Grant Tagge didn’t take much time thinking about his answer.
On Tuesday inside Memorial Stadium, the third-year walk-on from Omaha Westside was asked which special teams unit has improved the most in the shortest amount of time this spring. Tagge, a 6-foot-1, 205-pounder who played in every game last season on special teams while recording a tackle against Illinois and Wisconsin, said the punt team.
“We’ve been really working the punt. Obviously, some of the games down the stretch, that was a really big deal for us,” Tagge said. “Coming out of last year, we had some adjustments to make and we’ve really attacked those and the guys are embracing it. I think they’re really excited to show the people the changes we’ve made, and that’s a couple games there with the punt alone, so I think there’s definitely an urgency for it.”
With Bill Busch being promoted from analyst to special teams coordinator, he’s now able to actually be on the practice field with the players he’s coaching. The Husker special teams units will be expected to take steps forward in 2022, because what happened last season simply can’t happen again.
Nebraska’s kickoff team allowed one touchdown last season—that one came at Wisconsin—while the punt team allowed two scores last year. One was against Michigan State when Daniel Cerni sent his punt to the left when the rest of his teammates were expecting it to go right. The other came in the season finale against Iowa, where the Hawkeyes’ Henry Marchese blocked William Przystup’s punt and scoop-and-scored for a touchdown. Both of those mistakes came in the fourth quarter and were momentum-shifting plays that ultimately sparked comebacks from opponents.
Nebraska made it a point to change things on special teams, especially on the punt unit. Busch is now fully calling the shots and coaching on the field. Cerni has since gone on a medical scholarship, removing him from the team, while Przystup entered the transfer portal earlier this year. Brian Buschini was brought in. He was the FCS Punter of the Year last season at Montana, the same FCS program that produced receiver Samori Touré, who wound up having five games of 100 yards receiving, most in school history.
Head coach Scott Frost and Busch are hoping the addition of another former Griz, Buschini, is going to pay off like Touré did. From what he’s seen, Tagge has been impressed with Buschini.
“There’s been a couple times that we’ve been indoors doing special teams because it’s been raining and cold, but he’s smacking the top of the roof in the Hawks,” Tagge said. “That’s something we just haven’t always had and I think we’re really excited to go cover kicks for that guy.”
Tagge will likely be one of the players counted on to cover those kicks, both punts and kickoffs, because he’s good at it. He recorded two tackles last season, including this one at Wisconsin:
But this is spring ball. It’s the time used to shake the rust off, learn new things and improve. Busch said he wants to see more consistency with the punters. Grant Detlefsen and Jacob Hohl, a transfer from Nebraska Wesleyan, have been doing good things at punter, too. Busch is looking for punts that travel 42-43 yards with hang time close to 4.2 seconds.
Busch loves punts with good hang times, because that usually means the other team is calling for fair catches. Another important factor to punt coverage units are the gunners, the two players on the outside who race to the returner at the snap.
“It’s a punter-gunner game,” Busch said. “I want hang time, I want the ball controlled, because any time as a special teams coach, if I’m coaching someone that’s bombing balls, I can’t wait to get a return on you because we’re going to catch the ball with about 25 yards of space. So you want to be able to get the net, is what you want to be able to get done. If you average in that area, you’re going to be top-five in the country.”
Last season, Marques Buford Jr. was able to get on the field as a true freshman because he took special teams seriously and wanted to play it. The Texas native collected three tackles on the season and did his job in a couple high-profile games against Oklahoma and Michigan:
What makes a good punt gunner? To Busch, it’s the players who excel at getting off the line of scrimmage against press coverage. Beat their man to the ball—that’s the name of the game.
“First thing I always look for, I always look for offensive guys first because they’re natural releasers,” Busch said. “Wide Receivers are natural on doing those things. Running backs don’t quite have the release work that they do, so it’s a whole different game. It’s a radical release and it’s incredible speed down the field. Our number one job is to be able to control the ball in some fashion to where it’s going and we want to be able to force fair catches.
“If they’re going to single us, it has to be a win for the gunners. If they’re going to double us, they’re going to be light in the box and we have to do a great job of beating the double team for us, and then also now with the net, the guards, the tackles, now they have to show up in that phase.”
Busch cares deeply about the intricacies of special teams play. He’s shown his gunners film of the Houston Texans and the San Fransisco 49ers, NFL teams he thinks do a great job of covering punts. That helps the players see what kind of effort and technique it takes to be a good punt gunner. He’ll show the players good and bad clips.
Being a gunner isn’t easy. Sometimes you’re charged with beating one defender to the ball. Other times, you have to do it against two guys. Either way, Busch will expect the gunners to do their job. There’s a standard there.
“If you’re a real dude, and they double you, it’s legal to beat them. I checked the NCAA rules, you can do that,” Busch joked. “So we have a lot of film of great reps of guys beating them like that. So I want a guy that’s like, when they double them, they’re like, ‘I’m praying they’re going to double me. Watch this, I’m gonna embarrass these two guys.’ That’s the kind of mentality, instead of, ‘Ah well, they’re doubling me.’ Yeah, that happens.”
Phalen Sanford was Nebraska’s special teams player of the year last season. One of the better athletes on the team, the 5-11, 200-pound Sanford, a former star eight-man football player at Dundy County-Stratton and transfer from Hastings College, will be a key piece to all four special teams units again. Though he hasn’t noticed any big changes with Busch now in control, Sanford has seen more attention to detail and execution.
At this point in spring ball, it’s about getting the fundamentals down before adding anything more complicated.
“Overall, everyone just earns a spot on special teams, works hard. It’s next-man up mentality,” Sanford said. “We have a bunch of guys trying to get on special teams, it’s not something that people don’t want to be a part of. We have starters on special teams, we have second- and third-string guys, we have walk-ons, scholarships. Everybody wants to be on special teams and we treat that just as important as offense and defense.”
Sanford had three tackles last season and showed the kind of fight one needs as a gunner on the punt team. Sanford wasn’t lined up as the gunner in the example below against Iowa, but you can see a great design to free him up when the gunner to the field, or long side, John Bullock, takes an inside release to the middle of the field and helps cut off Sanford’s man:
“You just have to want to find the ball. Everything you do has to be maintaining leverage, you have to know where your teammates are at so that if you do miss, your teammates are there. If you miss a wrong leverage, that’s a touchdown,” Sanford said. “You definitely have to be smart in how you approach everything and which side of blocks you take on. I’d say the biggest thing is just understanding your leverage running down there and just wanting to hit somebody when you get down there.”
Do players on special teams need to have a little crazy in them? After all, that’s where some of the biggest collisions happen on a football field.
“A lot of times you both get a 20-yard head start, and you just have to go ahead and hit each other anyway,” Sanford said. “You definitely have to enjoy that, which I think our team is one of the most physical teams that’s in the Big Ten. I think we enjoy contact, we’re looking for it, we’re not going to shy away from any of that.”
Bullock was another walk-on who showed good things last season. The Creighton Prep grad is entering his fourth year with the program, and at 6 feet and 215 pounds, he’s a fast and physical option as a gunner. Being a strong tackler in space is another prerequisite for a gunner, and Bullock is exactly that. He was able to corral Ohio State’s Jaxon Smith-Njigba: