Without Spielman
Photo Credit: Eric Francis

A Smarter Special Teams Unit for Nebraska Means Cupcakes

September 04, 2019

There was someone who was even more excited about Marquel Dismuke’s block on JD Spielman’s punt return touchdown Saturday than head coach Scott Frost — Jovan Dewitt’s 4-year-old daughter. 

New blindside blocking rules put into play this season aim at removing the kind of hit that has made Kenny Bell Giphy-famous. So with Spielman set to spring and Dismuke coming with a head of steam toward a South Alabama defender, a flag could have been coming too. 

But Dismuke turned his back and instead of hitting the guy, he threw his arms up in the air and served as a shield rather than a battering ram. 

“My daughter made him cupcakes,” said Dewitt, the Huskers’ special teams coordinator, on Tuesday. “My 4-year-old daughter made cupcakes for the punt return unit, for everybody that was out there, and she wanted to make sure Marquel got two of them.”

Dewitt says he can see the junior safety thinking about it. And he can see the click where Dismuke elects to play things safe. “Having an opportunity to really go make a blindside hit but understand the coaching that’s been going on and not make that hit and just do a high screen like that, it was really gratifying,” he said. 

The cupcakes were the reward for that. Dewitt’s daughter made them, Dewitt distributed them during the group’s meeting. Just plain cake with pink frosting. And the safety loved it. 

A weekly thing?

“Hopefully,” Dismuke said with a laugh. “They were good.”

“My 4-year-old should be busy, I hope,” Dewitt added.

If not for punt returns that are taken for scores, then maybe just for smarter play. Nebraska’s field position was much improved in Game 1 of the new season, in part, because special teams were much improved. Special teams were much improved because special teams were smarter. 

The punt coverage team graded as high as it has in the 12 games this staff has been in Lincoln. Same goes for punt return (and that’s including a muffed punt from JD Spielman that gave South Alabama the ball at the Husker 13-yard-line). Dewitt said those two units had the highest grades since he’s been handling things. 

“Just better overall play, smarter play,” Dewitt said. “There were a couple instances where we were able to flip the field to our benefit on punt where we downed the ball and you saw our guys swarm to it to cover it up and you saw some of their guys not. Those are some of the small little details. 

“Now, we can harp on being a smarter team, not just lining up for Xs and Os.”

By average starting field position last season, the Husker offense ranked 123rd in the country. They began drives at about the 26-yard-line. The defense wasn’t much better, beginning drives at the 31 and ranking 105th nationally. Field position affects everything. Nebraska’s average drive against South Alabama began at the 33, while only five of the Jags’ 17 drives began past their own 25.  A step in the right direction. 

“It’s very important,” quarterback Adrian Martinez said. “It’s a huge part of the game. I think we put an emphasis on that this offseason and I think the guys responded really well to that.”

One guy in particular, punter Isaac Armstrong, had another strong showing. He averaged 46 yards a punt on six punts and downed three of those inside the 20. 

“I know some people were getting on Isaac a little bit about the distance but for us and how we manufacture yardage, it’s more about the placement of the kick than it is about the airtime,” Dewitt said. “I don’t care if it’s 60 yards in the air and booming, you have a tendency to outkick your coverage sometimes when you do that.”

Armstrong’s punts didn’t travel very far in the air, but almost every single one of them benefitted from some kind of bounce or roll. It looks short, so the returner backs away, then it bounces 20 yards with Husker players hovering over to down at the right moment.

He doesn’t hit it end-over-end, rather the ball spins at almost a 45 degree angle in the air. And it’s not just coincidence all his punts seem to include advantageous bounces.

“I don’t know if I would call it luck, he reps it quite a bit,” Dewitt says. “That’s what we see more often than not [in practice]. That’s what gives him the lead in terms of being the starting punter. He consistently puts it where we want it to go in a manner that we can cover the kick.”

Areas of improvement? The other kicking department. 

“I think it’s hard on a kid who’s a true freshman walk-on who’s asked to kick right before… that’s a little bit difficult for him,” Dewitt said of Dylan Jorgensen, who replaced an injured Barret Pickering in the opener. “I thought he did average. If you want me to be brutally honest it was probably average. It wasn’t up to par but it was enough to help us get what we needed to get done. It’s going to have to get better. 

“Kickoff, again the placement of the kicks, it was really, really short but our guys understood the situation we were in with that.”

Frost played it coy when asked about Pickering being ready for this week against Colorado, but the sophomore took the field for warmups against South Alabama and retained his No. 1 spot on the depth chart this week despite ultimately missing the game. He figures to be an unknown right up until game time. 

“And then probably a C on [kickoff return],” Dewitt said, to close out the grades. “We dropped one and we missed an opportunity to score on an early one.”

But he likes freshman Wan’Dale Robinson as the return man. 

“He’s got a lot of juice,” Dewitt added. Robinson, to his credit, is not lacking for confidence even in the slightest, saying Monday he thought he had a chance to have his own score in the return game. "That’s the plan any time I go back for a kickoff,” he said. In three returns, he covered 11, then 27, then 39 yards. 

“Although we have to give him a little bit of guff because he got tackled by the kicker,” Dewitt said. “I said, ‘You know who blocks the kicker? You do. That’s your job. We’ll block everybody but the kicker.’”

The offense was pretty bad in Week 1. That’s been discussed ad nauseam at this point. But if Nebraska can keep up this level on special teams across the board and continue to win the field position battle, as it did Saturday, there should be plenty of points to come and plenty of cupcakes to be made.

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