Small sample size aside, one of the few bright spots from Nebraska’s special teams units last season was Cam Taylor-Britt as the punt returner. He averaged 13.2 yards on his six returns (for reference, Iowa’s Charlie Jones was the best qualifying returner in the conference at 10.5 yards per return).
It certainly wasn’t a bright spot on Saturday, however, as Taylor-Britt’s decision to field a punt near the goal line led to a safety during the first quarter.
“Obviously a poor decision,” special teams coordinator Mike Dawson said. “He knows that. I think it was a guy that was probably excited to start off this year. We all have great expectations and anticipation, but that’s something that he knows, that we’ve drilled and he’s done that. We work all the different situations with the returners. Sean Beckton’s one of the best coaches I’ve ever worked with …
“I’m hoping that that’s a blip for him and he’ll be able to turn around and make some big plays for us the other way.”
In addition to coaching the tight ends, Beckton is in charge of working directly with the returners.
“We work that almost every single day when we have punt returners,” Beckton said. “Obviously Cam made a bad decision there. He’s got a window of the 8-yard line to play with and he’s not supposed to go beyond the 8-yard line. The fringe area is the 5. We harp on that with them; we just did it today again with them, all the punt returners. Obviously I’m disappointed. Cam’s very disappointed in it. Coach Dawson’s very disappointed in it. End of the day, it’s on the coaches to get it done. Cam’s got to do better, but at the end of the day it’s a reflection on me and I’ve got to get better at it.”
Dawson said a lot of factors likely contributed to Taylor-Britt deciding to field the punt. Illinois punter Blake Hayes had the wind at his back and boomed the punt deep, driving Taylor-Britt back and to his right. He might have lost track of where he was as he was determined to make a play. On Illinois’ previous punt, Hayes dropped the ball at the 3 and it bounced sideways out of bounds at the 1. However, Beckton said what happened previously shouldn’t have been in Taylor-Britt’s mind.
“You do your job,” Beckton said. “Your job is don’t go past the 8; 5 is the minimum you can go into, so you don’t field any balls inside the 5. We try to preach 8-yard line. The punter for Illinois made a great kick, the ball hit on the 3. We shouldn’t have fielded that one, the ball just happened to roll out at the 1. That’s part of football.”
Beckton said the coaches didn’t sugarcoat anything with the veteran corner — or anyone else. They reviewed all of the mistakes the team made during the season-opening loss as a team Monday.
“We’re in this business here to get guys to play better and when they make a mistake, obviously, we can’t sugarcoat it,” Beckton said. “If we sugarcoat it, it’s going to continue to happen. Hopefully Cam has made up his mind that he understands he can’t do that and the guys like Oliver Martin behind him can’t do that, Brody Belt, they can’t do that. It costs you games, costs you field position, and basically that kind of set the mood definitely for us throughout that game.”
Despite the mistake, Taylor-Britt remains Nebraska’s primary punt returner, according to Beckton.
“Today, Cam was the first guy up there,” Beckton said. “Until the powers that be tell me anything different, I’m going to continue to work with Cam. He was great today, he’s been great all camp. When he gets into the game, he’s got to apply all the things that we teach him, and I’ve got to continue to harp on that with him.”
Kick return wasn’t as disastrous as punt return, but it wasn’t a positive for the Huskers either. Zavier Betts returned one kick for 17 yards and Rahmir Johnson returned another for 13 yards. Beckton said Betts will continue to operate as the team’s primary returner on kickoffs.
“Zavier’s my guy back there,” Beckton said. “I know we went to Rahmir back there also, but Zavier has done a great job throughout camp. We’ve just got to make sure he continues to focus in on catching the ball at a consistent clip. He’s done a great job. I expect him to be the starter back there again this week and we’ve just got to do a little bit better job blocking it up front which Coach Dawson is really harping on this week with our guys up there.”
Betts returned 22 kicks during his four-year high school career at Bellevue West, averaging 21.7 yards per punt. However, take away his junior year (eight returns for 99 yards) and that average jumps to 27.0 in his other three season including a 25.6 average when he returned nine kicks as a sophomore. Beckton highlighted his speed as a reason he won the job.
“He’s catching the ball and he’s hitting the seam at 100 miles an hour and that’s what you need as a kickoff return guy,” Beckton said. “I played with a great in Shawn Jefferson who played in the NFL for 13 years and is currently the Arizona Cardinals’ receivers coach. That was his forte, he would hit it and Zavier reminds me of him. No slow down in him, find a small crease and hit it.
“I’m hopeful that we’ll get a couple of those this week so you guys can see Zavier Betts at his best.”
Jacob is in his third year with Hail Varsity covering Husker athletics. He has also written extensively for SB Nation’s Bright Side of the Sun and The Creightonian. His love of basketball can best be described as an obsession and if you need to find him, he’s probably in a gym somewhere watching, coaching or playing hoops.