Nebraska still has a handful of position battles ongoing as the Huskers shift from training camp into preparation for Illinois. Among them are the returner spots, and there a number of factors the coaches are considering to make those decisions.
“That’s something that’s continuing to take shape,” special teams coordinator Mike Dawson said on Monday. “We’ve had a couple shots to work some guys back there, everything from hitting a live return with guys blocking for them and running through a small area. That’s a man’s man’s job right there, hitting that kickoff return because sometimes that window, you draw it up in walk-through and it looks like it’s about 10 yards wide. When it really happens in a game, you guys notice when those big returns pop, a lot of times those guys are running through an 18-inch space where they’ve got to hit it. The guys have to do a nice job if we’re going to be able to put them out there.”
The physical ability to find and get through the hole is one part of being a returner. Understanding when to return and when to take a knee is another.
“Then also they’ve got to be a great decision-maker,” Dawson said. “With the change in the rules a couple years ago when that fair catch is getting out to the 25 or taking a knee gets you out there. You’ve got to be smart. You have to have great communication with the returner and off-returner. We’ve got to continue to work those things out.”
Nebraska was eighth in the Big Ten in kickoff return average at 18.3 yards per return last season. Freshman Alante Brown served as the primary returner, averaging 19.6 yards per return on 10 attempts in eight games. Rahmir Johnson and Brody Belt combined for 78 yards on five returns. That was it. Nebraska averaged less than two returns per game.
Nebraska was much more successful in the punt return game. The Huskers were second in the conference at 13.3 yards per return and third in total punt return yardage. Cam Taylor-Britt was responsible for most of that with six of Nebraska’s nine returns for an average of 13.2 yards per return.
Taylor-Britt is set to be Nebraska’s No. 1 corner and will likely be among the defense’s leaders in snaps played this season. He’s said that he doesn’t want to come off the field this year, but the coaches have to weight reward of having a dynamic returner back there against the risk of exposing one of their best defensive players to extra hits on special teams.
“The risk and reward as far as playing those guys or not playing those guys, I think a lot of that is probably pretty fluid, not only based on what they can provide but also what the next guy can do,” Dawson said. “How much is that drop off? How does that play into the risk/reward factor of a guy that’s going to be playing 70 or 75 snaps on offense or defense compared to a guy that is maybe in a different role? Is that a chance to give a guy a job? Can that guy do something for you? ‘Hey, this is your role: we’re going to put the ball in your hands and you’ve got to make these five chances a game really count for you.’”
Dawson declined to provide the names of the players he’s looking at for either return spot, but the returners themselves are only part of the equation. In order for Nebraska to bump its return totals up, the blocking has to improve. Inside linebackers coach Barrett Ruud said it takes a “special knack” to play on those units.
“Kickoff return, the front line is the hardest job in football,” inside linebackers coach Barrett Ruud said. “I’ve done that. When you have to block a guy who’s running full speed at you for 40 yards, that’s the hardest thing to do in football. Now, to be successful there you’ve got to have some want to, you’ve got to want to do it, No. 1. And then it’s about coaching the technique and the details that you believe in too. The fact that I’ve done that job, Coach Frost has done that job at the highest level, so we’ve got a little experience that we can bank on and teach guys that. That’s a want-to job, first and foremost.”
Just like they have their own positions on offense or defense, Ruud said the assistant coaches each have certain positions on special teams they’re in charge of with Dawson overseeing it all.
“Really, the drill work is where we provide the most assistance — organizing the drill, working the technique,” Ruud said.
Just like all the assistants have roles on special teams, the expectation in most of the position rooms is that everyone will be competing for a spot on at least one or two special teams units. As mentioned above, there’s a risk/reward factor the coaches have to evaluate when putting offensive or defensive starters on special teams, but the third phase of the game is an area where back-ups can really shine.
“As far as guys that are back-ups on offense and defense, to me, I hope that they all want to play as much football as they can,” Dawson said. “Special teams — I talk about this a lot with the guys —is probably the most pure form of football that there is … Kickoff’s the easiest example, you’re talking about 10 guys and a kicker that are running down full speed and trying to go ahead and get down to the guy that has the ball. That’s probably how we all started playing on the playground. ‘Hey, let’s get one guy the ball and try to tackle him’ or ‘let’s try to not get tackled.’ That part of it is exciting and I think the guys really love that part.
“I hope that they are wired in that way and what to play as much as they can. Especially if they’re not a starter on offense or defense, it’s a chance to get on the field and for some guys, maybe an opportunity to get on a trip. We’re limited in numbers as far as how many guys we’re allowed to bring per the conference. It may be the difference for some guys between being able to make the trip out to Champaign or not.”
Special teams is arguably the one area on Nebraska’s team most in need of improvement from a year ago. Though Dawson declined to offer any specifics or single out any players by name, he said he feels as good as he normally feels about special teams at this point in the preseason.
“That’s something that we’re always going to be working on right up until the last minute with that deal,” Dawson said. “Guys are working hard at it, though. I know this: in the four cores, the guys that are working the techniques — blocking, covering kicks, getting off blocks, things like that — are working their butts off at it. We’re going to keep up that mentality, that demeanor, and the specialists have to keep on going.
“We have another 13 days I guess to keep working on that deal and making sure those guys are taking advantage of every single rep that they get.”
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.