Photo Credit: Eric Francis

Nebraska’s 2023 Post-Spring Football Position Reset: Special Teams Returns

May 13, 2023

Two transfer portals, winter workouts and an entire spring season have passed. There’s now a clearer picture for Nebraska’s scheme and personnel. Hail Varsity is taking a closer look at what we’ve learned about each position now that the spring season is over and the portal is closed.

Previous resets: Quarterbacks, Running backs, Wide receivers, Tight ends, Offensive line, Defensive line, Linebackers, Defensive backs, Specialists.

Nebraska’s coaching staff views special teams returns as potential game-changing opportunities. Special teams coordinator Ed Foley said in January the staff views a 10-yard punt return acts as an initial offensive first down. An emphasis on team speed and athleticism can lead to consistent returns and, every once in a while, a big one.

Nebraska’s 2022 return game was largely uninspired. The Husker returned five punts all season and averaged 17 yards across 26 kickoff returns. Those days are, seemingly, over. Coaches found speed within the roster upon their arrival and brought in more during the December signing period. Their emphasis on special teams doesn’t stop at returns.

Nebraska blocked two punts last season, one against FCS North Dakota and one against Indiana. Malcolm Hartzog returned the block against Indiana for a touchdown. Part of head coach Matt Rhule’s special teams philosophy, which he trusts Foley to instill, involves bringing pressure. Bob Wager, tight ends coach and assistant special teams coach, adds innovative ideas from his successful stint at Arlington Martin High School. They put their ideas into a collective pot and welcome critiques without ego. The staff takes a holistic detail approach to all aspects, right down to distance among the punt protect shield.

Fans didn’t get to see much of the special teams details during the Red-White Game. They did, however, see one punt return and seven kickoff returns with.a rotating cast of speed. Transfer arrival Billy Kemp IV received praise from coaches for his return ability. He returned one spring game punt and was quickly tackled for a 3-yard loss. His 16-yard kickoff return nearly went for more and brought a gasp of potential from fans.

“Billy is a worker, he’s working at different aspects and wants to be challenged,” Foley said this spring. “He’s not out there catching punts in the pre-practice. He’s out there saying I’m going to position myself 15 yards over to the left and I’m going to come back and getting square on the ball. …. He obviously brings juice to the return game.

“There’s a few guys. The competition is going to be intense when it’s all said and done for the first game next year. We’re a long ways away from that but there’s a couple guys who can return the ball and he’s certainly one of them.”

Bellevue West graduate Zavier Betts also returned a kickoff in the spring game, taking one for 27 yards. Husker fans are aware of his athletic gifts and his potential from the 2021 season. Elliott Brown led the team with three kickoff returns, totaling 38 yards. Joshua Fleeks, the transfer receiver from Baylor, led the team with 47 kickoff return yards on two returns. Rhule opted for the XFL-style kickoff formation in the spring game where the return team lines up on the 30 and the kickoff team lines up on the 35. This benefited player safety without sacrificing much in terms of potential explosive returns.

Fleeks’ first return came from about 3 yards deep in the end zone. He’s a potential dynamic playmaker but was swarmed by the coverage team, who converged on him in space. Enclosing space is also a core element of Tony White’s defense, where most kickoff coverage personnel also play. Swarming kickoff coverage is also a viable weapon for Nebraska. Elliott Brown returned a first-quarter kickoff not even 10 yards before DeShon Singleton shucked his blocker and laid a vicious hit.

Speed is a focus for the Nebraska coaching staff. They like the personnel to make the 2023 team an explosive special teams unit. Kemp, Betts and Fleeks certainly provide athleticism and speed in return.

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