Matthew O'Haren-USA TODAY Sports

Nebraska Football's Special Teams Don't Need Starters

Offense, defense and special teams. The first two get a lot of publicity. The last one doesn’t unless something goes extremely well or very poorly. Unfortunately for Bo Pelini’s Nebraska football teams, the last few seasons have seen the special teams unit take the brunt of harsh criticisms of inconsistency, especially in the return game.

The Huskers lost the field position battle in eight out of their 13 games last season.

The two most glaring examples were the Michigan State game when the Huskers faced a negative 20 yard deficit and against Iowa when Nebraska trailed by negative 23.1 yards.

The other 2013 Husker losses saw the Big Red trail by 6.1 yards on average to UCLA and 11.3 yards to Minnesota.

Field position matters. Tom Osborne agrees.

That begs the question, what’s the easiest way to flip the field? The answer is amazingly simple: improve your special teams units.

The Huskers were nearly the absolute worst bunch of FBS punt returners last season. I’m not exaggerating. Nebraska finished two spots ahead of last out of Georgia and California for the honor with an average of 3.04 yards per return.

For comparisons sake, the closest Big Ten team in the rankings was Michigan at 91 with 6.33 yards per return on average and the best punt return team in the country was North Carolina averaging 18.13 yards per return.

Pelini’s team leaned on Jordan Westerkamp. Well, “leaned on” to the tune of 19 returns for 51 yards, a paltry 2.68-yard average. The Illinois native’s longest return was 19 yards.

nebraska football

Bruce Thorson-USA TODAY Sports

On kickoff returns, Nebraska did a bit better. Kenny Bell returned 23 kickoffs for 609 yards, a 26.48-yard average including one 99-yard touchdown. The Huskers checked at No. 41 in the nation.

I have a hard time saying this edition of Nebraska football can afford to continue using the starters in return roles.

Jay Foreman who co-hosted with Damon Benning on 1620 the Zone’s ‘Sharp and Benning in the Morning’ had an interesting take on August 11:

“If you can’t play special teams, you can’t play football. Running, blocking, and tackling; that is the basis of football right there.”

It really is that simple.

The two former Huskers continued by saying that special teams should be the way young players get on the field.

Placing starters, specifically Kenny Bell and Ameer Abdullah, back on special teams is dangerous. The top wide receiver on the team and an All-American candidate running back taking additional hits is simply not worth it. Not when the coaching staff has recruited high-caliber athletes to the program.

Benning continued:

“Don’t we need to change the narrative a little bit about what special teams actually mean? I mean, it’s not an ‘oh by the way’…Once you change the narrative in terms of how the message is delivered performances should start to lend themselves to that.”

What he is saying is that the young players on the roster need to be told how important making a splash on special teams is. By performing to their highest ability on special teams, it will earn them more time on either offense or defense in their careers.

Maybe the best recent example is Abdullah’s freshman season in 2011. No. 8, playing behind Rex Burkhead all season, had a phenomenal season returning the ball. He averaged 29.35 yards on 26 kickoff returns, including a 100-yard kickoff return for a touchdown against Fresno State. That average was good for No. 9 in the country.

nebraska football

Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

Young athletes such as Terrell Newby, Alonzo Moore, Glenn Irons and Demornay Pierson-El should be chomping at the bit to get on the field and show off.

“We’ve improved our recruiting over the past couple years…I question the players. Why hasn’t somebody stepped up and said I want to be that guy that can turn the field over and not put one of…our best players in harm’s way.” said Foreman.

Abdullah and Bell want to do what’s best for the team. They want to be ‘the guys’. That’s great, but it shouldn’t have to be on special teams.

Using starters, especially All-Conference quality starters on special teams should be a luxury, not a requirement.

The young bucks need to step up.

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