Nebraska Has Some Special Concerns in 2011

| by Alex Groberman

Somewhere in a dimly lit ESPN dressing room, Skip Bayless’ head is about to explode. Special teams is an important part of football?

What? Really?

Yes, for the Nebraska Cornhuskers, special teams has proven to be a very potent and powerful weapon in the recent past – one which they will now have to make up for with a much more consistent offensive showing on a game-by-game basis.

Alex Henery -- Nebraska’s all-time leading scorer -- and kickoff specialist Adi Kunalic have both moved on to greener pastures, leaving behind a lot of doubt and confusion where there was once unparalleled confidence.

Whereas in the past the Huskers could afford a mis-step or two on offense knowing full well that Henery was there to bail them out with his magical foot, this won’t be the case in 2011. And considering the fact that new offensive coordinator Tim Beck has made speeding up the offensive game a priority (thus meaning there will inevitably be more three-and-outs), no reliable kicker to put three points on the board -- from distances outside of other kickers’ range -- means the defense will often have to make quick returns to the field with nothing to show for the offense’s time – a demoralizer to say the least.

Henery now resides in the City of Brotherly Love where he serves as a kicker for the Philadelphia Eagles and Kunalic is off making his bones with Ron Rivera and the Carolina Panthers. In their place, Nebraska has watched a quiet little battle unfold between Brett Maher and Mauro Bondi. The former, as a result of his experience has won the job, but because he is neither is as precise nor reliable as Henery it’s doubtful that the decision is set in stone. Kunalic’s slot appears to be an easier one to fill, as speedsters Brandon Kinnie, Tim Marlow and Kenny Bell are all being considered as likely candidates to return kicks until someone emerges as noticeably better than the other candidates.

It’s not all about the veterans, though. Freshman Jamal Turner has been touted as an excellent kick returner who could see some time at the position. Similarly, freshman running backs Braylon Heard, Ameer Abdullah and Aaron Green have also be rumored as players who could get some time. Going with the youngsters makes sense, of course, as it allows for the more “valuable” players like Kinnie -- who is expected to be key to quarterback Taylor Martinez’s success -- to get a breather in his spare moments, rather than forcing him  to waste energy in the kick return game.

The coaches seem to agree that it might be better to let one of the young guns take a crack at returning kicks, even if it’s just to start the year. During a recent interview with KETV, special teams and defensive ends coach John Papuchis said this much.

"I think those guys are really talented and at the end of the day, it would give them the opportunity to get the ball in the ball in their hands," said Husker special teams and defensive ends coach, John Papuchis. "It will get their feet wet a little bit and get some game time experience. I am looking forward to seeing them out there."

Papuchis said indicated that there may be a Niles Paul-type role that they could fill, at the very least.

"Niles is a very good return man," Papuchis said. "He had some great returns for us, but I don't know if we've had a guy that could take it the distance every time he touched it. I think we potentially have some guys that could do that, but they are young and they have to prove it on Saturday before I get too excited about it."  

Regardless of what ends up happening 2011, if there was one football program that could attest to the importance of kickers and return men, it was undoubtedly the Huskers. While everyone is focused on offense and defense to start the year, as usual, special teams is falling by the wayside.

Make no mistake about it, though – Nebraska’s special teams will play a huge role in the success or failure of this coming year’s campaign.