According to yesterday's OWH article, Tim Beck named five players who are competing for the roles. They are Niles Paul, Curenski Gilleylen, Alfonzo Dennard, Tim Marlowe, and Rex Burkhead.
Here is what the unit did a season ago.
- NCAA Rank: #21
- Returns: 31
- Yards: 376
- TDs: 1
- Avg/Return: 12.13
- NCAA Rank: #48
- Returns: 57
- Yards: 1245
- TDs: 1
- Avg/Return: 21.84
PUNT RETURNS No. Yds Avg TD Long
Swift, Nate 23 296 12.9 1 88
Paul, Niles 8 80 10.0 0 28
Total.......... 31 376 12.1 1 88
KICK RETURNS No. Yds Avg TD Long
Paul, Niles 41 969 23.6 1 85
Dennard, Alfonzo 8 150 18.8 0 31
Lawson, Thomas 3 31 10.3 0 20
Gilleylen, C. 2 48 24.0 0 26
Asante, Larry 2 31 15.5 0 20
Teafatiller, H. 1 16 16.0 0 16
Total.......... 57 1245 21.8 1 85
Clearly, the loss of Nate Swift will matter as he fielded 23 of the Husker's 31 punts last season. Niles Paul fielded the other 8 to some mixed reviews, which would include the muff in the Gator Bowl. For some reason, I never got the feeling he was comfortable back there.
With that being said, the job of returning punts and kickoffs will probably be Niles Paul's to begin the season. Said Paul yesterday about last year, "I missed a couple holes and a couple holes closed up by the time I hit them. We had a lot of missed opportunities on kick returns. But I felt like I was getting better and better as the year progressed. I started out inexperienced. It's a different level of speed out there. I feel like this year I know what to expect now."
Paul's athleticism, size, and experience should be a valuable asset. However, if he's not heads and tails above the rest, then do we really need our best receiver exposing himself to the possible injuries that come along with this job?
If there's ever been a viable candidate on paper to return punts or kicks, it's Curenski Gilleylen. The 6'0 ft, 210 lb. sophomore hasn't had much of an opportunity to play (2 career receptions, 2 kickoff returns), but the fact that he has hands and was clocked at 10.22 in the 100 meter dash in high school says it all. Said Gilleylen, “when you're in high school, you can just run and everything will open up for you. But you have to definitely hit the holes where Coach wants the holes hit. You have to set up blocks. But you have to pick up your speed and it's not like you can be too patient.'' It sounds like he's learning and if there's no fear factor involved, then I'd love to see other teams try to catch him.
Alfonzo Dennard had his moments last season returning kickoffs and I was surprised that he only returned 8. It sounds as if he's getting a hard look again for 2009, but with his role sure to increase dramatically at corner this season, he might be on reserve.
I have the feeling that Rex Burkhead is going to become legendary during his time at Nebraska. Said Shawn Watson, “He's surprised all of us with his maturity. He gets football. He's doing things that you wouldn't expect freshmen to do. He's doing things that really you wouldn't expect him to do until a year from this time. So he came here ready to play football.” In other words, he's not redshirting.
At 5'11, 200 lbs. with a 325 lb. bench and a 500 lb. squat, Burkhead's ready to play. There's a good chance Burkhead could soon see himself as high as 3rd on the depth chart at running back, and I think it's fair to say the coaches are going to play him any chance they can get if the redshirt is off the table. Special teams would be the perfect opportunity.
If by chance you haven't seen highlights of Burkhead, then watch:
Then of course there's Tim Marlowe, Bo Pelini's fellow Cardinal Mooney High alum. Marlowe was voted the Offensive Scout Team Co-MVP last season and possesses plenty of athleticism to fill the job. When I think of Tim Marlowe, Josh Davis immediately comes to mind. Again, he's another one that needs to see the field this season and special teams might be his forte.
Regardless of who plays, this group of five should be strong in 2009. As Paul stated, it took most of last season to finally get with the flow of things. The fact is that these players have been coached a year - with the exception of Burkhead - and it sounds like they are getting it. The importance of returning kicks should never be underestimated and this group should give the Huskers a good opportunity to improve on last year's 9 wins.