Matt Rhule considers special teams the tip of the spear. His team’s first line of attack. The game, and the attack, starts on a kickoff.
Nebraska’s punting unit, especially punter Brian Buschini, played among the most consistent Huskers in 2023. Kicker Timmy Bleekrode made 9 of his 12 attempts last season with his longest coming from 46 yards out. Nebraska also benefited from the addition of Omaha Westside kicker Tristan Alvano on Early National Signing Day.
Leading the players, aside from Rhule, is special teams coordinator Ed Foley. Foley’s a longtime associate of Rhule, dating back to their days at Temple. He was also head coach at Fordham for two years and served as interim head coach at Temple when Rhule took the Baylor job. Foley’s also coached the lines, tight ends and special teams, previously. His multi-faceted background accompanies his high-energy approach that matches the explosive, high-reward nature of special teams.
“He was an elite special teams coordinator for (Temple). I think at one point that year they scored like five different ways on special teams,” Rhule said on December 21. “I believe, for us, special teams can win us two games a year. Ed will handle that.”
Foley’s already ingratiated himself into Nebraska on the recruiting trail through Omaha and Lincoln. He’s known to tweet his local food experiences and even grabbed Runza on his first off-campus recruiting trip, days after officially joining Rhule’s staff. Rhule joked during his Early National Signing Day press conference that Foley will be the restaurants guy. That’s just to say the head coach wants his staff to be themselves and unique.
Foley, 55, is also one of the older members of Rhule’s staff and brings the knowledge of Nebraska’s traditions with him. He knows Nebraska’s history of homegrown kickers and punters. Foley saw this year’s Class A state championship game and the potential. He reached out to kicking specialists in the country who said Alvano was among the top three kicker prospects in the country. Then he went through the Westside senior’s film.
“He’s had some other game winners on film throughout his career, he’s made a bunch of kicks to win games,” Foley said. “That cemented everything for me with Tristan more than ever.”
Rhule’s special teams goes beyond kicking and punting. And that may be where this new coaching staff makes the largest difference. The coaching changes during the 2022 season impacted special teams. Bill Busch was moved to interim defensive coordinator and Joey Connors stepped in as interim special teams coordinator. Nebraska blocked two punts last season, a +1 net considering Rutgers blocked a punt where Buschini kicked the helmet of the oncoming Scarlet Knight.
Returns, however, fell short considering the unit’s potential. Former wide receiver Trey Palmer led the Huskers with four punt returns last year. His longest return went for 22 yards. Graduating linebacker Chris Kolarevic ran 11 yards for Nebraska’s only other punt return. Six Huskers returned kickoffs with athlete Tommi Hill taking 12 out. Hill averaged 18.42 yards per return. Zach Weinmaster returned the second-most kickoffs and averaged 17.00 yards. So Palmer, one of the fastest athletes in the Big Ten, returned just three kickoffs, averaging a team-leading 20.67 yards in the process.
Foley said a benefit of being special teams coordinator means he gets to recruit most athletes. That includes receivers, aspiring secondary players and running backs. A running thread throughout Rhule’s coaching staff is the importance of special teams inclusion for athletes. Whether that involves a speedy star receiver, second-string linebackers or third-string running backs.
Running backs coach EJ Barthel said they look for a player who is dominant running the ball. They want to make a statement with each run, one that includes punishing violence. But it also involves sacrifice to the team.
“It starts with being a special teams contributor,” Barthel said of being a quality running back. “I think every running back in the room is a special teams member first.”
New arrivals through the transfer portal, Corey Collier Jr. and Chief Borders, both from Florida, could impact Nebraska’s defense and special teams in 2023 after playing almost special teams exclusively for the Gators in 2022. Another former Florida player coming to Nebraska, longsnapper Marco Ortiz, fills in for the graduating Brady Weas, who did not accrue a bad snap last season.
Kicking and punting weren’t issues for Nebraska last season. But the Huskers lacked the explosive play. Outside of Malcolm Hartzog’s recovered blocked punt for a touchdown against Indiana, Nebraska did not return a punt or kickoff for a touchdown. The longest punt or kickoff return of the season was a 32-yard kickoff return from Hill. Nebraska’s return game may undergo a remodel with Rhule at the helm, considering his preference for blistering speed in those positions.