Huskers' Special Teams Roles Coming into Focus
Photo Credit: Aaron Babcock

Huskers’ Special Teams Roles Coming into Focus

August 17, 2016

LINCOLN, Neb. — Coach Mike Riley flipped the script a little bit for Wednesday morning’s open practice as the Nebraska football team held a walkthrough rather than a full practice in pads. On Monday, the Huskers went live in the morning practice and spent the evening practice planning for the season-opener against Fresno State.

“I thought we had a lot of good mental work and technique work,” Riley said after practice. “We just wanted to do that because we need a lot of refining. This is good refining time. Tonight we’ll go in shoulder pads and we’ll have officials here. We won’t scrimmage, but we’ll have a two-minute drill, a mixture of plays … We’re heading into situations, we’re heading into situational substitutions. We’re pretty far along in that.”

Riley began his press conference by issuing an update on the Keith Williams situation – that being there is no update.

“This is a most, most, most serious situation,” Riley said. “We are still exploring and talking and finding out as much as we can. You will know when we know what’s going to happen. This is ongoing right now, in-house, and because of the seriousness of it I don’t really have anything else to add. When I do it will be definitive and that will be it.”

Buck Brings Energy to WR Group

In Wiliams’ absence, graduate assistant Hardie Buck has stepped up in the wide receivers meeting room and on the field, as have the veterans in the group according to senior Jordan Westerkamp.

“Having there seniors – me, Brandon and Alonzo; Buck’s been doing a great job,” Westerkamp said. “We’ve just been working and it’s been business as usual.”

Westerkamp said Buck’s energetic personality has been a great fit with the receivers.

“He came from Alabama,” Westerkamp said. “He’s got that background. He’s coached under Saban and he’s a fiery guy. He’s great to have out there because he motivates us. He gets after us and he’s really black-and-white with us. He’s brutally honest, which is great. He tells us when we’re not doing well, he tells us when we’re doing well. It’s been great to have him out there.

Watching Doesn’t Come Easy for Westerkamp

Westerkamp is currently working his way back from a minor groin injury and wants to get back on the field “as fast as possible.”

“I’ve been doing a little bit more each day and just trying to be smart with it and treat it up like crazy and focus on the big picture,” Westerkamp said. “It’s frustrating sometimes; you want to be out there. Watching practice isn’t fun, ever. It’s one of the worst things in the world. But you have to be smart with it and keep the big picture in mind and just keep rehabbing and keep getting healthy.”

Along with Westerkamp, senior linebacker Michael Rose-Ivey is still working his way back from a knee injury and has missed a handful of practices. Riley said he is day-to-day.

Khalil Davis Praises S&C Staff

One player who is back on the field after missing some time with a knee injury is redshirt freshman defensive tackle Khalil Davis.

“I thought I was going to be set back more than I was, but you kind of have to have a positive look on it and that’s what I took,” Davis said. “I thought I was going to be out for more than a week but I was out for Saturday and Monday, and I came back and was ready to play. So I didn’t miss too much. The days I was out I took mental reps, making sure I knew the plays because even though I was out we added more plays.”

Davis is primarily practicing with the second unit, although he got some looks with the first team next to senior Kevin Maurice in Wednesday’s walkthrough. Davis, also a track star in discus, said he has gained significant strength since he first set foot on campus last year.

“When I first got here, I thought I was strong but a year in this program can do a lot for you,” Davis said. “That’s what I tried to do, I tried to make as much gains as I could. Mark [Philipp], he’s helping us every day, especially with squats and getting my legs stronger, because in the Big Ten you have to be a run stopper and that’s what I work for.”

Run defense is the area coaches have stressed with Khalil and his twin brother Carlos. The Davis twins are tremendous athletes with strong pass-rush ability, but taking strides in run defense is the quickest way to get on the field.

“That’s the biggest thing Coach says is stopping the run, and then we can work on the pass,” Carlos Davis said. “The biggest thing in the Big Ten is the run game, so if we can stop that then we can use our pass rush moves and execute that part. I think we did well stopping the run [in the scrimmage Saturday]; that was a big thing for Coach Parrella and the D-line.”

Specialist Roles Come into Focus

Kicker and long snapper are solid with junior Drew Brown and sophomore Jordan Ober, respectively, but the rest of the specialist jobs are up for grabs. Riley shared which players are competing at each spot.

Punter: “I’m really pleased with both guys. I’m totally impressed with Isaac Armstrong’s work and improvement through the summer. Caleb [Lihgtbourn] has been relatively consistent and he’s powerful and talented. So we’re just working them. I think it’s going to be a pretty good situation.”

Punt returner: “The top candidates are De’Mornay and Westy and Stanley [Morgan Jr]. My guess is they’ll all do it.”

Kick returner: “We’re running the gamut here. We’ve got some guys like [Terrell] Newby that is back there, [Mikale] Wilbon that is back there … Tre Bryant looks real good. We’re looking hard at Wyatt Mazour. He was such a productive player in high school and he’s got some of those characteristics that look good. J.D. Spielman looked really good to me this morning doing that. We’ve got to figure that out fast, but I think we have good candidates.”

Morgan was the team’s top kick returner last year as a freshman and should continue to get looks there as well.

Following a strong start to the spring, true freshman running back Tre Bryant is also getting looked at as a possible special teams contributor as well as a ball-carrier on offense if he doesn’t redshirt.

“Even with our depth at running back, which we like a lot, Tre Bryant is in the conversation,” Riley said. We’re talking about roles, what could he do? If we use him as a kickoff returner, we will certainly not just let him watch the games as a running back and we will get him more involved in other teams. He’s in all those conversations as we kind of figure out how we’re going to do it.”

DPE Building Confidence

Pierson-El was a game-changer as a returner in 2014 before missing most of his sophomore season with injuries. He was cleared to participate in practice shortly before camp began and Riley said he has made good progress.

“Everything feels good and looks good,” Riley said. “His continuation of playing football and confidence is on the rise. I’ve talked to him kind of in-depth about that. But as far as being cleared, feeling comfortable, all that, that’s all good. It’s been a long time since he’s played. Probably the most important thing is confidence, I think, to get going. Some of it might be the fact that he just hasn’t physically done some of it for a while.”

Westerkamp said Pierson-El has been working hard to build that confidence back up and is looking forward to seeing his teammate back in top form.

“He’s been, throughout the whole summer, getting his confidence back and working without a brace,” Westerkamp said. “He’s been doing pretty well. He just needs to continue to work. It will be exciting to see what he can do these last couple weeks and when we get into the season.”

Lee Working His Way into Rotation in Secondary

Redshirt freshman cornerback Eric Lee Jr. said he is also battling to play on as many special teams units as he can so that he can get on the field. Lee said he is probably the third or fourth cornerback at this point. Lee had to learn patience while sitting out last year, but said he learned a lot from his redshirt season.

“It definitely takes a lot of time,” Lee said. “It takes time to mature. I think maturing is definitely the big piece of everything. It’s helped me grow a lot as a person, helped me calm down mentally. Sometimes it can all be what’s in your head. Once you pass that mental gap, I feel like everything’s cool.”

The one-on-one drills between the wide receivers and defensive backs have been very competitive throughout camp, and Lee mentioned a couple of the receivers he likes facing off against the most.

“I like going against Alonzo Moore just because he’s a long-stride receiver,” Lee said. “He gives you kind of a different look. And then I also like going against De’Mornay Pierson-El just because he’s trying to get back; I’m trying to get better. It’s just good healthy competition between all of us.”

Carlos Davis Lets Play Do the Talking… Mostly

Carlos Davis said the one-on-ones between the offensive and defensive lines can get pretty competitive as well, and the offensive linemen in particular aren’t averse to talking a little trash.

Davis said he prefers to line up and do his job, but he also said if “someone is going to say some stuff to me, I’m going to say something back.”

Davis said sophomore right guard Jerald Foster is his favorite lineman to go head-to-head with in practice.

“I like going up against Jerald because he’s a very good O-lineman and he makes me better,” Davis said. “Every time I get to go against him I’m looking to get better.”

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