Q&A: Desmond Howard Talks CFP Championship, Michigan, and His Iconic Punt Return

Desmond Howard is a former wide receiver and return specialist who had a standout college career at Michigan and played 11 seasons in the NFL. He won the 1991 Heisman Trophy and Super Bowl XXI MVP, and Michigan retired his No. 21 in 2015.

Since 2005, he has been an analyst for ESPN’s “College GameDay.” He and the “GameDay” team will be in Indianapolis for Monday’s CFP National Championship, and Howard has also teamed up with Modelo for the company’s CFP Fighting Spirit Sweepstakes.

Sports Section sat down with Howard to talk about Monday’s game, his career at Michigan, and that legendary punt return.

As many expected, it’s Alabama and Georgia in the CFP National Championship. Bama clearly dominated the first time around — how is this matchup different?

That is the million dollar question. Georgia’s approach defensively — the way they try to attack Bryce Young in that offense — will be different.

Don’t forget now, going into the SEC Championship Game, Alabama had John Metchie III. With Metchie on one side and Jameson Williams on the other, that creates a huge issue defensively. You’re just trying to figure out, “How am I going to defend these two?” And Metchie was like that piece that you never knew where he was going to line up. And so I think that created some issues, defensively, for Georgia, where they weren’t comfortable pressuring Young, because at that point, you’re putting the weakest part of your defense, your secondary, in harm’s way.

Now, that may not be such a concern because Metchie’s out. Don’t get me wrong — Alabama has other players on offense who can hurt you — but none as productive and explosive as Metchie. And who are as proven. I think that Georgia were hesitant about rushing more than four then, while I think you’ll see Georgia bring pressure packages of five and six players and make sure that Young feels their presence, even if they don’t tackle him or sack him.

Bryce Young is definitely a special player, and just joined the Heisman brotherhood. What do you like about his game?

What jumps out is that he’s such a cool, calm character under pressure. He just doesn’t seem to get rattled. I guess you can attribute that to his dad, who I think is some sort of mental health coach, something of that magnitude. So he has access to that, and it shows.

I mean, he didn’t get rattled in the Auburn game. Offensively, they were not productive at all, but when they needed it the most, he just went out there for that 90+-yard drive and handled his business in the four overtimes to win that game. He’s just always appeared that way. You could talk about how a person is never too high, never too low.

For a first-year starter, he’s incredibly calm and poised in most, if not all situations. In the run-pass option — I did a tape about his RPOs and just the way he processes information, it’s very quickly, and then he gets the ball out of his hands very fast, too.

He’s the second player in a row to win the Heisman for Alabama. Devonta Smith was the first receiver to win the award since you did. Do you see any similarities in your games?

You know, it’s really hard to say because he has just like a completely different offense. You know what I mean? When I played, this was like the early ‘90s. This is Michigan. We’re still coming out of the Bo Schembechler era, which was three yards and a cloud of dust. The small amount of times I did get a chance or opportunity to touch the ball, I made something happen.

Nowadays, these guys get a bunch of targets. It’s like night and day. They may get anywhere from 15 and 18 to 20 targets a game, and we may have gotten like eight, maybe nine. The game has changed a lot.

I was surprised that he went back there and returned the punt for a touchdown. I tell you what we do have in common: Devonta was like a quiet leader, but he had a lot of dog in him, and I was the same. I wasn’t like a rah-rah guy, but my teammates knew I had a lot of dog in me. So we had that similar trait, as far as our competitive spirit is concerned.

At Michigan, you and Charles Woodson won the Heisman six years apart. You played on opposite sides of the ball, but you both also returned kicks and punts. How did the program enable you both to excel in both positions? And what was going on in that special teams room?

[Laughs] I think that special teams-wise, we had a lot of pride, whether it’s the return game or the coverage game. Coaches normally make a point of emphasis on the special teams when you have somebody who’s a game-breaker. So when you’ve got somebody who’s a special talent returning the kicks, they make no bones about it — that this is a unit that can change the game in the blink of an eye. And I think with that being said, the guys that are part of the units, they understood that, too. With that mindset, we were able to do some special things.

One of the special things you did was the punt return against Ohio State — and the Heisman pose, one of college football’s all-time great moments. Did you realize just how big that would be?

No, not at all. I’m just a kid, man, born and raised in Cleveland. So I’m all too familiar with the rivalry, it’s the biggest in all of sports. And I was just trying to do something that day to help us win the game. And then once I crossed the goal line, I wanted to do something special just for that moment. And I just did it, it was spontaneous. It was like a blink of an eye.

But you know, photography — it’s still etched in time because of the picture. But I never realized at the time how significant it would be and how long that thing would live. So it’s truly humbling to see it still have the life that it has and that people recognize it. They appreciate it. They celebrate it. It’s very humbling to me to notice all of that.

For the 30th anniversary of the punt return, there’s a special promotion that Modelo is doing. What does that entail?

Oh man, I’m so excited about this. I’m pleased as punch that they’ve chosen to celebrate this anniversary by giving 300 fans free beer for the 2022 season, if — if, now — there’s a punt return Monday night in the national championship game for a touchdown. So, I love that tie-in. It’s really about Modelo celebrating the fighting spirit of college football, of the fans, of the team. It’s wonderful that they’re doing this, and I’m just honored to be a part of it and still be able to see that punt return. Hopefully they’ll run it a couple of times Monday night, you know, so we can see and appreciate and celebrate it some more.

Even if there isn’t a punt return for a touchdown, Modelo is still going to award a lucky fan two tickets to LA for the [2023] national championship game. So that’s pretty cool. To enter the sweepstakes, you need to tweet at Modelo with the hashtags ​​#CFPFightingSpiritSweepstakes and #21+.

Let me put you on the spot for a second. Who’s winning on Monday, and what’s the score?

Ah Doug, you know I don’t do that until game day, my friend. But I appreciate you asking the question. But now you have to tune in to “College GameDay” Monday, and then you’ll get that answer. But I appreciate you asking.

Doug Greenberg is a writer and multimedia producer who has done various work for VSiN, Premier Lacrosse League, Big Ten Network, and Stadium before writing for Sports Section. You can reach out to Doug at doug@fos.company or on Twitter: @DougGreenberg.