LINCOLN — To uncover what has been plaguing Nebraska's struggling special teams units, perhaps it's best to start with an examination of subtle dominance from the past.
Flash back to 2009. There were 49 kickoffs returned against the Huskers, and only once did the opposition venture into NU territory. On average, returners who fielded kickoffs were tackled at the 23-yard line, swallowed by a team of confidence-filled momentum-grabbers.
Those 11 Huskers on kickoff coverage were never directly responsible for points — but of all the special teams personnel groups that Bo Pelini has had during five years at NU, none had influenced the game more than that one. And remarkably, it was the one season when Nebraska didn't rank in the bottom 30 nationally in opponent kickoff return yardage (NU is 93rd this year at 23.4 yards per game).
So what distinguished the kickoff coverage team in 2009? I asked former special teams coach John Papuchis that question Monday.
Chemistry. Pride. Ambition.
Those were the qualities that stuck out in Papuchis' mind, which is frustrating for someone seeking concrete examples. But it's also a reminder that success in this sport is sometimes a product of more than player talent and schematic innovation.
Perhaps that notion is even more true on the return and coverage teams for kickoffs and punts, where one seemingly minor mental breakdown can be exploited and transformed into a game-changing highlight.
That's why sophomore Austin Williams said NU players “do a lot of drills, position-specific drills, to evaluate you or make changes when needed. They're critiquing everything you need to do.”
On kickoff coverage, each guy has a lane to occupy while maintaining proper body positioning. That way you're ready to get double-teamed or trap-blocked, redshirt freshman David Santos said.
The responsibilities are just as specific on punt or kickoff returns, too. “If you're supposed to be blocking on the inside number of the guy and kick him out, you're going to be there or you're not going to be on that team,” senior Ben Cotton said.
These cognitive challenges certainly don't excuse Nebraska's costly special teams errors.
The Huskers have allowed touchdowns on kickoff and punt returns. They've lost three fumbles on their own punt returns (two against Northwestern). There was a personal foul that wiped away a turnover last weekend. And in Big Ten play — despite having one of the nation's best returners and a new touchback rule that rewards offenses with five extra yards of space — Nebraska's average starting field position after kickoffs is the 23-yard line.
Maybe, though, the Huskers are simply in need of personnel shakeups.
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Ross Els, who oversees all of these units, said Monday that he's “wiped the slate clean personnel-wise” on the kickoff return team. He made two lineup changes to the punt coverage group last week. In September, he remodeled the kickoff coverage unit.
“You need guys with a lot of instinct,” Els said. “Guys that understand, you're going to see something different today than you probably haven't worked in practice — because teams tend to change their scheme a lot.
“You need to have guys that just have that feel, that want-to and that desire.”
He's confident that he can find the right pieces. Pelini said Monday that he thinks the mistakes are easily fixable, though they are practicing special teams more than they ever have.
Why? Those tiny errors, even in small doses, can be incredibly costly.
Take that 2009 kickoff coverage unit. Its excellence has been established — but its two biggest blunders played key roles in Nebraska's most heartbreaking losses.
Virginia Tech's first touchdown in a 16-15 win was a result of the short field set up by a 76-yard return. A kickoff out of bounds made it easier for Texas to kick a game-winning field goal as time expired for a 13-12 win in the Big 12 championship game.
Can't be perfect. Els knows it. He's shooting for a notch below that mark, though.
“It's either really, really good or I'm not happy,” he said.
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