Photo Credit: John S. Peterson

Does Nebraska Need a Full-Time Special Teams Coordinator? ‘Potentially’ Scott Frost Says

November 11, 2021

It’s no secret that, of the three phases of football—offense, defense and special teams—Nebraska can be considered good in only one: defense.

Head coach Scott Frost’s offense averages 458 total yards per game, which ranks second in the Big Ten and 19th in the nation. That’s pretty good. But to win games, points need to be scored, and the Huskers’ 28.6 average is tied for 65th in the country. A big part of that is Nebraska’s red-zone offense. The Huskers are only scoring points 77.27% of the time once it gets inside the opponent’s 20-yard line—that ranks way down the list at 105th in the nation.

Defensive coordinator Erik Chinander’s unit has held up its end of the bargain this season. Frost’s offense has not.

But then there’s the issue of special teams.The Huskers aren’t good there, either. Nebraska’s field-goal kicking is one of the worst in the country, connecting on only 50% (8-of-16) of the tries which is dead last in the conference and tied for 125th in the nation. There’s no doubt that Nebraska’s record would be much different than its current 3-7 if that percentage is even a little better. It’s a far cry from last year, where kicker Connor Culp was reliable, making 13 of his 15 attempts which got him the Big Ten Kicker of the Year honor. He’s since gone 6-of-12 and benched. Chase Contreraz, Culp’s backup, has had his struggles lately, too.

Then there’s the return units on punts and kickoffs. The Huskers are lifeless in those areas and have the look of a team that’s given up on the return game all together, opting for fair catches instead. Fair catches are the safer play and limit the possibility of catastrophe, like Cam Taylor-Britt’s infamous field-the-punt-at-the-3-yard-line-and-get-called-for-a-safety adventure at Illinois.

Nebraska is averaging 2.7 yards per punt return, which ranks last in the conference and 126th in the nation. Michigan State and the Huskers have returned the same amount of punts—10—but the Spartans have returned theirs 212 yards for two touchdowns, one of which you’re remember was against NU in the fourth quarter, while Nebraska has brought its back only 27 yards.

On kickoff return, the Huskers are averaging 16.33 yards which is tied for 10th in the Big Ten and 117th in the nation. Their nine kickoff return attempts are the fifth fewest in the country. Another Big Ten team, Illinois, has even fewer attempts with three, the least of everyone.

Since 2018, Frost’s first year in Lincoln, punt return and kickoff return have never been particularly good. The Huskers finished second in the conference and 14th in the nation in average punt-return yardage last season with 13.33 (that’s on only nine returns in the COVID-shortened eight-game schedule), but in 2019 they averaged 8 yards (fifth in Big Ten, 65th nationally) and in 2018 9.38 (fourth, 60th). It’s been even worse on kickoff return—Nebraska finished tied for 94th (18.27) in the country in 2020, 107th (18.13) in 2019 and 126th (15.81) in 2018.

What about punt coverage? After finishing 111th in the nation in 2018 while giving up two touchdowns and an average of 11.28 yards per punt return, the Huskers saw massive improvement in 2019, finishing seventh in the country while holding opponents to only 2.27 yards on each punt return. That didn’t last, however, as NU finished 105th last year while giving up 12.17 yards per punt return. This season, Nebraska is 13th in the Big Ten and 79th in the nation, holding teams to 8.75 yards per punt return.

The kickoff coverage unit has been a bright spot this season, and that’s thanks to Brendan Franke and his 64% touchback rate. The transfer from Morningside University has 32 touchbacks on 54 kickoffs. True freshman Kelen Meyer, in-state true freshman from Ord, has been good, too, with all four of his kickoffs being touchbacks.

After a wild Monday where Athletic Director Trev Alberts announced Frost would return for the 2022 season, but with a restructured contract, and four assistant coaches on the offensive side of the ball were left go, Frost was asked if he considered hiring a full-time special teams coordinator.

“Potentially,” he said Wednesday as he met with the media at Memorial Stadium.

The Huskers haven’t had a full-time special teams coordinator since Frost has been in Lincoln. He instead chose to give those duties to outside linebackers coach Mike Dawson. Dawson was the special teams coordinator at Boston College from 2009-11.

I’ll tell you what, Mike Dawson has done a great job running the special teams,” Frost said. “He has people in the building who are helping him in the office with that. But our special teams have vastly improved. Our specialists, we need to continue to get better in those roles. But our coverage units, when you watch the tape and compare to where we’ve been, I’m really happy with the progress we’ve made there. So, I think that’s just a, when we put the puzzle together, figure out if that’s a possibility or not. If it is, I would love to.”

William Przystup has taken over for Cerni as Nebraska’s full-time punter and has been up and down this season. He’s averaging 44.22 yards on 27 punts and even booted an 84-yarder against Northwestern and a 62-yarder against Purdue. But Przystup has had his share of shanks—the 13-yarder against Ohio State that gave the Buckeyes a short field they later scored a touchdown on comes to mind.

Only five of the 14 teams in the Big Ten have full-time special teams coordinators, including Ohio State, Wisconsin, Iowa, Northwestern and Rutgers. The other nine teams have assistants similar to Dawson who coach a position group on top of their special teams duties. It’s worth noting that some of the best head coaches in the conference—Ryan Day, Paul Chryst, Kirk Ferentz and Pat Fitzgerald (it may be too soon to anoint Greg Schiano)—see value in having a full-time special teams coach.

Will one of those make their way to Lincoln, and will they help with the consistency of Nebraska’s specialists? That’s what Frost has to weigh—among the many other things—as he looks to fill vacant roles on his offense for 2022.

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