Often overlooked, the special teams and cheer squads sometimes fail to get the recognition they deserve. With a potential All-American kicker/punter and a stacked cheer squad, look for both units to shine this fall.
R-Jr. Alex Henery became a household name for Husker fans in 2008, which was highlighted by this 57 yard field goal that gave the Huskers a 33-31 lead over Colorado and eventually would send the team back to a New Year’s Day bowl. “I can make it,” Henerey told Pelini during the timeout before the kick. Kicker and confidence are two words that I haven’t lumped in the same sentence since the days of Josh Brown and Kris Brown. In fact, all that Henery has done in two seasons with the Huskers is go 101 for 102 in PATs and 26 of 29 field goals. Even more impressive, Henery is 12 of 13 from 30-49 yards.
Jr. Adi Kunalic has been the undisputed kickoff specialist for the Huskers the past two seasons and that won’t change in 2009. In 2007, Kunalic had 28 touchbacks on 66 kickoffs with an average of 65.7 yards per kick. Those 28 touchbacks were good enough to put the Huskers at 3rd in the nation in that category. In 2008, Kunalic would rack up another 28 touchbacks on 81 attempts, which was good enough for 5th in the nation. When averaging the two seasons together, roughly 38% of his kickoffs have been touchbacks – impressive to say the least. Should an unfortunate injury happen to Henery, the Huskers have depth with Adi (career long field goal of 46 yards) at place kicker.
In high school, Alex Henery averaged almost 42 yards/punt at Omaha Burke. And with Henery entering his 4th season in the strength and conditioning program at Nebraska, I suspect that high school average doesn’t hold true today. So what are the chances Henery will see double-duty as a kicker/punter this season? “I wouldn’t have even introduced the idea to him about punting if I didn’t think he could handle both,” said John Papuchis, who works closely with the kickers. “If there is ever a point in time where he feels stressed on where he needs to spend the majority of his focus, we’d have to make a decision then. But right now I think he is able to handle both pretty well.” Henery’s comptetion (if you feel the need to call it that) will come from R-Fr. Brett Maher and So. Jonathon Damkroger, although it appears neither one of them will unseat Henery. Maher was a standout athlete in high school at Kearney, NE, where he averaged 41 yards/punt, was 8/14 on field goals, and had 775 receiving yards with 10 touchdowns. Damkroger is a transfer from UNO, where he averaged 35 yards/punt on 40 punts.
So. CB Alfonzo Dennard and Jr. WR Niles Paul were the primary kick returners from a year ago. The speedy Dennard returned 8 kickoffs for an average of 18.8 yards/return as a true freshman while Paul returned 41 kickoffs for an average of 23.6 yards/return and 8 punts for an average of 10 yards/return. With their roles increasing at their respective positions this season, it is unlcear if both will be back here again this season. Expect R-So. WR Curenski Gilleylen and his 10.22 speed to step in here at both spots possibly. Whether or not he can catch a kickoff or a punt remains to be seen, but I do know that if he can get the ball and start running you aren’t going to catch him. When R-Fr. WR Khiry Cooper is paroled from the Mike Anderson Penetentiary sometime early in May, I expect punt and kick returns to be first on the agenda. The coaches will look for anyway possible to get the extremely talented Cooper on the field, and if returning kicks/punts is one way to do it, then so be it. R-Fr. WR Tim Marlowe saw practice time at both positions during fall camp last August. Marlowe is a skilled athlete that excelled at quarterback, running back, wide receiver, and safety at Cardinal Mooney High School in Youngstown, Ohio and will get a hard look here – think Josh Davis. True freshman RB Rex Burkhead and true freshman CB Andrew Green should get looks here come fall as both were very good returners in high school. Whether or not they will redshirt is a topic to be discussed at a much later time.
Make no mistake about it, Henery will be our kicker and punter this season. The only way this isn’t going to happen is if he decides he isn’t fit for double-duty, which I don’t see happening. And whether he is thinking about it or not, being a double-duty kicker will get you noticed in the national media and most importantly, it has become a hot commodity in the NFL as of late. There is no reason to think Kunalic won’t be specializing as a kickoff specialist again in 2009. With Henery and Kunalic, Nebraska will showcase one of the best kicking games in college. Paul’s recent run-in with the law surely isn’t going to put him in a very favorable spot with the team anywhere heading into the fall. I expect Gilleylen, Cooper, and Marlowe will get the hardest looks to step into the primary kick/punt returners early next season with Dennard being more of a crutch. However, depending on what the coaches eventually decide, my darkhorse special teams star is Rex Burkhead (pictured). Burkhead is years ahead of most incoming college freshman physically (5’11, 210 lbs.) and all he did last season in Plano, TX was rush for 1,762 yards and 28 touchdowns and haul in 24 receptions for 594 yards (24.8 average) and five scores. And with Mendoza seeing time at wide receiver, I am beginning to think the coaches know what they have in Burkhead and would not be surprised at all to see Burkhead slide into possibly the #3 running back spot (as a true freshman, he could be an everydown back if needed to be) sometime next season along with his special teams duties. Overall, pinpointing the return specialists is next to impossible to predict at this point, and no matter who ends up there, we won’t be hurting.
Cheer Squad and the Scarlets
Let me start by saying that since Nebraska isn’t anywhere near the SEC or Pac-10 in location, it can be rather difficult to reproduce the Song Girls or the Gatorettes in the Heartland. The 2009-10 cheerleading tryouts were conducted last weekend and no word has come out of camp as to who the lucky ones are. I’d love to be able to breakdown all of the candidates for you, but the athletic department deems DXP not qualified enough to help analyze and help select the future cheer squad. Weird huh? Regardless, Nebraska has always done a fine job working with what we have and have even produced a few professional cheerleaders in recent memory. In fact, Nebraska’s own and Kansas City Chief cheerleader Trish Neneman was selected to the 2004 Pro Bowl. Since it won’t be known who will be part of the 2009-10 Nebraska Cheer and Scarlet squads as of yet, let us look at some of the stars that will be in attendance at the spring game and who could possibly one day fill Neneman’s big shoes.
Both squads have been a pleasant surprise under Pelini’s short tenure at Nebraska. It’s no secret that success on the field can be directly correlated to the quality of the cheerleaders and dance teams. See USC, Florida, Texas, and Oklahoma. Whether or not Nebraska can live up to its lofty expectations is something we’ll have to wait until fall to see. However, like I said, the bar has been raised over the past few seasons and I see no reason why there will be any decline from this unit in 2009-10.