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Huskers know lackluster punt return game must improve

Nebraska has yet to return a single punt this season, something the Huskers know must change.

One of the most exciting aspects about De’Mornay Pierson-El's comeback from his season-ending knee injury last year was getting one of the most dynamic punt returners in the country back on the field.

Through two games, however, the former All-American return man and the Huskers’ punt return team as a whole have been non-existent.

Nebraska is currently one of only six FBS teams to have not returned a single punt yet this season, despite forcing its opponents to kick the ball away nine times.

While the first game against Fresno State was a bit of an anomaly because of how poor the Bulldogs were at punting, there was no improvement last time out against Wyoming.

Head coach Mike Riley acknowledged the need to get far more out of the return game, but also noted that NU isn’t the only team struggling in that area.

“Punt return has been funny so far,” Riley said. “We haven’t had any real good opportunities to return the ball, but we’ve got to continue to work on that and be better…

“I think the punt return numbers (nationally) in the last five years have really gone down-hill. I think that’s because of spread punts, shield punts. You know, spend a lot of time making sure you cover down all of the eligible (receivers), spread out your punt team. And there’s a lot of different kinds of kicks. You know the rugby kick has changed the punt return game, so fielding the ball and just getting it back is a big issue.”

Looking at the national statistics, Toledo leads the country with 11 returned punts, but that is two more than any other FBS team. Only 40 of those 128 teams are averaging more than 10 yards per punt return, and there are actually five teams posting negative return yardage on the season.

Senior Jordan Westerkamp, who handled the bulk of the punt return load vs. Fresno State before handing the reigns over to Pierson-El on Saturday, said he too has noticed a decrease in the amount of returnable punts over the years.

"Punters are getting better with directional punts, and you start to see the evolution of the punters rolling out and trying to line drive it into the ground,” Westerkamp said. “There’s a lot of things that are different now. We haven’t even really had an opportunity yet to return one, but I know it’s coming and I know De’Mornay will go crazy with that."

Looking ahead to this week’s showdown with No. 22 Oregon, the Ducks have only punted seven times on the year and have allowed a total of just 13 yards on three returned punts.

In a game that could very well be heavily influenced by the special teams, Riley said any improvement the Huskers can get in the return game would be extremely valuable.

“We certainly want to get more going and we have a great weapon back there (in Pierson-El),” Riley said. “So we’re working on that hard and when we get the opportunity for a good punt return we want to take advantage of it with the people that we have.”