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Photo Credit: Nebraska Athletics

Huskers, Wildcats Turn to Transfers for a Special Teams Turnaround

August 26, 2022

DUBLIN –– Kicking is a pretty important part of the regular goings-on at Dublin’s Aviva Stadium. The undulating-yet-angular arena is plopped down in a neighborhood southeast of the city’s center, and is jointly operated by the Irish Rugby Football Union and the Football Association of Ireland. More plainly, it’s home to the national rugby and soccer squads, and kicking’s a big part of both games.

Of all the games called “football” around the world, the American version is the one that has evolved to involve the foot the least. Nebraska ran 832 plays in 2021, and just more than 20% of them involved actual toe to leather (66 kickoffs, 48 punts, 43 extra points and 16 field goal attempts). They call special teams the “hidden third,” but it might be closer to the hidden fifth. (Note to self for later: Begin looking for locations to open a dive-y college football bar named The Hidden Fifth. It just works.)

That said, there may be no place for the kicking game to hide when Nebraska and Northwestern play Saturday on Landsdowne Street. To be generous, both teams were atrocious on special teams a year ago. Per ESPN’s SP+ ratings, a metric that includes all aspects of special teams, the Huskers ranked 127th nationally in 2021, the Wildcats 129th.

Despite its 3-9 record, Nebraska finished 37th in the total SP+ rankings at the end of last season, one spot ahead of 10-4 Oregon. The Huskers had a rating of 10.3, a total rating that included the -2.5 for the special teams crimes committed. Northwestern was dinged -3.2 for its offenses. On the SP+ scale, special teams cost these two teams about as much as it could in 2021.

Both will try to address it with new players. It’s possible, maybe even probable, that every place-kick and punt will come from a player who didn’t play for Nebraska or Northwestern a year ago.

In addition to devoting a full-time coach to the direction of special teams, coordinator Bill Busch, the Huskers went out and got the 2021 FCS Punter of the Year and downloaded Furman’s place-kicking two-deep.

Punter Brian Buschini endeared himself to Husker fans right away in April’s spring game, uncorking a 62-yard punt on his first play at Memorial Stadium. The Montana transfer averaged 46 yards per punt in 2021, third nationally, and feels he might be even more consistent this fall.

“This summer I got some really good work in with my coaches down in Birmingham [Alabama],” he said. “Just focusing on a new part of the ball has helped me be more consistent on my punt and on my drop.”

That part? The valve stem.

“I’m looking right through the nozzle now and imagining myself swinging right through the nozzle.”

Nebraska’s Palladin pair, kickers Spencer Pankratz and Timmy Bleekrode, will try to shore up perhaps the most high-profile, and bizarre, special teams crack from 2021. A year after making 13-of-15 field goals, all 20 extra points and earning Big Ten Kicker of the Year honors, Connor Culp couldn’t find his groove in 2022. The senior made just 6-of-12 field goals—his backup, Chase Contreraz also only hit 50% (2-of-4)—and the Huskers’ coin-flippiness clearly impacted the decision-making on offense last season. An average make rate, 75% in college football in 2021, would’ve netted Nebraska 12 more points on the year, not an insignificant number in a season where every loss came by fewer than 10.

Bleekrode has the experience edge on the other kicking contenders. He was ahead of Pankratz on the depth chart at Furman and was a two-time All-SoCon selection, making 21-of-25 field goals over two seasons.

Northwestern also turned to the FCS ranks for place-kicking help after making 46% of its field goals in 2021. The Wildcats welcomed transfer Adam Stage from North Dakota. He handled primary kicking duties for the Fighting Hawks the past two seasons. Before that, he kicked for three seasons at Division II St. Cloud State, which ended its football program in 2020. Instead of facing Stage next week, when North Dakota travels to Lincoln, the Huskers get to do it in Ireland.

The Wildcats also snagged Luke Akers, UCLA’s starting punter the past two seasons. The son of NFL All-Pro David Akers, Luke averaged 43.1 yards per punt for the Bruins.

Northwestern’s one advantage over Nebraska a year ago was in punt return. The Wildcats averaged 15.6 yards per return (fifth nationally), the Huskers 2.7 (128th). Defensive back Brandon Joseph (28.5 yards per return) and wide receiver Raymond Niro III (20.6) combined to land Northwestern in the top five last season. Joseph transferred to Notre Dame, but Niro returns.

The Huskers will likely look to imports for help in this area as well. Wide receiver Trey Palmer and cornerback Tommi Hill, transfers from LSU and Arizona State, bring return-game experience from their previous stops.

They bring something else, too.

“I think we have more speed than we’ve had, and guys that are better at catching the ball,” Scott Frost said this week in Ireland. “We’ve got a lot of options back there. We didn’t create many big plays last year on special teams. Had some big plays against us two or three times that cost us.

“In general, I think we’ve got to be more aggressive and in-tune to make the plays that can change a game.”

Season-openers will almost always trend towards choppiness, maybe even chaos. Despite four weeks of preparation, the first game remains the first time either team will play in 2022. A few extra yards per punt, one big return, making the makeable field goals can all be the difference.

Husker fans will remember the role special teams played in last season’s opener, and not fondly. Nebraska muffed a punt resulting in a safety and missed two extra points. Illinois averaged 11 more yards per punt in a game where the teams combined to punt 11 times.

Nebraska made some big moves to change games like that. So did Northwestern. The team that gets the best of the “hidden fifth” in a stadium where kicking often takes center stage, probably gets the best of it overall.

Nebraska offensive coordinator Mark Whipple meets with the media at Aviva Stadium in Dublin, Ireland, Aug. 24, 2022. Photo by Eric Francis

The turf, for what it’s worth, looks immaculate. Like everyone other than stadium workers, Nebraska’s specialists weren’t allowed on the grass when they stopped in to the stadium on Wednesday, kindly observing the “Please Keep Off the Grass” signs ringing the pitch. As of Thursday, even Frost had yet to venture onto the playing surface.

“Guys, keep off the grass,” he joked after wrapping up his post-practice interview with the Nebraska media contingent.

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