Coaching staffs across the country talk ad nauseam about having to win the three phases of the game. One phase that has eluded Nebraska so far this season is special teams, particularly punt return.
Captain Cam Taylor-Britt has officially returned three punts for a total of two yards. In two games, the cornerback has committed a safety and a fumble. Not a good percentage for an important aspect of the game.
Backing up CTB is converted wide receiver Brody Belt, who has one return for one yard. He nearly had disaster late in the Fordham game near the west sideline, causing the stadium to hold its breath on yet another punt return.
Looking back to the shortened 2020 season, four separate players are credited with punt returns. CTB had six for 79 total yards, and Oliver Martin and Wan’Dale Robinson had one attempt each for seven and negative-five yards, respectively.
Levi Falck is credited with 39 return yards, but that was on a blocked punt against Purdue.
So what has punt return looked like for Nebraska during the 2010s, the decade preceding what can only be described as an important, yet inept, side of the ball?
The final season in the Big 12.
Handling the majority of the punt return duties was Niles Paul. That’s a sure-handed wideout who averaged more than 11 yards a return. Backing him up was Rex Burkhead. That’s a solid 1-2 to have at your disposal.
The first season in the Big Ten.
Ameer Abdullah handled punt returns. The dynamic back averaged just 7. 1 yards and didn’t have a return longer than 28 yards.
Abdullah again got the nod on returns, this time averaging more than 13 yards an attempt. The sophomore took an Arkansas State punt 81 yards for a touchdown.
With Abdullah squarely at the lead-back role, Jordan Westerkamp took over as the punt return specialist.
The redshirt freshman wideout is most remembered that season for the Hail Mary reception against Northwestern. On punt return, he used his sure hands to be a dependable although modest returner, averaging less than three yards each time he did more than fair catch.
The final season under Bo Pelini.
De’Mornay Pierson-El. Now here was a return man.
Pierson-El handled both punt and kick returns, but his punt returns put him on a pedestal that season. The freshman wideout finished second nationally with an average of 17.5 yards per return. His 596 total punt return yards topped the nation by nearly 200 yards and ranked third on the Nebraska season charts.
He also tied the national lead with three punt returns for touchdowns, one shy of the Nebraska record. Two of his returns topped 80 yards.
The first season under Mike Riley.
An injured Pierson-El meant split time at punt return. He did manage to take four returns for 48 yards, but that was bolstered by a 42-yarder as the long.
Westerkamp got back in the action, this time taking his average per return to more than 10.
If he’s healthy, why go with anyone else?
Pierson-El was the lone punt return man for the season. His average dipped to 7.3, but there was nobody else you’d want back there.
The final season for Mike Riley.
Again it was mostly Pierson-El. The senior had a 63-yard return against Rutgers. The average for the season was against just above seven.
The beginning of the Scott Frost era.
Inheriting the punt return duties was JD Spielman. Another dynamic wide receiver at the role, Spielman housed a 77-yard return against Bethune-Cookman.
Tyjon Lindsey and Stanley Morgan also spent time on punt return.
Spielman was again the guy. He took another return to the house, a 76-yarder against against South Alabama. Spielman, Paul, and Johnny Rodgers are the only Huskers to score a kick or punt return touchdown in three consecutive seasons.
New this season under Frost is the special teams coordinator role for assistant Mike Dawson. That would seem to be an upgrade over the special teams analyst from a season ago, though punt return has yet to improve.
One option that has seemed to work for the past decade is using a dynamic wideout at the position. Paul, Pierson-El and Spielman all threatened coverage teams. The last time Nebraska used defenders as the primary punt returners was in 2007 with Cortney Grixby and Andre Jones.
If the 2021 wide receiver room is so deep with talent, why not take advantage of another way to get them the ball?