Brian Battie never cared much about special teams.
It's not that they were beneath the former Sarasota High running back, per se. He played them in high school and had a handful of kick return opportunities in college at South Florida as a freshman. But Battie, a sophomore, never considered them a focus area, instead putting all his training and study hours into his teams' offenses and being the best running back he could be.
That changed for Battie in 2021. In a Dec. 16 conversation, Battie said early-season talks with Bulls special teams coordinator Daniel Da Prato convinced Battie that he could thrive on "teams," as football people say, with a bit more dedication to it.
"He made me realize it was a good thing," Battie said. "You have to be a good player to be good at it. He told me I could use it to get to the next level and that instilled a new mindset in me. I started studying it more and Coach (Da Prato) started scheming things up for me. He's one of the best coaches and I give him a lot of props for that."
In the team's season-opening game against North Carolina State on Sept. 2, Battie got two kick return opportunities, returning them for a combined 49 yards, including a 33-yard scamper. That was good enough to earn Battie more opportunities. It didn't take long for him to show the country exactly what he could do when he dedicated himself. He would take a kick return to the house — 100 yards — against Tulsa on Oct. 16.
In a home game against Houston on Nov. 6 that aired nationally on ESPNU, Battie caught the opening kickoff at his own goal line and started up the right side of the field. He spotted a lane created by his blockers and burst through it.
No one was going to catch him.
"All the fans were out for that game," Battie said. "It was Homecoming. It was electric. That week, Coach (Jeff) Scott had been talking about how good Houston's returner (Marcus Jones) was and that we were going to show them that we have a good returner, too. That had to be my favorite one."
Battie said the opening touchdown against the Cougars was his favorite moment of the season — but it wasn't his last touchdown of the game. Battie scored again in the second quarter, zipping his way through the Houston special teams unit like lightning for 100 yards. That one gave the Bulls a 33-28 halftime lead over the favored Cougars, though they lost 54-42. The score also gave Battie the national lead in kick return touchdowns in 2021, a mark no one would match. Battie finished the year with a 33.9 yard average on 21 returns.
Battie credited the rest of the Bulls' special teams unit for opening holes long enough for him to fit through them in addition to Da Prato's schemes. What Battie figured out this season, he said, is that the formula for kick return magic is a mysterious combination of preparation, natural talent and timing. The more he watches film of the opposition's special teams unit, the easier it is for him to see weak areas when he gets the ball in his hands. But his teammates still have to land clean blocks and Battie still has to hit the holes they make before they close. He's not freestyling back there, but it's still up to him to make sure the team's plans are executed properly.
"You can watch a lot of film and not translate what you learn to the field and vice versa," Battie said. "Ultimately, you have to make it happen."
The Bulls' formula worked. Since the end of the season, Battie has been showered in awards for his special teams efforts. The biggest came on Dec. 16 when Battie became the second player in South Florida football's history to be named a 2021 Consensus All-American (i.e. Battie earned first-team All-American honors on at least half of the NCAA-recognized All-American teams). The first Bull to reach the feat was defensive end George Selvie in 2007. Battie was named a first-team All-American by Walter Camp, the Football Writers Association of America, Phil Steele, Bleacher Report, Pro Football Network and the Action Network. He was also named a second-team All-American by Pro Football Focus, the Sporting News and CBS Sports/247 Sports.
"I can't lie, I did not expect for all of this to come, especially so early in my career," Battie said. "This is the stuff I dream about. It is a great feeling."
His kick returns made most of the headlines but Battie also found the field on offense in 2021. In a rotating running back group, Battie got 58 carries, which he turned into 324 yards (5.6 yards per carry) and a touchdown. He also caught seven passes for 67 yards. Battie said he was fairly happy with his offensive play, though he'll be hitting the weight room this offseason to bulk up. That way he can handle a larger load and more easily break through attempted tackles.
South Florida finished 2-10 in 2021, Scott's second season. The results were disappointing. Battie, though, was a massive bright spot. I'm not surprised by that. As someone who was lucky enough to watch him in high school, I could tell back then Battie was a different breed. He's one of the shiftiest players I've ever seen. It's a bit of a cliche to say that a player has a chance to score every time they touch the ball — technically, this is always true — but with Battie, it does feel like you're always seconds away from seeing that makes your jaw drop.
These awards are telling the world something us in Sarasota always knew: Brian Battie is one of the best football players in the country.