Nebraska vs. Wyoming, 8.31.13

Nebraska kicker Mauro Bondi (37) in action during a second-half kickoff against Wyoming on Aug. 31, 2013, at Memorial Stadium.

With the Huskers starting practice Saturday, our daily primer puts its focus on special teams.

Returning returners: Kenny Bell, Jordan Westerkamp, Terrell Newby, Ameer Abdullah, Alonzo Moore, Jamal Turner.

Returning kickers: Mauro Bondi (K), Sam Foltz (P).

The skinny: While it's become common to rip Nebraska's special teams play as a whole, let's be specific when it comes to where the tough-worded critiques are aimed.

Punt returns. That's the eyesore. That's where the Huskers averaged a feeble 3.0 yards per return, ranking 123rd out of 125 FBS teams. Even in 2004, the year when Santino Panico caught punts, the Huskers picked up 5.8 yards a return.

"If we just catch punts better, the whole perception of where we are special teams-wise changes," coach Bo Pelini said this past week. "That area isn't going to be solved overnight. I think we'll be better."

Part of being better will depend on whether the Huskers can give their return man some room to operate after a catch. Jordan Westerkamp too often found himself encircled by opponents as soon as he caught the ball.

While finding a cure to Nebraska's punt-return blues figures to be heavily emphasized, the spring won't reveal what progress has been made. The games will tell all.

The good news: The Huskers don't have near as far to climb in other special teams areas. The Huskers actually improved last year in the kick-return game (40th nationally), didn’t end up missing a beat with field goals (thanks to Pat Smith going 12-of-13), and were respectable in net punting (38th) with freshman punter Sam Foltz, who had a few mishits but figures to become more consistent with time.

The bad news: Smith is gone now.

That means it's a big spring for junior Mauro Bondi. Already proven as a big-legged weapon on kickoffs, he needs to be locked in as a place-kicker knowing that 2014 signee Drew Brown arrives in the summer.

Spotlighting: Foltz. There's a few punts the Grand Island native would like back, including a late-game shank against Minnesota. But he also showed he can boom them, launching one 64 yards at Michigan, and averaging 41.6 yards per punt. Don't be surprised if the sophomore really takes off after a year of experience.

Don't forget: The Huskers have several capable return men coming to campus from the 2014 recruiting class, including Glenn Irons, Demornay Pierson-El, Trai Mosley and Larenzo Stewart. In other words, don't fixate on the returners in the spring. Some options for the fall aren't even on campus yet.

Newcomer watch: Brown. He's not here this spring, but the brother of former Husker kicking standout Kris Brown is worth keeping in mind. As a high school senior, he was 88-for-89 on PATs and 9-for-11 on field goals.

​Reach Brian Christopherson at bchristopherson@journalstar.com or 402-473-7439. Follow him on Twitter @HuskerExtraBC.


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