There's one more phase of the game left in our Year in Review series before we dive into deeper positional looks: special teams. And it's a unit that actually showed improvement in 2017. If punting and kicking isn't your cup of tea, you can read about the offense here and the defense here.
What Nebraska Needed to Do
More than anything else, Nebraska needed some consistency out of its specialists in 2017. Drew Brown was going to give the Huskers steady kicking, but what about mustering something in the return game? Nebraska hadn’t scored a touchdown in the return game since 2014 and the punt return portion of that was virtually a non-factor in 2016 despite the presence of De’Mornay Pierson-El.
It’s why Bruce Read was let go and the third phase of the game was handled by both safeties coach Scott Booker and new defensive coordinator Bob Diaco. Entering into the season, the Huskers’ coaching staff said it needed to be more efficient in all three phases of the game. They wanted consistency from second-year punter Caleb Lightbourn — 12th in the conference in 2016 in yards per punt — and aggressiveness in the return game.
What Nebraska Did
There’s some bad we’ll get to in a minute, but for the most part, Nebraska’s third phase improved pretty noticeably in 2017. We’ll start in the punting game.
Diaco deserves criticism for what happened with the defense last season, but he absolutely deserves credit for the gains that were made by Lightbourn in his second season in Lincoln.
The punter’s average jumped from 39.7 to 42.1 and while that may look like modest gains, it was good enough to move him from No. 12 in the Big Ten up to No. 6 and from No. 97 nationally up to No. 62. Diaco worked exclusively with Lightbourn to hammer down a consistent form and technique for striking the ball, and it seemed to pay off. His career-long bumped from 58 to 69 yards and, at times, Lightbourn proved a significant weapon for Nebraska in flipping field position. There were still the occasional shanked kicks, but that’s to be expected with any young player.
Improved numbers weren’t exclusive to Lightbourn though, as a whole, Nebraska fared much better in 2017 than the year before. Efficiency, according to ESPN, jumped from 44th nationally (55.6 on a 100 point scale) to 14th (62.3) and third among Big Ten schools. The Huskers got another threat in the return game in wideout JD Spielman to compliment Pierson-El, and Spielman made his impact felt early with a kickoff return to the house in the season-opener against Arkansas State — a first since 2013.
Spielman ranked inside the top 25 in the country among qualified players in terms of average per return (24.8 yards) and third in the conference. He only scored the one touchdown in the opener, but Spielman’s offensive success coupled with his explosive athletic ability made him a threat each time he touched the ball.
As for Brown, he was again steady. He didn’t miss an extra point and passed his brother, Kris, for second in Nebraska program history in career field goals made with 59.
Now for the bad: Nebraska’s punt return game still wasn’t what you want.
Pierson-El burst onto the scene as a freshman with three punt returns for scores in 2014. Yes, injuries have played a part in a less aggressive game since then, but the ability is still there. You saw it in brief glimpses in 2017 as well; Pierson-El was a shoestring tackle away from breaking a big one on several occasions. But, with all the improvements elsewhere, Nebraska seemingly made no attempt at a return game in 2017.
On most kicks, there was very little blocking done and no real room for the return man to run once he caught the ball. The Huskers, once again, punted on the return game in favor of ball security and health. Pierson-El averaged 7.2 yards per return but only got the chance to do so 12 times. Part of that was Nebraska’s inability to force teams into a lot of punting situations, but more often than not, Pierson-El was fair catching the ball.
What it Means Going Forward
If new head coach Scott Frost has his say, Nebraska won’t be kicking the ball much.
Last season Central Florida, boasting one of the nation’s best offenses, was tied for 124th nationally in punts attempted (41 compared to Nebraska’s 59) and tied for 108th in field goals attempted (14, same as Nebraska).
The Knights were efficient — seventh in the country, according to ESPN’s efficiency rankings — and dangerous — three return touchdowns on the season.
New outside linebackers coach Jovan Dewitt will also handle special teams for the Huskers and last season, his unit averaged nearly 16 yards per punt return and 25 yards per kickoff return. The new coaching staff keeps saying things are going to go fast in Lincoln now, there’s no reason to believe that won’t be the case on special teams too.
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.