The 2012 Nebraska Cornhuskers may not have the best offense or defense in college football, but their special teams unit can compete with any team in the country.
Special teams are one of the most overlooked units in football. Having a good special teams unit could be the difference between winning or losing games.
Nebraska has become known as Kicker University. The Cornhuskers currently have three kickers competing for spots in the NFL (placekicker Alex Henery, Philadelphia Eagles, placekicker Josh Brown, New York Jets and punter Sam Koch, Baltimore Ravens).
So, what makes the Cornhuskers special teams unit so great this season? Two players: Brett Maher and Ameer Abdullah.
Last season, Maher had what seemed to be an impossible task in front of him, replacing arguably the best kicker in Cornhusker history, Alex Henery.
Maher exceeded expectation by becoming the first player since 2001 to be selected as the Big Ten Conference kicker and punter of the year. Maher also was selected as a semifinalist for the Lou Groza Award (awarded to the best kicker in college football).
Last season, Maher converted 19 of 23 field goals with three of his four misses coming from beyond 50 yards. Maher averaged 44.5 yards per punt and had three consecutive games with a punt of at least 60 yards.
Maher will be a weapon the Cornhuskers will use to pin teams inside their 20-yard line to help setup the Blackshirt defense. He will also be used as a near automatic three points any time Nebraska cross the 50-yard line.
The only question with Maher is, who will hold on his field goal attempts? It does not matter how good the kicker is if the holder cannot spot the ball.
Last season, safety Austin Cassidy held for Maher. This season, the Cornhuskers have tried out wide receiver Tyler Wullenwaber, wide receiver Tyler Evans, cornerback Jase Dean, quarterback Tyson Broekemeier and quarterback Ron Kellogg III as the new holder for Maher. This will be a position to watch during summer camp.
The second player who makes Nebraska’s special teams so great is returner Ameer Abdullah.
Last season, Tyrann Mathieu “Honey Badger” was a finalist for the Heisman Trophy. He did not earn his trip to the New York Athletic Club based upon his play at cornerback. The Honey Badger’s play on special teams put LSU in position to win many of its games last season.
While Abdullah may not be as good as the Honey Badger, he is one of the best in the Big Ten Conference.
Abdullah finished ninth in college football in kickoff return average. His season was highlighted by a 100-yard kickoff return against Fresno State.
Abdullah is expected to see more time at running back this season, backing up Rex Burkhead. Nebraska must decide if it will continue to utilize Abdullah as the featured punt and kickoff returner or try to keep him fresh as a running back.
If Nebraska decides to use other players as its return specialist, they have many options to choose from. Wide receivers Tim Marlowe, Kenny Bell and Jamal Turner are all options. Marlowe has returned kickoffs and punts in the past. Bell and Turner have the speed and the athleticism to become playmakers in the return game as well.
The man in charge of the special teams unit in 2012 will be Ross Els.
Els will replace Jon Papuchis (new defensive coordinator) as the special teams coach. Els has four years of experience coaching special teams for Ohio University.
Nebraska has a difficult schedule in 2012, and the strength of the Cornhuskers’ special teams may be the difference in Nebraska winning or losing the close games.
At least the special teams units for Nebraska are one thing Husker Nation does not have to worry about in 2012.
Follow me on Twitter @HuskerMagic