TAMPA — Before USF’s Brian Battie explained how he leads the nation with three 100-yard kickoff returns for touchdowns, he dropped an intriguing fact.
He has played the entire season with a chipped bone in his right foot.
“It’s basically a broken bone,” Battie, a sophomore running back with freshman eligibility, said Wednesday.
The bone is chipped around his big right toe and the ball of his foot, and will require surgery after the season, Battie said.
Until then, he’s icing it to keep down the swelling and then going out and running so fast that defenders often fail to touch him. On his three touchdown returns, in fact, no one laid a finger on him.
Does the foot hurt? “Yeah it hurts,” Battie said, grinning. “But that’s okay. It’s not slowing me down too much.”
Battie — who said he was clocked at 4.4 seconds the last time he was timed in the 40-yard dash as a junior at Braden River High — believes he can run even faster once he gets the foot back to full strength.
No doubt a troubling notion to opponents, considering Battie not only leads the nation with three 100-yard kickoff returns but ranks second with an average of 36.3 yards on his 15 returns.
Battie, who returned only two kickoffs in high school, including one for a touchdown, said he never really appreciated the value of special teams until he started working with USF assistant Daniel Da Prato.
“He sat down and was real with me,” Battie said. “He told me I could make a big impact on special teams. ... Now I take so much pride in it, maybe more than anybody on the team.”
When a kickoff is sailing toward him, Battie said his only thought is on securing the ball. He’s not worried about the crowd noise or the players rushing toward him. Once he’s got the ball in his hands, he assesses what’s coming at him and makes a quick decision, knowing where the hole is supposed to open.
“The better you know where your teammates are going to go, the easier it is to see things,” he said. “And even if you don’t see it at that moment, you know what’s going to happen because you know what your teammates are going to do. When everyone on the return is properly prepared, everything slows down for you, even though everything is happening in a split second.”
Battie had two of his 100-yard returns during Saturday’s 54-42 loss to Houston. Only one other player in in NCAA history has returned two kickoffs 100 yards in the same game, Utah’s Reggie Dunn against Cal in 2012.
Battie’s season total of three 100-yard returns is one behind Dunn’s NCAA record of four in 2012.
With three games to play — including USF’s (2-7 overall , 2-4 American Athletic Conference) matchup Friday against No. 2 Cincinnati (9-0, 5-0) — Battie is well ahead of the Bulls’ season record of 31.7 yards per return set in 2003 by J.R. Reed, a Hillsborough High alumnus who went on to play for six NFL teams over four seasons.
Like Reed, Battie (5-feet-8, 165 pounds) isn’t the biggest player but still among the toughest.
“He is tough, and that is just another reason why he performs at such a high level,” Da Prato said. “But he also has all the tools. His vision is great. He’s explosive. He understands the scheme. He’s a team player. He’s a dream to coach.”
Battie hasn’t gotten the number of carries he did in high school (he rushed 249 times for 2,133 yards and 28 touchdowns as a junior at Braden River), but he has been effective out of the backfield for the Bulls. He has rushed for 321 yards on 48 carries (a 6.2-yard average) this season, including a 29-yard scoring run where he also went in untouched.
“I’m ready for whatever the coaches want me to do as a running back or on special teams, because I know how all of it is so important,” Battie said. “I feel I’m part of something special happening here. You can feel it happening.”
• • •