Special teams units don’t get a ton of love.
But special teams plays can have a dramatic impact on the flow of a game at any given time.
“Oh it changes the game,” senior linebacker Chris Weber said. “It’s a huge phase of the game.”
Last season, Nebraska was a middle-of-the-pack Big Ten team in terms of kickoff return yards. Then-true freshman Tre Bryant led the way on kickoffs, but there wasn’t the threat of a scoring punch. On punt returns, Nebraska was, again, meh. The Huskers didn’t score a single point from their return game in 2016.
Senior kicker Drew Brown drilled 12-of-15 field goal attempts, and is on pace to finish second in school history in field goals made, but he was really the only special thing about the Huskers’ special teams. Freshman Caleb Lightbourn – who wasn’t supposed to play last season, but had to deal with the hand he was dealt – wasn’t asked to punt the ball too much (Nebraska ranked right in the middle of the Big Ten in punts, too) but struggled to flip the field at times for the Huskers. They netted 32.5 yards per punt last season, the worst mark in the Big Ten.
This season, new special teams coach Scott Booker has some tricks up his sleeve.
“We’re going to punt the ball,” he said. “We’ll punt it with 11 guys on the field and hopefully we can get it far down the field.”
“Am I supposed to give all those intricacies out?” he said with a laugh.
Nebraska punted on punts last year. Their go-to protection was just to shield the punter from any potential blocks. In the return game, the strategy was to just not screw anything up for the offense. Booker said things will be different this season.
“We understand,” Booker said, “that we have to be a great special teams unit to be where we want to be in December.”
And to be great, changes need to take place, both in approach and personnel. Part of those changes begin with Lightbourn.
“I don’t think he’s a finished product yet,” Booker said of the young punter. “I don’t think he’d say he’s a finished product yet. He’s dedicated to his craft and you can see him growing every day.”
As for the rest of the unit, guys like Eric Lee Jr. – who played largely on special teams a season ago but have moved into more prominent roles this season – might still see time on special teams, but it’s going to be more about keeping guys as fresh as possible while still finding the right fit.
“We understand if you just play 11 guys on offense, 11 guys on defense and then play those same 22 guys on special teams, there are going to be guys that are burned out,” Booker said. “You’ve got to have that happy medium.”
Weber acknowledged the need to be better there, and that success on special teams can bleed over into the next possession. Whether that’s a big return that sets up the offense, or a bone-crushing hit that gets guys fired up on the sideline.
“I think there’s an excitement,” he said. “Someone just made a play, it gives you a boost.
“If we can get a punt downed on the 5-yard-line, that condenses all the plays that the offense can run. It can change the game with punt returns, kick returns, anything, so we need them to play at a high level.”
Derek is a newbie on the Hail Varsity staff covering Husker athletics. In college, he was best known as ‘that guy from Twitter.’ He has covered a Sugar Bowl, a tennis national championship and almost everything in between (except an NCAA men’s basketball tournament game… *tears*). In his spare time, he can be found arguing with literally anyone about sports.