In his rookie season in 2009, seventh-round draft choice LaRod Stephens-Howling made the Arizona Cardinals' 53-man roster largely because of his ability to return kickoffs. In his 11th NFL game, he returned one 99 yards for a touchdown and was named NFC special teams player of the week.
The next season he returned two more kickoffs for touchdowns and led the league in kickoff return yards. An elite special-teams player was born.
Then the NFL changed the rules and the game for players such as Stephens-Howling.
In an effort to reduce the number of injuries on kickoff returns, when some of the most violent collisions in the game take place, the league moved kickoffs up from the 30 to the 35. That increased the number of touchbacks and reduced the number of opportunities for kick returners to make an impact.
"It's frustrating," said Stephens-Howling, who was signed by the Steelers in the spring. "That was part of my value for a while. It was good to be a kick returner. But now that the rule has changed, you have to adjust. Life is about changes so you have to find other ways to make it happen."
Stephens-Howling was lucky to come into the league when he did. He parlayed his special-teams success into opportunities in the Arizona offense. He developed into a dependable third-down back and led the Cardinals in rushing in 2012. But he wouldn't have been able to accomplish that if he didn't first get his foot in the door as kickoff returner.
Players with his skill set who are trying to break into the league now might not get the same opportunity. NFL coaches know the chances of getting a big play out of the kickoff return game is much less likely to happen now.
All they have to do is look at Stephens-Howling. He had 109 kickoff returns in his first two seasons in 2009 and 2010 and produced three touchdowns. In 2011 and 2012, under the new rules, he only returned 54 kicks and did not score.
"I'm glad I came into the league when kick returning was the way it used to be," he said. "But at the same time, you have to find your way. It's an adjustment. It's not said that there won't be any more kickoff returns. Guys have done it. You can definitely make it happen. It's just not as easy as it used to be."
Undrafted rookie free agent Reggie Dunn's best asset is his ability to return kickoffs. With sub-4.3 speed in the 40-yard dash, Dunn set an NCAA record for most kickoff returns of 100 yards or more in a season (four) and career (five) at the University of Utah.
Getting opportunities to showcase his abilities in NFL preseason games won't be easy. In the first preseason game against the Giants, Dunn did not field a kick. The Steelers returned two kickoffs and watched two others go for touchbacks, which is about the league norm. About 50 percent of all kickoffs have been touchbacks since the new rule came into effect in 2011.
In 2010, the final season with kickoffs at the 30, only 20 percent of kickoffs went for touchbacks.
"The main reason I made it to the NFL and have the opportunity to play in the NFL is because of what I was able to do as a kick returner," Dunn said. "It's a little disappointing that they changed the rule. Most of the kicks go back out of the end zone, or go deep where you can't return them and you just make the smart decision not to take them out. It's unfortunate, but if I do get an opportunity, I try to make the best of it."
Dunn has been trying to increase his value at training camp by returning punts and working at receiver. But those are two jobs he is learning on the fly. He only had 31 career receptions at Utah and did not return punts for the Utes.
"I think I've done pretty well for someone who never did it in college," Dunn said of his work as a punt returner in camp. "I almost broke one last game."
Dunn returned two punts for 23 yards against the Giants, including one for 19 yards.
But it is on kickoff returns where he grabs the most attention. At training camp practices at Chuck Noll Field in Latrobe, Dunn got some of the loudest cheers when he broke through the wedge and flashed that elite speed.
Dunn hopes to finally get an opportunity to dazzle in a game tonight when the Steelers visit the Washington Redskins in the second preseason contest. But he knows the odds are just as good he'll watch helplessly as the ball flies out of his reach through the back of the end zone.
Ray Fittipaldo: email@example.com and Twitter @rayfitt1. First Published August 19, 2013 4:00 AM