Missouri Western returner Trey Vaval brings out a kickoff during the Live United Bowl against Henderson State at Razorback Stadium in Texarkana, Arkansas.

Year-in and year-out, Matt Williamson makes sure his emphasis on special teams is known, and it shows.

Missouri Western has established itself as one of the better special teams units in the nation and have the potential to do so again, especially when it comes to the return game.

In 2019, the Griffons ranked first in the nation in kickoff returns and were fifth in punt returns, largely in part to Trey Vaval, who was an All-American returner as a freshman.

Vaval averaged 34 yards per kickoff return on 26 attempts, scoring twice on returns of 91 and 85 yards. As teams avoided kicking to him in the latter half of the season, he earned just eight return attempts in the final five games.

Vaval also averaged 21 yards per punt return, nearly scoring multiple times.

The sophomore from Blue Springs, Missouri, capped his first year as the Live United Bowl MVP with seven total returns for 225 yards. He was named an AFCA All-American and was the Don Hansen Super Region Three Co-Freshman of the Year.

Against Central Oklahoma last fall, Vaval opened the game with a 66-yard return.

If teams continue to avoid giving him return opportunities in 2021, the Griffons have other options to go to. Cooper Burton returned two kicks in 2019, which included a 77-yard touchdown. Freshman Brandon Hall also showed flashes in exhibitions last fall on three kickoff returns and one punt return, while Jonas Bennett will factor into the return game, too.

“I didn’t think there was any way Henderson (State) would kick to (Vaval), punt or kickoff, but they did in that game. We’ll let him go,” Williamson said. “Jonas Bennett and Brandon Hall are a couple other returners that will be out there. We’ll do a dual return for punt and kickoff. Brandon Hall will be starting there, and he’s a pretty elite returner, too. They’re gonna have to kick somebody or sky kick it.”

Western will enter the year with two options at kicker in Thomas Kopcho and Cody Watson.

Jack Rasmussen will take over the punting duties with the graduation of Luke Theis. Rasmussen averaged 37 yards on four punts in 2018 and redshirted in ‘19. Sixteen of his 39 punts were inside the 20 at Glendale CC prior to joining the Griffons.

He punted 16 times for an average of 38 yards, with five returns for a total of nine yards.

Western’s punt defense ranked second in the nation in punt return defense. Just 10 of 50 punts were returned by opponents, and they amounted to just one total yard the whole season. Western ranked 27th in the nation and third in the MIAA in net punting.

The Griffons were fifth in the MIAA in kickoff defense in ‘19, allowing 18 yards per return.

Brandon Zenner can be reached at brandon.zenner@newspressnow.com. Follow him on Twitter: @NPNowZenner.

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