One of the most enjoyable parts of offseasons with a new coaching staff is talk about how the new-look team will play, stylistically, in the next season.
Early press conferences, like the ones at Nebraska in January, often do a great job of building this excitement. Husker head coach Matt Rhule and his staff have already made a number of declarations about what strategies the team will employ in search of wins. These range from formational promises — like Tony White’s 3-3-5 defense — to broader goals of running the ball well and using fullbacks.
The latter especially draws intrigue in this state, given that Nebraska’s great successes in the past came on the strength of fantastic ground attacks. Even with the historical precedent, the Huskers don’t need to lean on that identity to get back to winning, but it feels better to see a team rack up victories while playing the way you most want to see them play. If you presented me the option of watching a college team win seven games playing like Iowa or lose nine despite exciting or even serviceable offense, I’d still choose the former, but only after thinking about it a little bit.
As many were moved by the reintroduction of the fullback, I found solace in special teams coordinator Ed Foley talking about kick and punt returns.
I got into football at a good time and place for someone to gain an appreciation for returners. I didn’t catch a legend like Devin Hester’s best years, but growing up in Colorado, I was introduced to Trindon Holliday. The 5-foot-5, four-year return specialist perhaps best known now for getting rocked by Pat McAfee made unforgettable plays for the Denver Broncos.
In the 2013 playoffs, he returned a punt 90 yards for a touchdown, then took a kickoff back 104 yards for a score. They were the longest playoff punt and kick returns ever, and Holliday also became the first to score both in a playoff game. Don’t worry about how that game against the Baltimore Ravens ended, that isn’t important.
Then, I became familiar with De’Mornay Pierson-El in the fall of 2014, another electric returner who took three punts for touchdowns that year for Nebraska. You can imagine how I fell in love with the position.
However, the Huskers have struggled to bring that type of production since. Not counting blocks (sorry, Malcolm Hartzog), Nebraska’s had three total return touchdowns since Pierson-El’s trio of scores in Bo Pelini’s final year as head coach. All were by JD Spielman, who had one in each year from 2017 to 2019. He was a great player to watch on both special teams and offense, but he’s the only Husker to find any type of recent return success.
In the last two years, Nebraska’s almost completely gone away from trying to return punts, taking back 15 in the last 24 games. That number does include blocks. If you think of notable Husker returns since 2020, the first that comes to mind may be Cam Taylor-Britt’s safety on a punt return in the 2021 season opener. They’ve tried to take some out after kickoffs, but with very little success.
Foley and Rhule seem intent on bringing it back. The coordinator gave a four-and-a-half minute answer to a question about the return game, much of it spent distinguishing kickoff and punt returns.
“We’re going to return kicks,” Foley said earlier this week. “Coach Rhule has designated me to be the special teams guy. You guys can see between the lines, right? Like, I coached the tight ends and did this when I was at Temple. But he thinks it’s important enough that he said, ‘Foles, I want you to just focus on the special teams.’ So we got to return kicks.”
I love to hear it. A return touchdown, either kickoff or punt, is one of the best individual showcases in football. It’s a bit ironic, because the blocks that need to be set up also make it arguably the most impressive feat of teamwork in the sport, but there’s an unmatched visual beauty in a lone player receiving a football from the sky and weaving his way through the 21 men in front of him to score.
It’s smoother to watch a returner go all the way relative to other long touchdowns. Whereas a running back will often run angry, break through contact and maybe make a nearby tackler miss, taking a kick back is a display of pure speed and navigation.
Of course, shrugging off a tackler or outrunning diving defenders is a part of these plays too, which Foley emphasized.
“We’re gonna say to the returner, ‘Look dude, we’re gonna get you to the 20, you’re going to have to break a tackle or you’re going to have to do something special to get it to go the whole way,’” he said.
Foley’s previous special team’s units weren’t necessarily great at bringing back kicks and punts year in and year out. However, after Rhule left Temple and Foley stayed for a couple more years, Owls wide receiver Isaiah Wright had five return touchdowns over the course of 2017 and 2018. In 2018, he was the AAC Special Teams Player of the Year and named a first-team All-American returner by Sporting News.
Who will be Nebraska’s new returner is yet to be seen, and Foley said he probably won’t have an answer until after spring practices. Trey Palmer was the only player to actually return punts for the team last season, and he’s declared for the NFL Draft. Some of the players who had some kickoff return attempts last year, such as running back Anthony Grant and wide receiver Tommi Hill, are still on the roster. Baylor transfer receiver Joshua Fleeks returned kickoffs for the Bears under Rhule in 2018 and 2019, averaging 22 yards on 11 attempts in the latter season.
There’s no telling how much of an impact will be made by Nebraska in that area of the game next season, despite Foley’s goals of being aggressive and changing games a few times a season. Bill Busch did commendable work coaching special teams and defense last year, but also had expressed a desire in the previous spring to improve the return game. That didn’t turn out.
Once again, the Husker return numbers likely won’t be the difference between success and failure. If that unit does become a threat for big plays, though, I’ll thoroughly enjoy it.