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Ed Foley Likes Special Teams Progression, Open Competition in Return Game

July 14, 2023

The unique aspect of special teams evaluation is that there’s less levels for nuance. You either make the kick or you don’t. You either get the punt where you want it or you don’t. And in charge of Nebraska’s special teams unit is seasoned veteran Ed Foley. The longtime special teams coach joined Greg Sharpe for Wednesday night’s episode of Sports Nightly to take a deeper look at Nebraska’s special teams unit. And this year’s special teams unit may play a bigger role than previous because of the onus this staff puts on the third phase.

This coaching staff cares enough about special teams that the Huskers hosted a specialists camp this spring. Greg Zuerlein, Brett Maher and Alex Henry, all who once called Lincoln home, lent their expertise. Nebraska’s specialists made their own camp stops elsewhere, which Foley endorsed. As he sees it, they can soak in as much knowledge and input as possible when determining the best course of execution.

“I encourage them to do everything they can,” Foley told Sharpe. “I talk about how it will apply to everything we’re doing.”

Foley is encouraged by each Huskers’ development thus far. Most were in Lincoln for winter workouts and then went through a first spring season with this coaching staff. Foley said the team did some things well in the spring but needs to be better. That gives them goals to continue working towards.

Brian Buschini continues pushing himself and working on the fine points of kicking. He’s also likely stepping into a role as holder on the field goal unit. Foley feels Buschini will have another big year this fall. Timmy Bleekrode is the returning field goal kicker although he struggled in the spring by going 1-of-3. Foley said Bleekrode’s spring performance needed to be better but the team also needs to be better in its operation. Bleekrode continues improving his technique and not putting too much pressure on himself, the special teams coordinator said. Incoming kicker Tristan Alvano will vie for playing time and compete against Bleekrode. Foley complimented the Omaha Westside kicker’s ball striking ability, his strong leg and his repeatable leg swing. Alvano’s history making big kicks, especially inside Memorial Stadium, also stands out.

The Huskers also seized long snapper Marco Ortiz from the transfer portal. Ortiz was a longtime starting snapper at Florida and brings his consistent snaps to Nebraska. Foley said Ortiz is now pinpointing snaps to certain locations in certain situations. Foley even scouted Marco’s older brother when Antonio Ortiz was trying out for NFL teams. Antonio, also a long snapper, last played in the XFL.

“The pedigree means a little bit to me,” Foley said. “He’s a junkie with it and he’s working on his craft all the time and he’s getting better.”

That leaves the kick and punt returning jobs. Foley considers the kickoff return job completely open. Baylor transfer Joshua Fleeks returned kicks for head coach Matt Rhule as a Bear and brings his own explosiveness. Returning Husker Tommi Hill, who has his share of special teams snaps at Nebraska, is also in the running. Isaiah Garcia-Castaneda and Alex Bullock also both are in consideration for return men. Foley really likes Billy Kemp IV for the punt return job because he carries confidence and elusiveness.

“There are several guys who can do it. We didn’t do a lot in terms of contact and, really,” Foley said, “kickoff return is still formulating so we’re still growing there but we’ll find us a kickoff returner somewhere in camp.”

The coaches will also considering incoming freshmen, which include some talented, speedy athletes. Foley said he won’t pass judgement on any of them until they get their opportunities in the return game.

Foley’s seen a complete buy-in to the new coaching staff. He said he knew it would be that way as soon as he saw them in the weight room when he returned from recruiting trips. They’ll take their detailed approach to camp with introductory special teams into camp. They’ll then sort actual scheme fits in August to get ready for the season opener.

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