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Nebraska Football

Huskers Show Improvement in Return Game Against South Alabama

September 2, 2019
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Jovan Dewitt has said his approach to special teams depends on his personnel. 

Last season, the return units, well, they weren’t all that special. 

Nebraska was a bottom-five team nationally in terms of kickoff return average at just 15.81 yards per return. The Huskers returned 31 kicks for a grand total of 490 yards.

The Huskers weren’t quite so bad at punt returns; they were merely average at 9.4 yards per return, good for 60th in the country. But, for all intents and purposes, the Huskers essentially punted on returning punts. They had just 16 returns in 12 games.

During fall camp, I asked special teams coordinator Jovan Dewitt if he thought he had the personnel to be more aggressive this season.

“I think so,” Dewitt said. “I think our return game has gotten a lot better, and I think, even as much as it’s a function of the guy who’s catching the kick, up front we’re just more athletic than we were a year ago. We’re bigger, stronger and faster than we were. I think we have a better understanding of what we’re trying to get accomplished on any given special teams unit. I think we have a chance to be a little more aggressive with it.”

That played out on Saturday against South Alabama.

Dewitt sent Wan’Dale Robinson back deep to return kicks and the true freshman showed some real promise. He returned three kicks for 77 yards including a 39-yard return. That 39-yarder started in the end zone and it wasn’t the only one, which means Robinson has the go-ahead from the coaches to give it a shot if he sees an opportunity for a big return.

In high school, Robinson returned 41 kickoffs for an average of 29.2 yards and five touchdowns.

MORE: Lacking Offensive Punch, Nebraska's Defense Steps Up

The bigger story from Saturday was the punt return game, however. Despite his status as the team’s top offensive weapon, JD Spielman was the guy once again.

“I think just the trust that everybody has in his ability to make sure the ball is going to get caught and then make sure it goes where it’s supposed to go,” Dewitt said. “He’s got experience with them, it’s the first game of the year, it’s not too big for him, he’s been in those situations before. So there’s a significant comfort level with him back there catching the ball.”

Spielman showed great promise on limited opportunities in his first season as a punt returner last year. He returned six punts for 104 yards (17.3 yards per return). He was eighth in the Big Ten in punt return yardage on just six returns. Among qualifiers, Michigan wide receiver Donovan Peoples-Jones led the Big Ten at 10 yards per return.

Spielman fair-caught South Alabama’s first two punts (one of 41 yards and the other of 30). His first opportunity for a return came after a 57-yard punt and he picked up 11 yards. Then came the big one.

South Alabama kicked a 49-yard punt, Spielman made the gunner miss, he got a couple of blocks and then he was gone. Seventy-six yards for six points.

“JD’s always going to make plays back there,” said sophomore tight end Austin Allen, who made one of the key blocks. “My job on that play is to block the shield, and a lot of times that’s a bigger, slower guy. That play he happened to be really slow so it worked out really well to set up the block. JD’s going to make plays and that’s what he did there.”

Allen and Sullivan made key blocks and did so without holding, but junior safety Marquel Dismuke also made a big play by not making a block early in the return, which earned him some praise from his head coach.

“Marquel had a chance on JD’s punt return to light someone up,” Scott Frost said. “With the new blind-side block rule, we’ve told our guys that a disciplined team is going to throw their hands up and shield and not get the penalty. An undisciplined team is going to light him up anyway like Mike Rucker at Kansas State. Marquel did the right thing, and I was so excited for him. I went up to him on the bench because that was worth seven points to us.”

Discipline on coverage and blocking units are just as important as the return man’s ability, as Dewitt said.

That being the case, Spielman still clearly has a knack for returns, whether they be on punts or kickoffs. He came to Nebraska as a natural kick returner, saying at one point he didn’t understand how punt returners did it. Spielman returned his first kickoff to the house as a redshirt freshman. That season, he returned 27 kicks for 669 yards (24.8 yards per return). He was third in the Big Ten.

That playmaking ability is why the coaches are willing to put Spielman on special teams despite his importance to the offense.

“I think it would depend on how much we’re talking,” Dewitt said. “It’s not that we don’t have other guys we can put in there, but if he’s going to be the best guy, he’s going to be the guy that’s going to be back there. Those plays where those guys are catching the kick, they change games as much as anything, I mean they change games. You want the guy that’s out there to be able to change the game, for the good.”

Spielman certainly changed that game for the good. The touchdown put the Huskers up by 21. Unfortunately, he also dropped his next punt return and South Alabama recovered it at the Nebraska 13-yard line. Three plays later the Jaguars were in the end zone.

I don’t think that’s going to dissuade Nebraska’s aggressiveness in the return game moving forward, however. The Huskers needed that kind of performance from the defense and special teams to get a win on Saturday with the offense struggling.

 
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