Fresno State vs. Nebraska

Nebraska’s Ameer Abdullah beats the last man, Fresno State’s Davon Dunn, as he returns a kickoff 100 yards for a touchdown. The score gave Nebraska a 35-26 lead with 11:50 remaining in the game, and came moments after Fresno State drove 76 yards in four plays to cut the deficit to two.

You’ll find differing opinions from Nebraska players and coaches on significant NCAA rule changes on special teams that go into effect this season.

To begin with, kickoffs will be moved up 5 yards, from the 30-yard line to the 35, matching the rule change the NFL implemented a year ago. The idea is to have more touchbacks, fewer returns and fewer chances for violent, concussion-resulting collisions.

Nebraska senior Tim Marlowe doesn’t like the change, and most of his return men brethren would probably agree. They want to touch the football.

Here’s why they still might: Touchbacks will now come out to the 25 (a rule the NFL did not implement).

The extra five yards in field position is a notable advantage for offenses, meaning some teams may try lofting higher kicks that fall short of the end zone, forcing returns and hoping their coverage teams can pin foes deeper than the 25.

Other coaches may tell kickers with strong legs to send the ball into the next county every chance they get.

What strategy will Nebraska use?

“We don’t know yet,” said special teams coordinator Ross Els, who’s in favor of the rule changes. “We’ll just see how good our kickers are at kicking the higher one and maybe not so deep, as opposed to just kicking it out.”

Nebraska, of course, has a solid kicker in senior Brett Maher. Kicking from the 30, Maher booted 20 of his 72 kickoffs last season for touchbacks. (That 27.7 percent figure was higher than the Big Ten average of 19 percent.)

Apply Maher’s 67-yard average on kickoffs last year to this year’s rule change, and that means 100 percent of his kicks would be 2 yards deep.

“I definitely see benefits to both (strategies),” Maher said. “My personal opinion, I think it would be better most of the time just to keep it out of people’s hands and not even give the opportunity.”

Especially if your kickoff coverage team isn’t up to snuff.

Last season, Nebraska ranked 104th nationally in defending kickoff returns; the Huskers were among 14 teams whose average was between 24 and 25 yards allowed per return. (The nation’s best average was 14.2.)

“If we kick a high one that only reaches the end zone, can we pin them inside the 25? Maybe. If we’re really good, we can,” Els said. “Or are we just going to be satisfied and kick the heck out of it and try to get it out every time?

“It’s going to depend on a lot of things, how we feel our coverage unit is.”

Els did say the Huskers have been working more on higher kicks in practice, and that kickers have responded with good hang time.

The rule changes, of course, also affect how Nebraska approaches its kickoff returns. Even though Els expects most teams to try to kick deep, he still expects touchbacks only half the time, meaning return men will need to remain alert.

“The other thing is, make sure we can handle those short, high kickoffs with our guys in the wedge, because our returners might not be able to get to them,” Els said. “We’ve got to be able to make sure those guys can catch the ball.”

Els said sophomore Ameer Abdullah, who returned one kickoff for a touchdown last season, will for certain be one of Nebraska’s return men, “and a whole conglomerate of other guys will be working the other spot.”

Marlowe, who’s one of those men, said he expects Nebraska to be aggressive in its return schemes.

“I think coaches may trust us 4 or 5 yards deep in the end zone to bring it out, and let a guy like Ameer try to break one,” he said.” He’s dangerous; if our blockers are on, Ameer can take it to the house.”

But Marlowe said players will also need to be wary of pooch kicks.

“That will be, like, my job, or Kenny (Bell) or Jamal (Turner)’s job, whoever’s back there with Ameer,” he said. “We’ll probably be standing on, like, the 5 or 10, getting ready for those pooches, while Ameer will be ready on the goal line.

“We’ll game plan that. After the first game, we’ll see what teams are doing. We’ll watch film on everyone.”

Reach Brian Rosenthal at 402-473-7436 or brosenthal@journalstar.com. You can follow him on Twitter @HuskerExtraBR.

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