Like every good, team-first guy head coach Chris Petersen keeps stacked in his locker room like do-right sardines, junior WR Dante Pettis prefers team wins over individual accolades. The spotlight, however, still manages to find the San Clemente, CA native. He pulled in Pac-12 Conference special teams Player of the Week honors for his decisive punt return in a 31-24 win against Utah Saturday.
The Pettis family is no stranger to attention. Dante’s father, Gary, played 11 seasons in MLB, winning five Gold Glove awards with the Anaheim Angels and the Texas Rangers, and now works as a third-base coach with the Houston Astros. Pettis’s brother, Kyler, stars on long-running soap opera Days of Our Lives.
The family, including two sisters, Paige and Shaye, keep up in a family GroupChat, allowing them to stay in steady contact. Whenever one Pettis dominates the spotlight, they’ll return to their find to find that they’ve been inundated with messages.
Against Utah, all eyes were on Pettis when he caught a high punt from Utah’s Mitch Wishnowsky, retreating backward as coverage closed in. Pettis picked up a series of blocks, weaving his way through traffic 58 yards to the house for the winning score. The runback was the program-record fifth of Pettis’s career.
“That was crazy,” Pettis said Wednesday. “Before the punt happened, I was thinking to myself, ‘I can make a play right here.’ You think extremely fast in your head. Everything happens super-fast. When I was going backward, I was thinking ‘I can’t get tackled right now, coach is going to be pissed.’ I got out of that, and then I just ran.
“You practice that all the time. Once you see the lane, it’s all that you rehearsed. You’re used to seeing it in practice, you just go to it. There’s no (moment of realization), just see the open lane and if not, try to get what you can.”
The return was noticed by family and friends. Pettis had 150 notifications when he turned his phone on after the game.
Several blocks on the return could have drawn penalties, but Pettis wasn’t troubled.
“There are going to be close calls on every play,” Pettis said. “A holding call, a hands to the face, something the refs aren’t going to call. That’s every single football play. It could have gone either way, it just went in our favor that time. It looked like (blocks were) on the side and they fell forward. I didn’t think there was anything to cause that much controversy.”
Pettis leads the Pac-12 with two punt-return TDs. The wideout averages 13 yards per runback, third in the conference.
The art of the punt return is something to which Petersen pays special attention.
“Coach Pete is really big on special teams,” Pettis said. “He works with us back there returning. We’ll be back there for 10 minutes (every practice) and he expects every single rep to be perfect.
“He’s rubbed off on me a lot. If I don’t get the catch perfect, I’ll (get down on myself) about it.”
The pursuit of perfection is helping Pettis’s offensive numbers. Pettis has 29 catches for 470 yards and eight touchdowns, second-best on the team behind John Ross III, Washington’s resident Formula One car with legs.
As Washington prepares to face 4-4 Cal Saturday (7:30 p.m., ESPN), Petersen feels Pettis has the right qualities to meet his high expectations.
“He surprised me as a returner. I really look for a guy that’s really sure handed and a really good decision-maker that I really trust,” Petersen said. “I think there’s just a lot more to it back there. I think it’s different than a kick returner. We have our own little special group back there as punt returners; it’s only certain guys.”
Pettis is establishing himself as on of Petersen’s rarest dudes.