Special Teams One Key to Spring
For good reason, much of the attention and scrutiny from media and Cornhusker fans during this year's NU spring drills has been placed on the offense. After all, that's where the Husker woes were last season, particularly as the season wore on. The offense is being overhauled under new Offensive Coordinator Tim Beck. But, savvy fans know that there are three portions to complete football - offense, defense and special teams. It's that last part - special teams, the "hidden third" - that often produces the plays that decide a game. It's an area that could challenge the Huskers most this spring and in the 2011 season. Major departures in both kicking and kick returning create huge voids for Husker coaches to fill. Who steps up to fill those voids is one of the most interesting story lines to watch for 2011.
Last season, Nebraska had a significant kicking game advantage in every contest they played. Alex Henery was the best kicker in the conference. He was the best kicker in the country. He was the best in Husker history, both in total points and accuracy. The guy was just was so money. (Like this big bear with claws and fangs that's just gently battin' the bunny around...) Husker coaches and fans alike knew that the Big Red had a legitimate opportunity to score any time they crossed midfield. What a weapon. He also handled the Huskers' punting duties very capably for two years.
As a defensive weapon, fellow senior Adi Kunalic helped the Huskers greatly in 2010. By consistently booming kickoffs for touchbacks, NU opponents typically had to cover 80 yards to score against the Blackshirts. That is no small thing, considering how much the odds of scoring decrease if a team starts a drive past their 30 yard line. Kunalic was a major factor for NU, too.
Now wrap your skull around this undeniable fact - both Henery and Kunalic off the Husker roster for 2011. Both players who kicked any kind of ball for NU in the last two years are gone.
Who Will Step Up?
In terms of game experience, the Huskers are starting over from scratch at the kicking and punting positions. Thankfully, they have some good options. Nebraska lists five players as either a placekicker, punter or both on its roster. The front runners to fill the roles appear to Brett Maher, a junior from Kearney and Jason Dann, a redshirt freshman from Dallas. Maher is the more experienced of the two, and has seen significant game action as Henery's holder last season. (Positive side note, the NU holder and long snapper both return for 2011. So that's a relief.) Maher was a high school standout. In addition to kicking, he played wide receiver and was a decorated basketball player and track athlete. Now, can he put it between the uprights while playing in front of 80,000 people? Dann was more highly regarded as a punting prospect than a placekicker coming out of Lake Highlands high school, though he did boot an impressive percentage of kickoffs for touchbacks.
In the fall, freshman kicker Mauro Bondi will arrive in Lincoln to complete for the placekicking job. While his name and look imply he could be cast on MTV's Jersey Shore, he's actually from Boca Raton, Florida. (Still, an area ripe with comedy options). Bondi is no joke. He has a strong leg, boasting a career-long field goal of 51 yards and having knocked 45 of his 55 kickoff attempts for touchbacks. ESPN considered him one of the country's top 10 high school placekickers last year. Don't count him out of the mix.
There is one other intriguing factor to consider. University of Nebraska-Omaha recently folded its football program, leaving its All-American kicker Greg Zuerlein shopping for a football home. As Sean Callahan expertly reported, Zuerlein could be an excellent fit for the Huskers. But, eligibility would be a significant issue as he was granted a sixth year recently and he is trying to navigate from Division II to Division I.
The Return Game
The Huskers also face a void in the kick return and punt return game. While his penchant for mixing big plays with occasional blunders made Niles Paul a paradox for Husker fans, there is no denying that he was a proven threat to take a punt or kick the distance on a return. He was a freakish athlete that will likely play on Sundays. So, who steps up in his place? For punts, Rex Burkhead is the obvious candidate to take the lead role considering he fielded several punts for NU last season. On kickoff returns, Paul's 2010 running mate Tim Marlowe is back and will provide both explosiveness and consistency. The other kick returning spot is wide open. Don't count out undersized speedster Ty Kildow in that role. Reports from spring practice are that Kildow's great speed and elusiveness has returned following an injury he suffered in high school.
Other story lines may be more fun to watch and discuss than special teams. It's great that the Blackshirts are "back" under Pelini. And any time you re-tool an offense, it's buzz worthy. But, no matter how boring it may seem, the Husker prospects for 2011 hinge in no small part on who kicks and punts and who fields kicks and punts for them. It's a competition and development worth watching this spring.