LINCOLN — Nebraska coaches say their candidates to return kicks this year have vision, speed, change-of-direction and the ability to break tackles.
But here's the catch.
If they drop the ball, none of the other skills matter.
The Huskers fumbled six times on punt returns in eight Big Ten games last year, muffing one of every six attempts.
highlight-seekers who start thinking about gliding downfield while they're watching the football can sometimes forget that catching the ball is priority No. 1, junior Ameer Abdullah says.
“That's where a lot of our mistakes came from — thinking about what you're going to do before you actually catch the ball,” Abdullah said. “Once we catch the ball, I feel like we're pretty good playmakers.”'
And Abdullah's apparently still in the mix to return kicks, though his workload as the team's top running back could increase. Junior Jamal Turner appears to be the front-runner to return punts.
Junior Kenny Bell and freshmen Alonzo Moore and Terrell Newby have taken practice reps as returners in the preseason, as well.
Improving on returns has been an offseason priority for the Huskers. They averaged 5.3 yards per punt return last year. The only three Big Ten teams that averaged fewer during league play had a combined conference record of 5-19.
On kickoffs, Nebraska's average starting field position was the 25.2-yard line in games against conference opponents. That was worst in the league.
Perhaps those statistics explain why NU coaches regularly mentioned this spring that they were auditioning dozens of players for various special teams positions — blockers and tacklers as well as return men.
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Coach Bo Pelini referenced the offseason approach Saturday, saying that many of the player evaluations were made in the spring, when the team could run true game-like simulations with tackling. Coaches limit tackling in August practices to reduce the risk of injuries right before the season.
Returners have been at times challenged to catch wet footballs or even two at a time. Anything to build their confidence — or to identify the unreliable.
Said Turner: “They make sure they get guys they know that are going to catch the ball.”
Special teams coordinator Ross Els said NU has more options at every spot on kick returns and coverage than it did a year ago, creating better competition and ultimately better production.
“When you're deeper at the skill positions, when you're deeper in the secondary and when you're deeper at linebacker, that's what drives your special teams,” Els said. “And that's what we're excited about.”
The hope is that the athletes upfront can be molded into consistent blockers, who'll create some space for the explosive ball carriers.
“We want to get those guys the ball,” Els said.
The return men just have to maintain some mental discipline while waiting on their chance to change the game.
Both Turner and Abdullah said their responsibilities as returners aren't complicated. Sometimes there's a path they're supposed to follow on particular returns. But most of the time, as Abdullah says, they “play ball.”
They just can't take off too fast. All their focus has to be centered on hauling in the football, Turner said.
“My first job,” he said, “is to catch the ball.”