MURRAY — It’s Friday night and the lights switch on.
This is where playmakers shine.
Murray’s Andrew Rider is a playmaker.
Once the ball is snapped and it leaves the foot of the opposing team’s punter, Rider starts tracking the ball. He takes one last peak to see where his blockers are, and then, he makes sure he securely catches the ball.
Then, it’s showtime. And Rider does what he does best — he makes plays.
Rider has become one of the state’s most prolific playmakers on the football field, and he’s nearing a mark that would make him one of the nation’s best playmakers.
Rider ranks first in Iowa history with six career interception returns for a touchdown. That mark puts him one behind the national record set by Dick Maurer of Oregon in 1969.
He is second all-time nationally in interception returns for a touchdown in one season, with the four he has returned this year. He’s one short of the national record in that category.
Rider is first all-time in Iowa history for career punt returns for a touchdown with nine. The all-time national record is 11 punt returns for a touchdown, putting the shifty senior within reach of that record.
He is currently tied for second all-time in the state of Iowa for career kickoff returns for a touchdown with six.
Rider never expected to be in a position where he was breaking state records and would have a chance to break national records.
“It didn’t really cross my mind,” he said. “All I really wanted to do was play football and start and play for the Mustangs.”
But what makes Rider such a good returner on the football field?
“I think part of it is he has excellent vision and he sees holes ahead of time,” Murray head coach Keith Shields said. “The other thing about him is his ability to stop and make a cut and re-accelerate better than anybody I’ve ever had around here. You put all those things together and he’s had an outstanding career for us in all phases of the game, but in the return game, especially.”
For Rider, it’s all about trusting his teammates and his teammates trusting him. Winning the special teams battle on the football field is an important part of the game for Rider and the rest of the Mustangs.
“You always want a good special teams,” he said. “I think that’s what gets our momentum going as a team, gets us fired up.”
Kick vs. punt
On punt return, once Rider has caught the ball, he has just a split second to make his decision where he’s going.
That initial decision, along with picking up a good block from his teammates goes a long way in deciding the fate of that particular return.
“That’s one less person to worry about,” he said about picking up a block. “That gives us a higher chance of getting a touchdown and giving our offense a break.”
Rider said punt returns require a little bit of luck, much more so than on a kick return, where he knows he’ll have a wall of blockers.
“On a punt, it’s just kind of whoever gets their guy, and I guess I’d say it’s luck,” he said. “Just go with the flow — whoever makes the blocks, go that way.”
Shields said that approach is by design for the Mustangs.
“In particular, on a punt return, it’s a situation where we don’t even set up a return right or a return left,” Shields said. “Part of our strategy most of the time has been for our defenders to attack the other team’s punt team and keep them from getting off the ball, and give Andrew and our other returners the opportunity to use his skills and make plays. There’s a lot of blocks that have been made over the years that have sprung him for touchdowns, but there’s a lot of natural ability in those, as well.”
Shields and Rider agree the most memorable return of Rider’s career so far, was his return of the opening kickoff in last year’s historic state semifinal game against Gilbertville Don Bosco in the UNI-Dome last year.
“I broke my wrist at the end of the our season against Lamoni and missed all of our playoff games,” Rider said. “I had a full-arm cast on my wrist. I got it cut off halfway down so I could play, just the day before the game.
“I got out there, beginning of the game and they kick it off and I take it back for a touchdown,” he continued. “The crowd yelling and all the adrenaline rush, it’s just something I’ll never forget.”
Since moving from linebacker last year to safety this year, Rider has found himself picking off opposing quarterbacks much more often. In fact, he had an interception return for a touchdown in Murray’s first four games this year.
It’s an area of the game that Shields believes he’s really improved this year.
“His pass defense has improved,” Shields said. “He has the ability to break on the ball, and if he gets his hand on the ball, he has the ability to make plays.”
It’s a different approach for Rider, now that he’s at safety.
“Last year I was at linebacker and was trying to take a step forward and reading and trying to come in on the runs,” he said. “Now, I’m back at safety and have to relax and always think pass first, and step back and read.”
Rider would like to continue his playing career after high school, but for now, he’s just happy to be a Mustang.
And who knows? With at least five more games left in the season and Murray poised for a playoff push, maybe he’ll end his Mustang career with a national record.