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Chris Murphy, Published October 03 2012

Barnesville punt return on a prolific pace

Barnesville, Minn. - Devin Hester – arguably the greatest special teams player of all time – once said seeing an opening on a return was like the “the gates of heaven” opening up for him.

Barnesville punt returner Michael Strand does not look for a beaming light from above when returning a punt. He keeps it simple.

“I look for blockers,” Strand said.

Strand also had a simple explanation as to why a punt return was harder than a regular touchdown.

“Well, you have 11 guys sprinting as hard as they can at you,” Strand said. “That’s not easy.”

His answers might be simple, but there’s nothing plain about helping lead a team to a 5-0 start and a No. 5 ranking in Class 2A, while eyeing the Minnesota high school record books.

Strand has returned five punts for touchdowns in his career.

The record for punt return touchdowns for a career goes back nearly five decades, as Bob Nelson’s nine touchdowns with Starbuck from 1965 to 1967 remains the number to beat.

Last season, Strand compiled 544 yards on punt returns for a 26.3 yards-per-return average.

Dominique Sims’ 749 punt return yards in 1999 is a record for a single season.

Strand’s 544 yards put him second all time for punt returns in a season, his 26.3 career average puts him fourth, his five career touchdowns put him in a tie for fourth all time, and no punt returner has scored more than two touchdowns in a game, as he did versus United North Central last season.

Only a junior, Strand has a whole season left to break the career touchdown record.

“It would mean a lot to me and my teammates to break the record,” Strand said.

Although Strand has simplistic views on returning punts, it takes a special kind of player to play special teams.

“There’s guys that are going to embrace it,” Barnesville special teams coach Phil Trowbridge said. “You need guys that are willing to run through a wall and be fearless. They can produce such a momentum shift. You can take all the momentum and you can demoralize a team with special teams.

“Strand is pretty fearless. He’ll pick the ball up even with a guy breathing down his neck. You can scheme all you want, but if you have a guy who is a great athlete back there, he’s going to make you look good even if you didn’t do things right.”

The man who puts Strand in the position of looking up at a ball while 11 guys sprint at him is his dad and Barnesville head coach, Bryan Strand.

“Every time we receive a punt, we expect to score,” Bryan said. “(Michael) has always been really fast and he has great feet.”

Considering Barnesville averages nearly 48 points a game, the team knows how to score, but special teams has flourished in recent years, as the Trojans have scored seven touchdowns on punt returns, two touchdowns on kickoff returns, nine turnovers on kicks, 14 blocked kicks and four safeties since 2010. The practice time has paid off.

“We work on special teams between 20 and 25 minutes a day because we look at it as an opportunity to score,” Bryan said. “It gets the team jacked up and excited. They are game changers.”

Even when teams change their game to stop the game changers, it doesn’t work against Michael.

“I had a 75-yard return against Browerville that was good,” Michael said. “They tried to kick away from me, but I got it, juked three guys and one kid on my team got tackled by five kids because they thought it was me. I came out of the pile and started sprinting.”

Nothing simple about that.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Chris Murphy at (701) 241-5548