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Nebraska wide receiver De'Mornay Pierson-El, left, is averaging just 2.60 yards per punt return this season.

LINCOLN -- Nebraska punt return man De'Mornay Pierson-El has looked shaky making decisions this season in his area of expertise.

If his confidence is wavering, it shouldn't be, said Scott Booker, the Huskers' special-teams coordinator.

"I'm not shaken, so he shouldn't be shaken," Booker said after Tuesday's practice at Hawks Championship Center.

Booker points to Pierson-El's history as a main reason the 5-foot-9, 190-pound senior should remain confident. After all, the Virginia native led the nation in punt-return yardage in 2014 with 596 while averaging 17.5 per attempt.

However, Booker acknowledges Pierson-El needs to improve.

"He'd admit -- he made bad decisions," the coach said of Saturday's game, a 21-17 home loss to Northern Illinois in which Pierson-El returned five punts for a net of 13 yards, and seemed indecisive at times as to when to field the ball, or made a poor choice one way or the other.

The previous week at Oregon, Pierson-El opted for a fair catch in a key late-game situation even though he had an outside lane. Earlier in that game, he called for a fair catch at Nebraska's 5-yard line.

"We've all had bad things go on in our life," Booker said. "But that doesn't mean we're not confident in doing it again -- knowing we've done it in our past and understanding that preparation is going to prepare him for what he can do in the future."

As for Pierson-El's decision-making on returns, Booker said repetition in practice is critical. Nebraska (1-2) is spending more time on that area this week, and Booker said he has to do a better job of helping the player.

Nebraska hasn't always blocked well for Pierson-El, who had punt returns of 10 and 7 yards in the second half Saturday. Another sizable return was called back because of a holding penalty.

"I think overall, (blockers) were on bodies," Booker said. "At the same time, we can always be better with moving our feet, with hand placement and with setting the trap at the end."

Booker said he puts his return men in a variety of situations and asks them to be mindful of several factors, including weather conditions and where opponents' punters and kickers are placing the ball.

On the season, Pierson-El has returned only five punts for 13 yards -- not the type of numbers folks envisioned considering Pierson-El, unlike last year, is fully recovered from a knee injury in 2015.

Asked if other players are pushing Pierson-El for the top punt-return job, Booker said, "There's always competition. I don't think anybody should feel like they have rights on a position right now, the state we're in. I think everybody's fighting for jobs.

"But De'Mornay's our guy back there."

In addition to Pierson-El's quest for improvement, Nebraska had other issues on special teams. For instance, senior place-kicker Drew Brown had his 37-yard field goal blocked right before halftime, as NIU loaded the right side of the Huskers' line.

"(Northern Illinois) probably had a little push in there on our right side," Booker said. "We got a little bit compromised. The kick may have been just a hair low. And all that equals a blocked kick at the end of the half that we can't have."

But Booker saw plenty of good special-teams work last week, including redshirt freshman safety Marquel Dismuke's hustling recovery of a botched punt return at the Huskies' 2-yard line. Husker sophomore linebacker Tyrin Ferguson helped matters by pushing the return man away from the ball once it was touched.

Nebraska scored a touchdown two plays later.

In addition, redshirt freshman JD Spielman continues to shine on kickoff returns, speeding 50 yards with one late in the first quarter.

Booker credited the blockers while also noting Spielman's work behind the scenes in the summer "when nobody was here."

This week, Nebraska will need to be prepared for Rutgers senior Janarion Grant, who has eight combined return touchdowns in his career (five kickoffs, three punts) -- which is tied for the NCAA record.

"He's a game-changer," Booker said. "We have to make sure that we do a great job first with our specialists putting the ball exactly where we want it to be and next with our cover guys making sure our coverage is very sound."

Brown has placed kickoffs in good spots consistently. He's also booted 12 touchbacks (in 18 chances).

Sophomore punter Caleb Lightbourn has shown improved consistency while averaging 43.2 yards after averaging 39.7 last year.

"We're looking at his mechanics on every rep and want to make sure he can duplicate those body mechanics on every rep," Booker said.


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