In 2014, De’Mornay Pierson-El burst onto the national scene as a freshman, racking up 596 yards and three touchdowns as one of the most dangerous punt returners in the country.
Over his last three seasons as a Husker, Pierson-El only totaled 371 total return yards and he never found the end zone again on special teams. Injuries certainly played a part as he lost half of his sophomore year to a serious leg injury. However, even after he returned to full strength (or close to it) he rarely had any holes to run through when he dropped back to return punts.
Last year for Central Florida, Mike Hughes returned 14 punts for 233 yards and a touchdown, 140 more yards on one less attempt than Nebraska in total. Hughes also averaged nearly 32 yards per kick return as well, about 7 yards more than Nebraska’s J.D. Spielman.
Overall, Nebraska and Central Florida averaged the same number of punt returns per game (1.3) yet the Knights averaged more than twice as many yards per return.
However, in Scott Frost’s first year at Central Florida, without Hughes — a projected first round pick in the 2018 NFL Draft — back there catching kicks, the Knights’ averages were right in line with Nebraska’s from this past season.
So what kind of return game should fans expect in Lincoln next season? That depends on who earns the job.
“As far as a punt return mentality, I think it’s really going to truthfully depend on who we have back there catching kicks and their skill set,” outside linebackers coach and special teams coordinator Jovan Dewitt said. “So our first year at UCF and at West Point, we were way more block-oriented because we just didn’t have that dynamic of a returner back there. This last year we had Mike Hughes who is as dynamic a returner as there is in the country and we were way more return-oriented. I think situationally it will depend upon who we have back there.”
Pierson-El’s career in Lincoln is over. Two other players — Stanley Morgan Jr. and Tyjon Lindsey — returned one punt apiece for a total of one yard. That position is wide open heading into the spring.
Morgan has two career punt returns and is the team’s top playmaker on offense. J.D. Spielman, last season’s kick returner, is dynamic with the ball in his hands but has said in the past that he’s not a punt returner. With a year of Division I football under his belt, Lindsey could push for the job, as could dynamic newcomers Miles Jones and Jaron Woodyard.
Regardless of how the competition goes, Hughes’ role for Central Florida shows that this coaching staff doesn’t shy away from putting its best players on special teams.
“I think there’s going to be a different philosophy all around together in terms of special teams just from what I’ve been able to ascertain,” Dewitt said. “One of the things that was really good for us last year in terms of special teams units was obviously we had Mike back there returning kicks, which he’s a difference-maker. But the whole mentality of the team was such that, it really kind of generated amongst the staff that if you can’t start on social teams, it’s going to be really hard to start on offense or defense. So there weren’t players that were just reserved that could not play on special teams, from our starting receiver in Tre’Quan [Smith] to Shaquem Griffin. Those guys were all on depth charts for all four special teams, and they played.”
Dewitt said every job — including all 11 spots on all four special teams units — are up for grabs this spring, and they are not limiting the field of potential contributors.
“The whole roster is wide open,” Dewitt said. “That part is really, really good. It gets kind of more buy-in throughout the team because truth be told, as we sit here and talk about it, nobody cares about special teams until everybody cares about special teams, until all of a sudden something gets dropped or someone returns one, then it matters. When you have your starting wide receiver out there out there as the corner on punt returns and he’s doing a really good job, the other players take notice. That’s one of those things from a philosophical standpoint that we’re trying to bring here that we had at UCF.”
The cultural and philosophical shift in Lincoln has just begun, but based on Dewitt’s comments, it is going to impact all facets of the program as the new coaching staff tries to replicate the success it had in Orlando.
Jacob Padilla has been writing for Hail Varsity since 2015. He covers football, volleyball men’s basketball and prep sports. He also co-hosts the Nebraska Preps Postgame and Nebraska Shootaround podcasts for the Hurrdat Media and Hail Varsity podcast networks. 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.