitter.com/hU6fC73TwG
“He played four games for us with that new redshirt rule and returning kicks,” Huesman said. “He didn’t pop for a score, but he had some big-time returns. We knew coming into this year he could be good.”
The NCAA’s revised rule on redshirts, which now allows for Division I players to appear in any four games without exhausting any eligibility, has been a boon for a number of players. Dykes is one.
He said playing against “great competition” like James Madison and Delaware taught him game speed, easing his learning curve considerably for the first, full season. Those outings also acclimated Dykes to kick returning, a phase of the game in which he was brand new.
“My first time returning kicks was when I got to Richmond,” he said. “I was kind of surprised, I never thought I was much of a returner. I don’t have the blazing speed of a lot of guys who return kicks. I’m always comfortable back there, but I never did it in high school, and I didn’t expect to here.”
What the Spiders coaching staff saw in Dykes proved prescient. Huesman credited the redshirt freshman’s elusiveness for his success on special teams, and both the coach and Dykes laud Richmond’s blocking.
No surprise here, but @dykes_aaron is @CAAFootball Special Teams Player of the Week!— Richmond Football (@SpiderFootball) October 28, 2019
2️⃣kickoff return touchdowns in same game, tying @NCAA_FCS record
2️⃣2️⃣6️⃣KO return yards, setting school record
1️⃣big 🕷win over No. 19 Delaware #OneRichmond pic.twitter.com/orZcbeMvuz
“That second one, there was no one to touch me," Dykes said of the Delaware game. "[The blockers] covered every man up, and I just ran straight on that. I really appreciate that. I trust those guys to block, and they trust me to take care of the ball when it’s in my hands.”
Adjusting to the game speed as a freshman can be cumbersome. Adjusting to the speed of college football as a first-timer in the game’s most frenetic phase may seem downright nerve-racking.
Dykes said he relished the “challenge” of doing so, and credits training his eyes to spot and attack seams in the coverage.
The only time the kick return process is at all tense, he said, are on short kicks — those that travel “between the 10-and-15-yard line.”
“I’m running at them at full speed, I’m looking up when I catch it and I really don’t know where anybody is at that point.”
That’s where great blocking helps. The first return at Delaware went the distance from goal line-to-goal line, 100 yards. The second traveled to the 12-yard, right in that difficult zone.
With lanes opened up from his blockers, Dykes capitalized on the pathway to the end zone. One of those five or six plays that can decide a game, scored with emphasis.