LINCOLN — It's back to the basics this week for a struggling Nebraska punt return unit that's on pace for the worst statistical season on record.
The Huskers are averaging 3.6 yards on their 18 punt returns this year. Only 12 teams nationally have performed worse.
It's been a season full of muffs, misjudges, bad blocks and coaching mistakes — a blooper-reel-like collection of miscues that have had a subtle or direct impact on games all year.
Some deficiencies could be traced back to Nebraska's commitment to guarding against potential fake punts. NU coaches have pointed out that returning punts has become increasingly difficult across college football. Redshirt freshman Jordan Westerkamp and his backup, freshman Terrell Newby, haven't returned punts at this level before, either.
But the fact that the Huskers could finish the 2013 season with the lowest punt return average in their history (the stats go back to 1946) is enough to catch everyone's attention. Nebraska's previous single-season low was 5.7 yards per return in 1979.
“We'd like to have more yards, obviously, with what we're doing,” said Ross Els, the special teams coach.
It could take some time to fix, though.
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The last time Kenny Bell tried to field a punt, he muffed it and turned the ball over in a tight road game last year at Northwestern. He knows firsthand how difficult it is.
“I think it's the hardest thing to do in football,” said Bell, the team's second-leading receiver.
Perhaps even more so of late.
The total number of punts nationally has declined slightly during the last 10 years (5 percent fewer per game). Yet the number of punt returns per game has dropped by 28 percent.
Teams averaged 9.94 yards per return in 2004, but the mean mark is 8.8 this year.
One reason is better punting, Oregon coach Mark Helfrich said.
“The Utah guy last week was phenomenal,” Helfrich said, referring to Utes punter Tom Hackett. “I've never seen a guy that rugbys one way and hits it in the exact opposite corner with distance.”
Nebraska has had its problems trying to field those low-line-drive darts that can bounce and roll unpredictably. The Huskers have lost an average of 8 yards of field position every time they've let a punt hit the ground this year — and they've done that 22 times. Eight of those instances resulted in the NU offense starting its drive inside the 10.
But even when the Huskers have tried to catch punts on the fly, they've had issues. They've lost two fumbles (after losing five last season). Westerkamp has seemingly made every acrobatic fair catch imaginable, too — diving forward while in a full sprint or lunging backward at the last second or corralling the football while a teammate accidentally takes out his legs.
Stanford coach David Shaw said he tries to solve that issue before the season. The players who can read the flight of the ball and secure the catch are the candidates to return punts. Stanford has averaged between 9 and 12 yards per punt return in each of the last four seasons.
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“We don't worry about speed. We don't worry about run after catch,” Shaw said. “A lot of times, they're former baseball players, as funny as it is. Guys that are used to seeing the ball off the bat, get a good job on balls that are hit off the foot.”
But sometimes gambles pay off.
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Michigan State's Macgarrett Kings fielded a third-quarter punt against Nebraska last week. There was no blocking design for him, yet Kings made the first Husker miss and got to the edge for a 26-yard gain.
Instead of Michigan State starting a crucial drive inside its own 15-yard line, the Spartans were at their 37. “Great example of player making a play,” coach Mark Dantonio said.
It's the kind of field-flipping return that Nebraska has been missing all year.
The scheme isn't the issue, Pelini said. Former Huskers Nate Swift and Niles Paul both ranked in the top 25 nationally in punt return average. Ameer Abdullah was 40th in 2011.
But there's been a sharp decline since.
The Huskers' longest return was a 19-yarder by Westerkamp, and he had to break two tackles to do it. He's been hit right after fielding a punt on nearly every return over the past month. There have been two illegal block penalties, too.
The reason for the lack of space is a result of poor execution near the line of scrimmage, Pelini said. It's become a focus this week in practice.
College rules allow as many as seven members of the punt coverage team to release downfield at the snap. The NFL, by comparison, permits just two.
The key, Pelini said, is what happens within the first 10 to 15 yards.
“We're running alongside of them,” he said, “and you have guys there — we have almost bodies on bodies — but we're not disrupting them enough and widening them enough to give our punt returners the comfort level to catch that ball and give them room.”
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