It’s hard to validate any reasoning that would claim that punter Sam Foltz and return man De’Mornay Pierson-El are the two most vital pieces to Nebraska’s success in the upcoming season.
Stressing the importance of flawless special teams play on a weekly occurrence is one thing, leaning on a pair of specialists to help a team win games is another. But the Huskers may discover that the sophomore kick returner and the junior punter will have more significance on the season’s outcome than anticipated.
For new head coach Mike Riley, that’s a good thing.
As a freshman Pierson-El made an immediate impact in Lincoln, posting 17.5 yard per return mark which ranked second nationally. He returned three punts for touchdowns, including an 86-yard return against Fresno State and an 80-yard return against Iowa.
Thanks to his impressive numbers, Pierson-El was a two-time Special Teams Player of the Week, named to the Freshman All-American Team and earned the honor of the nation’s top punter returner last year, winning the Jet Award.
His teammate on the other side of the ball didn’t have a bad season, either.
Foltz ranked fifth in punt average in the conference a season ago, averaging 42.2 yards per punt in his junior season. He also became more accurate in his approach, consistently pinning opposing offenses inside their red zone throughout the season.
His strong sophomore season earned him an honorable mention as an All-Big Ten candidate last year.
After surfing through the numbers it becomes apparent that Nebraska’s got more weapons that what takes the field on with the offense or defense. It’s a unique combination that sees limited action in each game but has the capability to make all the difference in the outcome.
Watching the two perform their craft supports that hypothesis.
In Nebraska’s spring game in April, in front of a record crowd, Foltz launched booming punt after booming punt, showing that he has the capability to be the Big Ten’s best.
Pierson-El showed no signs of slowing down, either, taking one punt 46 yards in the contest.
In a game that places such strong emphasis on the battle for field position, Foltz’s ability to pin opponents deep in their own territory and Pierson El’s big play capability have the potential to make life much easier for the Husker offense and defense.
Certainly the weight of the team’s success throughout the entirety of a 12-game regular season placed on the shoulders on a punter and return man/receiver is a bit extreme. It’s not a make it or break it scenario.
But the specialists have the potential to aid the Huskers to an additional win or two…or maybe even three throughout the course of the year.
That’s a complement to the talent level of Foltz and Pierson-El. It’s an X-factor that Riley has in his arsenal as the Huskers search for a Big Ten championship.
Having a great punter is a great commodity. Having a playmaking return man is even better. Nebraska has both.
There won’t be many teams that can match Nebraska’s talent on special teams, particularly in the Big Ten. It makes it a little more easy to validate the argument that Foltz and Pierson-El could be the two biggest difference-makers in the conference next year.