Bell, Foltz Both Key to Husker Special Teams
Special teams matter. We at Big Red Network have always been a fan of football's "hidden third". When games are close, it's often special teams that make the difference between winning and losing. Nearly everything about Nebraska's matchup with UCLA this Saturday seems to imply that the game will be close. A few key plays on special teams may make the difference. While the battle for the starting kicking position remains a tight competition, Husker specialists are much more obvious in other places. Watch for Kenny Bell and Sam Foltz to make key plays.
Many Happy Returns?
It's fair to say that Husker wide receiver Kenny Bell has revitalized the Husker kickoff return game. Nebraska averaged an almost pitiful 26 yards per return a season ago. Now, Bell (along with a fresh bevy of blockers) is averaging more than 40 yards per return. The difference is significant.
Not only is Bell a threat to break it on any return, he puts the Husker offense in much better position. I'll never forget hearing Tom Osborne talk about the difference in the likelihood of an offense scoring if they start beyond their own 35 yard line. It might be a matter of momentum, or just simple math of having to cover less ground. Either way, getting a return past the 35 makes a team more likely to score.
If teams choose to kick away from the speedy Bell, they will have to contend with newcomer Terrell Newby, who has yet to get a chance. It's not just Bell and Newby, but also their blockers who are making a difference. Bell gave all the credit to his teammates for his having sprung a 63-yard return against Southern Miss. Assistant Coach Ross Els points to an influx of talent helping the Huskers on special teams in general.
“People,” Els recently told the Lincoln Journal-Star. “I’m telling you, people. We’ve recruited so much more speed in the last couple of years, and our special teams are guys who want to run and hit, and that’s kind of who we’ve recruited.”
Flipping the Field
Punting might be the most boring-but-important facet in football. Punters can flip the field or pin down an opponent deep in their own territory. Through two games, it's pretty clear Nebraska has a good punter in Sam Foltz.
The walk-on from Grand Island is athletic enough to play wide receiver if he was asked to. That helps when catching snaps. Foltz also serves as the Huskers' holder on kicks. He's averaging more than 45 yards per punt, good for 16th in the country. He's also responded well in critical situations. When the Husker offense was unable to move out from deep in it's own territory, Foltz was able to flip the field with big kicks and give the Blackshirts some breathing room. And late in the way-too-close finish against Wyoming, Foltz pinned the Cowboys inside their own 10 yard line late in the contest.
Husker punt coverage has also been steady so far this year. It's a trend they will need to continue against the Bruins. Back to Bell for a second. His is also fun to watch as the "gunner" on Husker punt coverage. As his tackle against Wyoming shows, he's willing to go down the field and make a play. That's inspiring stuff from an offensive skill-position leader.
If the Husker special teams can be truly special on Saturday afternoon, look for it to give them a critical advantage against UCLA.