It’s a little earlier than usual, but with the content wheel still churning even though football has stalled out, we thought it would be a good idea to just pull this up the calendar. Normally this series runs in the summertime, with the benefit of spring football to guide some of the thinking.
Not only have we not gotten to see spring football, the coaches haven’t gotten to conduct spring football. The 2020 college football season may very well be, for all intents and purposes, thrown together on a constricted time table. Nebraska probably won’t be getting these practices back.
So, this is going to run once a week over the next several weeks, and hopefully it’s as therapeutic for the reader as it is for the writer. Let’s run through 10 of the most interesting Huskers heading into the 2020 football season. As has been the case in years past, we’ll start at the bottom and work up.
No. 10: Chase Contreraz
Let’s just open with Scott Frost on the Huskers’ kicking situation in 2019.
“That's a place where we needed some new guys to come in,” the head ball coach said on March 9 when the Huskers opened spring ball. “Certainly kicker has been an issue for a little bit around here. We are not in the best place right now. I think coach (Jonathan) Rutledge has some ideas for how to address those things. We are going to give the guys who are on campus a real good look and a great chance this spring and see if we need to make any changes from there.
“One of our focuses and emphasis on the team was special teams potentially costs us three or four games last year. You could probably make an argument for more of that. But we definitely need to be better in that area. I think the kids look like they bought into that today. The effort needs to change. The details need to change. And having one guy to drive it I think is going to help us and all the coaches are on board too. We know how important it is and we are going to make sure we put in the time to be better at it.”
When Frost said “one guy to drive it,” I’m assuming he was talking about Rutledge, the new special teams analyst Nebraska brought in from Auburn this offseason to run the show. Jovan Dewitt previously handled the “Special Team Coordinator” title along with his outside linebacker duties, but he’s off to North Carolina.
Dewitt’s health last season meant his responsibilities were shared with Zach Crespo, a grad assistant for Dewitt. Rutledge won’t have any other title; he’s solely responsible for one phase of the game and one phase only. He’ll be tasked with resurrecting a unit that, by SP+ standards, was the sixth-worst in all of football last season.
But, maybe Frost’s “one guy to drive it” remark can be stretched (hope you’ve done the same, I may be reaching) to mean kicker.
Nebraska had six different players attempt a field goal last season. Of the 20 attempted kicks, Nebraska missed eight. It missed two extra points. Let’s say, for argument’s sake, Nebraska makes half of those kicks it missed. That’s still 14 points left on the table in a season in which the Huskers outscored all competition by three. With four one-possession losses, is that enough of a boost to put Nebraska into a bowl game in Year 2?
It wasn’t like Frost was asking for bombs from midfield. No Alex Henrey impersonations around these parts. The Huskers were hesitant to even attempt a 40-yarder; they took just three all season. The average depth on all kicks was 30.9 yards out. The average on missed kicks was 34.6. Nebraska wasn’t asking much.
And Frost wasn’t able to play-call with any sense of confidence once the Huskers crossed midfield because until they reached the red zone, it was mandatory four-down territory. What’s the cost of that?
Barret Pickering, a scholarship sophomore who looked like a rising kicker in his 2018 season, has left the program. So, too, has Dylan Jorgenson, Pickering’s early backup last year.
Matt Waldoch, a club soccer player pulled over midseason, won’t return even though he was arguably Nebraska’s steadiest kicker a season ago.
Lane McCallum, the hero of the 13-10 Northwestern win, is back to playing safety.
The title of starting kicker for the Huskers in 2020 feels like it wants to give itself to sophomore walk-on Chase Contreraz.
“I’ve wanted to be a Husker my whole life,” he told Hail Varsity’s Greg Smith when he committed. “There was never a moment where I thought I couldn’t make it there. I’ve always had that gut feeling that it was my destiny to play for Nebraska and with this year’s kicking situation both for myself and the Huskers, I couldn’t be more sure of that feeling.”
At Iowa Western, the 6-foot-1 Iowa native connected on 13 of his 16 field goals last season for the Reivers with a long of 47. He hit 40 of his 42 extra points. In prep play, he hit a 54-yarder. He connected from 50 with room to spare on Tom Osborne Field while just messing around and shared it on Twitter.
Contreraz should get first crack at the position. If he can have any kind of consistency, he’ll hold it for a while.
That’s not to say he needs to be perfect right out of the gate, Pickering hit 10 straight to close out his freshman season after opening the year 4-for-8. Nebraska just needs someone at that spot it has confidence in. If Contreraz is banging kicks between the uprights in practice all week, Frost probably won’t feel as nauseous having to send a kicker out onto the field in 2020 as he no doubt did in 2019.
That helps second-down play-calling from the 35-yard-line. It helps third-down play-calling. It helps aggressiveness. It helps with overall offensive morale. There was so much at play psychologically last season with that offensive group.
Contreraz will battle it out with what’s left of this offseason training time with Kearney native and redshirt freshman Gabe Heins, as well as Oklahoma freshman Tyler Crawford. The latter could very well be Nebraska’s kickoff specialist in 2020.
Regardless, kicker is one of the positions of serious need and Contreraz is one of the most intriguing Huskers because of it.
Derek is a newbie on the Hail Varsity staff covering Husker athletics. In college, he was best known as ‘that guy from Twitter.’ He has covered a Sugar Bowl, a tennis national championship and almost everything in between (except an NCAA men’s basketball tournament game… *tears*). In his spare time, he can be found arguing with literally anyone about sports.