It’s been an offseason of change for the Nebraska football program.
Along with hiring four new assistant coaches from outside the program—Bill Busch was already in the building working as an analyst before being promoted to special teams coordinator, so if you count him, that’s five—head coach Scott Frost and his staff were aggressive in their use of the transfer portal.
Not counting the 15 high school prospects in the 2022 class, the Huskers have added a whopping 18 scholarship newcomers who have previous college football experience, including 15 transfers from Division I programs and three more from the junior-college ranks.
We’ve been attempting to rank those 18 new faces from least to most important. This isn’t a ranking about talent or what kind of statistical production the player had at his previous program. In this exercise, we ask ourselves questions like these: How important is this player to the position they play at Nebraska? How badly would it hurt the position if this player wasn’t there?
Here are the previous installments of this countdown-style series:
On with the countdown we go. Today we’re breaking down Nos. 9-7.
No. 9 | Brian Buschini | 6 feet, 215 pounds | Punter
It’s no secret Nebraska needed to rethink how it went about special teams.
Fourth-quarter mistakes like Michigan State’s punt return and Iowa’s punt-block scoop-and-score, as well as Wisconsin’s opening-game kickoff return, are still fresh in Husker fans’ memory. Allowing opponents to score 25 points when Nebraska’s special teams units are on the field simply can’t happen again, especially when the 2022 season means so much to the leadership of Nebraska football.
To his credit, head coach Scott Frost did something about it.
Hiring Busch to coordinate the third phase of the game was the first step, and that move has already paid off in recruiting. But adding specialists Brian Buschini and Timmy Bleekrode was the next. We’ll detail both kickers today, but let’s stick with Buschini first.
Buschini was the FCS Punter of the Year last season at Montana, the same FCS program that provided the Huskers their best receiver and big-play threat a year ago, Samori Touré. In 69 attempts with the Griz, Buschini averaged 46 yards per punt and downed 30 inside the 20-yard line. That’s better than Nebraska’s two punters last season, William Przystup and Daniel Cerni, who combined to average 40.3 yards on 48 punts, with 12 being downed inside the 20.
To Buschini, who went through spring practices, net punting is the stat to look at when talking about punters. According to NCAA.com, Nebraska finished 120th (35.77) in average net yards for the 2021 season. The Big Ten had five punt units rank in the top-15 nationally of average net yards—No.1 Rutgers (45.25), No. 2 Penn State (44.54), No. 4 Michigan (44.22), No. 12 Illinois (43.06) and No. 13 Michigan State (42.9).
“The only stat that matters in punting is net punting,” Buschini said, “so I’m excited to work day in and day out to try to improve my net average and do what’s best for the team.”
During a spring media session, Busch said he’d like punts that travel 42-43 yards with a hang time close to 4.2 seconds, to allow the gunners time to beat their man and get to the returner. Forcing fair catches will be the goal.
“It’s a punter-gunner game,” Busch said. “I want hang time, I want the ball controlled, because any time as a special teams coach, if I’m coaching someone that’s bombing balls, I can’t wait to get a return on you because we’re going to catch the ball with about 25 yards of space. So you want to be able to get the net, is what you want to be able to get done. If you’re average in that area, you’re going to be top-five in the country.”
During the spring game, Buschini punted eight times and averaged 40.2 yards per attempt. He unleashed two 50-plus yarders—including a 63-yarder—and downed two inside the 20. A couple of his punts drew a cheer from the Memorial Stadium crowd that day.
“The biggest applause all day was the bomb punt that Brian hit, and rightfully so,” Frost said. “I would’ve been clapping too if that hadn’t been inappropriate.”
If Buschini can replicate what he did in Big Sky Country, it’s a win for Nebraska.
No. 8 | Timmy Bleekrode | 5-8, 190 | Field goal kicker
Like punter, the Huskers needed an upgrade at field goal kicker, too.
