With one week of fall camp in the books, position battles have begun to heat up for the Nebraska special teams as coordinator Ed Foley met with the media Monday.
Both kicking jobs — place-kicking and kickoffs — are up for grabs with junior Timmy Bleekrode and freshman Tristan Alvano battling it out. Senior punter Brian Buschini is also in the mix for the kickoff job, and he’s also the holder for field goals.
“The fine line this time of the year is trying not to do too much in terms of getting a bunch of kickoffs and then having Brian punt and making sure he’s got his time off,” Foley said. “So we’re just trying to be smart about how we’re separating all that, but I think Brian is going to be our starting punter, I don’t think there’s any secret about that. But the kicking jobs I see as something that’s going to extend at least for the next couple of weeks.”
Foley said the staff splits up kicking reps in practice between competition reps that are charted and development reps that are designed for the kickers to work on their skills without as much pressure. Bleekrode said some of the competition kicks are during team periods with protection and opposition rushing.
“I feel like I’ve done pretty well, especially in the team periods,” Bleekrode said. “I’ve been happy, but I still think both [Alvano] and I can do a little bit better. But I’ve been pleased with how we’ve been kicking it so far.”
Foley said while camp evaluation can be somewhat subjective and complex at a lot of positions, it’s fairly straightforward with place-kicking. It’s easy for the athletes to understand how they’re being evaluated and know where they stand.
“In the field goal game, it’s really kind of cut and dry,” Foley said. “There might be some other factors but right now we’re just trying to see who’s going to put the ball through the pipes at a higher level. So that part of it at the kicking position makes it a little bit easier.”
Foley said he’d like to give the eventual winner some time prior to the season opener at Minnesota on Aug. 31, but he owes it to the team and the players to let the battle play out as long as it needs to in order to determine the best man for the job.
“I would love it for somebody to jump out and win the job,” Foley said. “As long as it’s even, we’ve got to do our due diligence and making sure that we’re preparing both guys right now to get ready … Ideally, I’d like to give him a week before that game but right now I feel like I’m doing the best I can or we can, Coach Rhule and I, to prepare both guys.”
Bleekrode started every game last season after transferring in from Furman. He hit 34 of his 35 extra points with the only miss a block and went 9-for-12 on field goals with a long of 46. Prior to joining the Huskers, he was Furman’s starting kicker for the 2020 and 2021 seasons and went 21-for-25 on field goals while also handling punting duties. However, Foley said Alvano, the Omaha Westside product who led the Warriors to a state championship with a spectacular performance in his future home stadium last winter, hasn’t backed down an inch in the competition with the incumbent starter.
“I can tell you this, the moment is not too big for Tristan right now,” Foley said. “So he’s out here right now kicking and he doesn’t look like he’s a freshman with a deer in the headlights, and it’s great for Timmy. This is my 35th year coaching college football and very few years has intense competition at any position, whether I was coaching the o-line or tight ends or now special teams — competition almost always is good for everybody. Right now, I’m really pleased with how those guys are pushing and supporting each other with Brian in the middle.
“It’s a really good, fun room. I told those guys yesterday or the day before, I’m like ‘Man, I love coaching this room right now because there’s a lot of positive energy and there are a lot of guys working on their craft to get better.’”
Foley said he hasn’t yet seen much separation between the two kickers in leg strength and long-range accuracy, though he’s not opposed to having designated short-range and long-range kickers if the situation calls for it. Between the three options for kickoffs, Foley sees the potential to get the job done.
“I’m not concerned about either job because they’re both kicking the ball well, so it’s not like they’re struggling,” Foley said. “We’re making a fair amount of kicks; we’re over 75% on the kickoffs, which isn’t good enough, but they’re both making enough kicks where I can see with a little bit of improvement we might be OK going into the year.”
As for the return game, one position looks pretty clear early on while the other is still very much in doubt.
“I can tell you Billy Kemp is going to be our our punt returner or in the top group,” Foley said. “Right now Billy and [Isaiah Garcia-Castaneda] are the guys. Some of the young kids are doing OK. But the kickoff return job, I think, we’re not quite as far along, and I knew that going in. It’s hard because we’ve only had pads on for one day. There’s a part of that kickoff return job that’s going to be we’ve got to send some guys down there at him and see who’s going to get up in there, kind of a fearless factor to that. But we’ve got some guys that are catching and tracking it pretty well on. I think that job will be OK.”
As for the blocking and coverage positions, Foley said he likes the athleticism of the freshman class as a whole and could see multiple newcomers earning spots on the special teams two-deep and perhaps earning a starting spot at some point during the season, either through performance or injury.
“I call it high speed decision making, right?” Foley said. “But you can’t have high speed decision making if you don’t have high speed. So we have some guys with high speed right now that really are learning very quickly but are getting down the field very, very fast, and that’s that’s good to see.”