LINCOLN — Nebraska junior Kenny Bell caught the game's opening kickoff two weekends ago, ran just to the right of his lead blockers and abruptly cut back left.
He couldn't tell in that moment (he rarely can), but he'd followed the play's design perfectly. Had a South Dakota State player not tripped him up, he would have been celebrating in the end zone.
“Everything turned out just like we were supposed to,” Bell said. “I hit it just like I hit it every day in practice.”
And that's happened a lot lately. Bell has averaged 30.6 yards on his eight kickoff returns this year, 10th nationally and second in the Big Ten.
Three of those returns — including the 34-yarder to begin the Huskers' 59-20 win against South Dakota State on Sept. 21 — were close to breaking for scores. One block away, according to assistant Rich Fisher, who works with the kickoff return unit.
“Those guys are doing a great job, understanding the scheme, creating space,” Fisher said. “And obviously those returners are doing a good job.”
It's been mostly Bell fielding the kicks, though Fisher assumes that opponents will soon alter their strategy and aim elsewhere.
Freshman Terrell Newby has one return for 14 yards. C.J. Zimmerer's caught a couple of pooch kicks.
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Junior I-back Ameer Abdullah, who averaged 29.3 yards per kickoff return as a freshman, stood back in the end zone with Bell on a couple of instances in the South Dakota State game. That could happen more often, too, Fisher said. Abdullah's role on special teams had been limited since his workload as the team's top back increased significantly midway through last season.
But then again, NU could use another proven threat returning kicks.
“It'd be stupid not to get him some reps,” Fisher said of Abdullah. “I'd like to see him back there a lot more.”
Bell agrees. He's the one who's been mimicking Abdullah this entire time, anyway.
Abdullah runs with purpose and aggression — determined to score, Bell said. That's the mentality Bell wants.
“People don't appreciate what big, big plays those are in football games,” Bell said.
He mentioned the Southern Miss game as an example.
The Golden Eagles scored a touchdown to make it 35-13 early in the third quarter, but Bell answered with a 63-yard kickoff return. Abdullah scored with a 37-yard run on the next play.
“When that momentum starts taking off the other way and energy starts getting sucked to their sideline, it's hard to take it back,” Bell said. “Kickoff return's a great way to do it.”
The Huskers struggled in that area last season.
They averaged 21.6 yards per return, sixth in the Big Ten and 64th nationally. But it was the worst figure in Bo Pelini's five years at Nebraska.
NU also ranked last in average field position on kickoffs during conference games, starting drives at the 25.2-yard line.
So far this year, it's the 29.2-yard line.
Bell credits his teammates for the difference. They've helped make a difficult job seem easy.
Focusing can be tough when the music's blaring and the crowd's going nuts. Pads are cracking as opposing players sprint right at you, colliding with blockers. Running lanes open and close almost instantly.
“It's so hectic,” Bell said. “Bombs are going off. … It just seems that way.”
Yet Bell's having a blast.
“You can't not love it when the holes are so big,” he said.