NCAA FOOTBALL: MAR 06 Nebraska Spring Practice

Sorting out special teams

On Monday Nebraska started to work on special teams for the first time this spring. Like the defense, the Huskers have some questions to answer in the “hidden third.” Long snapper P.J. Mangieri is gone after playing in every game of his Nebraska career. So is Brett Maher who handled all of the kicking duties in 2012.

So where do the Huskers sit in early March? Here’s a rundown:

–Redshirt sophomore Mauro Bondi and redshirt freshman walk-on Spencer Lindsay are the two leading contenders for placekicking duties right now according to special teams coach Ross Els. Bondi and redshirt freshman Sam Foltz are both working at punter.

Bondi, the only scholarship kicker on the roster, said he’s happy to take a crack at punter but his real interest lies in placekicking and kickoffs.

“I’m going to go out there and work at all three,” he said. “If somebody better comes along that’s not a problem. I do like kicking field goals and kickoffs right now. Punting is kind of a secondary thing to me.”

Bondi added that he has probably spent more time on his punting this spring than anything else, but it doesn’t sound like a job he’d be disappointed to lose.

–Bondi’s main competition at punter for now is walk-on Sam Foltz of Grand Island. The freshman continues to impress with his hang time on punts. So much so Els said it was tough to get a gauge on how Foltz was kicking on Monday because his punts kept hitting the Hawks Championship Center ceiling.

Foltz also practices at receiver, which gives Nebraska a unique bit of athleticism at punter.

“It’s rare,” Els said of having a receiver who can also punt, “but it’s awful good if something goes wrong back there. Maybe there’s a fake or two where you can do something with that athleticism.”

–Sophomore Joe Rotherham is handling long snapping duties this spring. The walk-on from Green Bay, Wisc. was the Huskers’ back up last year.

“He’s come a long ways,” Bondi said of Rotherham. “He’s real sound at what he does. He’ll have a great chance of playing this year.”

Nebraska also has freshman Gabe Miller, a scholarship long snapper, enrolling this fall.

–With the new kickoff rules in 2012 bringing touchbacks out to the 25-yard line you saw a variety of approaches from teams last season. Some kicked high and short, others used directional kicks but Nebraska was mostly content to kick deep and take the touchback. The Huskers ranked 10th nationally in touchback percentage (59.38-percent) and, with a year’s worth of data to inform that decision, Els said he doesn’t foresee Nebraska changing that approach.

“You could say ‘let’s try to pin them deep inside the 25,’ but you’re taking a risk of a long return coming out,” he said. “If we get the opponents started on the 25-yard line we’re fine with that.”

–Nebraska started its special teams install this spring with the kickoff unit before moving to kickoff return, punt return and punt coverage in that order. There’s a reason for that.

“The kickoff unit, to me, is the one where you have the most effort and the most desire and (we do it) to send a message to the guys that this is how we’re going to do all our special teams,” Els said. “It’s not a passive, protection thing first. It’s get the head-hunters out there.”

–Els doesn’t see many changes coming in how Nebraska covers kicks. The Huskers gave up an average of 20.61 yards per kickoff return last year, ranking 46th nationally and fifth in the Big Ten.

The kick return game is also largely the same.

“The returns are basically the same as what they were last year,” Els said. “We just had trouble getting them executed.”

Nebraska ranked 64th nationally and sixth in the Big Ten last year at 21.62 yards per return.

–The leading candidates at punt returner are all familiar faces for now. Ameer Abdullah, Jamal Turner and Kenny Bell are the front runners but Els said that freshmen like Terrell Newby will get a look this fall.