Photo Credit: John S. Peterson

Huskers Look to Bounce Back on Special Teams After Catastrophic Results Against Michigan State

September 28, 2021

CBS Sports college football writer Tom Fornelli tweeted out on Monday the best and worst teams according to special teams EPA (Expected Points Added) through week four of the college football season.

You probably won’t be surprised by the team who topped the “worst” list, especially after the catastrophic results during Nebraska’s overtime loss to Michigan State.

Tight ends coach Sen Beckton, who works directly with the returners, described Nebraska’s Monday special teams meeting as “fiery” led by special teams coordinator Mike Dawson.

“Obviously, he’s very passionate about his job, and we are too as assistant coaches, and the kids are too,” Beckton said. “They took it all in and went out the first two days this week and really, really tried to be focus in on being more detailed in what they’re doing. The biggest thing I see with all of it is we’ve got to take the coaching that we’re getting in meeting rooms, the coaching that we get on the field, and put it into game situations.

“Our punters, those guys are tasked with kicking the ball. When they kick it in practice 60 yards and then when they get in the game they don’t kick it 60 yards, we’ve got our issues there. We’ve got to get those guys doing those things within game situations. Same thing with punt return, same thing with kickoff return.”

Dawson said moving on from mistakes is an important part of special teams, but the game-tying punt-return touchdown the Huskers allowed to Jayden Reed in the fourth quarter on Saturday is something that will stick with both punter Daniel Cerni and Dawson for a long time.

Dawson said Michigan State didn’t do anything they weren’t prepared for in terms of pressure on the punt that saw Cerni send to the left side of the field instead of the right. Dawson said Nebraska doesn’t do much live tackling after the end of training camp, but they do try to replicate game-like pressure for the kickers and punters during practice.

“I don’t know that really you ‘live’ anything outside of training camp,” Dawson said. “Now, we give pressure. We give full speed looks. It’s not tackle-to-the-ground live, whether it’s offense, defense or special teams, but when we train everything is full speed. We’re going against our scout team. We’ll full pressure looks where we bring 10 rushers where those guys have got to operate, get their timing down, get the kicks off and all that kind of stuff. So that’s a huge part of it and we’ve got to continue to put pressure on those guys, find different ways to put pressure on them, make it as game-like as possible during the practices.”

Dawson said the game will also bother William Przystup, Nebraska’s starting punter in that game who averaged 29.5 yards per punt including a shank that traveled just 7 yards.

”Both of those guys know and understand that the whole team’s count on them,” Dawson said. “The difference with the specialists, you can look at it anywhere you want, whether it’s the punter and the kicker, those guys get limited opportunities to get their job done … One shot with specialists, whether it’s a missed field goal, a missed punt, a bad snap, whatever it might be and then that’s the death blow to the game, it changes the game and alters the game completely. So I think those guys know and understand what happened and what we need going forward and how we need to operate that position.”

Coming off a strong performance against Oklahoma — with punts of 52 and 48 yards — Przystup got the start against Michigan State, his former team. With Przystup struggling early, though, Nebraska bounced back and forth between its two punters.

“Will had a great game a week ago against Oklahoma, put the ball where we needed it to go and he had a couple punts that weren’t great early in that [Michigan State] game,” Dawson said. “So we used a little bit of both, and we’ve practiced both those guys, they both run with the one punt team. We’ll do our rugby style rollout with Daniel in the game; we’ll do our kick to the right, kick the left with Daniel in game; we’ll do our kick the right, kick to the left with Will in the game. The guys up front, it doesn’t matter to them who the punter is. It’s a matter of the punter doing his job.”

Nebraska’s return units continue to be a problem as well. Cam Taylor-Britt entered the season as the starting punt returner, but after a few miscues during the first few weeks, Nebraska has gone in another direction. Oliver Martin, the other primary returner, has been injured since the first game.

Recently, the Huskers have been using wide receiver Samori Touré in that role, which is new for him. Against the Spartans, he returned one punt for a loss of 1 and let the rest of them hit the turf.

“Samori has done a great job in the limited role, being back there,” Beckton said. “He’s only been back there a couple of weeks; he’s still a work in progress. Hopefully we can get Oliver Martin back, he was doing really good things for us before he got hurt. But Samori’s still working the kinks out. He got spooked a little bit on that first kick when it was over his head, then we backed him up a little bit. I think that kind of cost us some hidden yardage there. I thought he was uncomfortable going forward for the ball. All we worked on today is seeing the ball off the foot, and he was 20 yards deeper than he normally would be, trying to really, really get him to explode vertically, from side-to-side and a front aspect of all those returns today. I think we got a lot accomplished there … Obviously, you want him to field as many balls as we can because that’s hidden yardage and it costs you games.”

Martin fair-caught the punts that he was on the field for in week one. Touré now has two returns for 9 yards. Taylor-Britt gained 2 yards on three returns. Brody Belt, the only other Husker to return a punt at this stage, gained 0 yards on his one return. Beckton ran through some of the other players he has working at that position on Tuesday.

“I really like Kamonte Grimes, he’s just not mature enough yet,” Dawson said. “He’s still making some small freshman mistakes there. Will Nixon, I’ve been working with him the last three weeks. He’s making tremendous strides. He didn’t travel last week; if he would have traveled I may have put him back there because he’s doing a great job. We’ll see what happens this week with with him. But Oliver Martin should be back. Hopefully Samori continues to grow and get comfortable there in that position with us also.”

For Nebraska’s special teams unit this season, it’s been one step forward, two steps back. The Huskers will get another chance to make up ground in the third phase of the game on Saturday when Northwestern comes to town.

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