Photo Credit: Eric Francis

Nebraska’s 2023 Spring Football Positional Reset: Kick and Punt Returners

February 25, 2023

In total, Nebraska’s new coaching staff added 39 new scholarship players in the 2023 recruiting class. This puts the program’s scholarship numbers over triple digits in spring camp. With winter workouts ongoing and spring ball likely to impact who stands out to this coaching staff, Hail Varsity is taking a deeper look at what each position looks like right now.

Previous resets: QuarterbacksRunning BacksWide Receivers,Tight EndsOffensive LineDefensive LineEdge RushersLinebackersCornerbacksSafeties/Nickels/Rovers, Specialists.

Nebraska special teams coordinator Ed Foley spoke to local media already this winter. Among his nearly 30 minutes of comments came direct words that Husker fans rejoiced. The Huskers will return kicks.

Foley explained the rationale. It’s not just about busting a 98-yard touchdown return. An effective kickoff return could boost offensive field position and build momentum. Sometimes those returns can surpass the 25 by a few extra yards, getting the offense a fresh set of chains from midfield. On punt returns, a 10-yard return functions the same as a first offensive first down. That transfers momentum from a defensive stop to the offense with a broad stroke with the intention of kickstarting a scoring drive.

“Coach (Matt) Rhule has designated me to be the special teams guy,” Foley said last month. “He thinks it’s important enough to say, ‘Foles, I want you to focus on the special teams.’ So it’s important to me that we return kicks.”

Foley said the punt game is a revolving puzzle involving return and block. Rarely does it work to spring both. So the coaches will put together plans on when to block a punt and when to set up for an advantageous return.

Nebraska’s return game woes are well documented. This coaching staff wants to fix those. Head coach Matt Rhule built his coaching staff with people who align with his vision. That includes not only Foley, but tight ends coach Bob Wager. Wager also serves as assistant special teams coach. He built a reputation at Martin High School in Arlington, Texas, for his mastermind special teams schemes. Nebraska also gained Josh Martin as special teams analyst with experience at Arizona State and SMU. Together they’ll try to create a cohesive special teams vision that can change games.

“I think it’s an x factor at any level,” Wager said. “I’m really excited for the opportunity to learn from coach Foley, work with Josh Martin in that phase. And all of us will have a hand in that. But I do think that’s an area where you can create some separation. We made a living on it at the high school level and I’m looking forward to bringing value to that here as well.”

With the coaches in place, the staff acquired the talent. While Trey Palmer left for the NFL, Nebraska returns top-end speed with Tommi Hill. The Huskers gained former Virginia standout Billy Kemp via the transfer portal. He ranks in the top 10 for catches and yards in Cavaliers history. His capable set of hands in the pass game are extra valuable when coupled with his explosiveness on special teams.

“We want to be dynamic on special teams, we want to score on special teams,” Rhule said of Kemp earlier this month. “I’m not saying we will, but we want to. He’s a big key to that because having a veteran punt-returner, kick-returner, especially in the conditions here will be really important.”

Gabe Ervin Jr. could find himself involved in the return game. His speed has tested well in winter workouts. Anthony Grant returned three kickoffs last season and returns in 2023. Additional speedy newcomers Kwinten Ives, Brice Turner, Jaylen Lloyd, Malachi Coleman and Demetrius Bell could get into the mix. Also, the coaching staff welcomed back Zavier Betts to the Husker football team. He brings not only explosiveness but experience breaking big plays at Memorial Stadium.

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