Connor Culp and Chase Contreraz combined to go 8-of-16 in 2021. The 50% conversion rate tied for 126th in the country last year—that can’t happen again. There were also four extra-points missed. On one of them was returned by Oklahoma’s defense for two points. Change was needed.
Enter Timmy Bleekrode, who didn’t go through spring practices but is going to get the chance to be that upgrade. He was at the spring game as a visitor and watched as Contreraz went 1-of-2 on field goals, making a 26-yarder while missing from 42. Gabe Heins, a backup kicker, missed an extra point.
“Kicking and punting, certainly we hope are better this year. The guys we have, and the new guys coming in, need to figure that out and get that done,” Frost said after the spring game.
Bleekrode comes to Lincoln after spending the past three seasons at Furman, an FCS program in South Carolina. He did both the field-goal kicking and punting for the Paladins, though he’ll just handle field goals in Lincoln. Bleekrode connected on 21-of-25 attempts the past two seasons and had a long of 51 yards in 2021 and 47 in 2020. In 2021, he was 30-of-32 on extra points.
Once the Mark Whipple-led offense crosses a certain point on the field, let’s say the opponent’s 35-yard line, there should be a confidence that points will be scored, whether by a touchdown or field goal. That confidence wasn’t there last year.
Culp and Contreraz combined to go 3-of-7 on attempts of 30-39 yards and 0-for-2 from 40-49. Last season, Bleekrode was a perfect 4-of-4 on his attempts from 30-39 yards and 5-of-8 from 40-49.
If Nebraska is getting the Furman Bleekrode, it would be the upgrade everyone was hoping for.
No. 7 | Tommi Hill | 6 feet, 205 | Corner
Nebraska’s defense returns just two defensive backs with starting experience this fall. If you want to throw in JoJo Domann’s hybrid linebacker/safety nickel position, the number grows to five.
Quinton Newsome is one of those returners, and he likely has a strong hold on one of the corner sports. Myles Farmer is the other. The safety from Atlanta filled in for an injured Deontai Williams last season, starting the final four games and was with the first-team defense during last April’s spring game, whether that means anything or not.
The corner position opposite Newsome is up for grabs. If you were asked who was in the running to win the job before spring ball, you might have thought it was a three-man competition between veteran Braxton Clark and transfers Omar Brown and Tommi Hill.
The 6-4, 200-pound Clark is entering his fifth season at Nebraska and, after starting one game in 2019, looked like he was on his way to becoming a potential mainstay at corner. But a season-ending injury in fall camp of 2020 derailed his third year on campus, and although Clark has played in many games during his career—he was on the field for all 12 last season—he has yet to become a full-time starter at corner.
Brown burst onto the scene in 2019 at Northern Iowa and became the FCS Freshman of the Year after recording 77 tackles and six interceptions. But the 6-1, 200-pounder transferred to Nebraska after a 2021 fall season that was cut short due to a season-ending injury. Brown is one of the great unknowns right now because he never got to show Nebraska’s coaches what he could do this spring as he was limited with an injury.
That leaves Clark and Hill as the top two candidates for the starting role opposite Newsome. If Brown is fully healthy, maybe that changes things for defensive backs coach Travis Fisher.
Hill, who strongly considered Fisher and Nebraska during his first recruitment, has a strong chance to see the field in 2022 and potentially win a starting corner job. During his true freshman season last year at Arizona State, the former four-star recruit played in 11 games and made nine tackles in backup duty.
But during the spring he caught the attention of his coaches, including the head man.
“He’s been a bright spot,” Frost said this spring. “He’s got a lot to learn yet and consistency. But there’s really no doubt of his playmaking ability. I love the energy and passion he brings to the game as well.”
Hill, who will also challenge LSU transfer receiver Trey Palmer for return duties on special teams this fall, comes to Lincoln highly-touted. According to 247Sports, he’s the 59th-ranked transfer in the nation and the seventh-best in the Big Ten. Hill’s current teammate, edge rusher Ochaun Mathis, is ranked 12th in the nation and the top-ranked transfer in the Big Ten.