Midterm Report Cards: Kickers and Nebraska's Special Teams
Photo Credit: Eric Francis

Midterm Report Cards: Kickers and Nebraska’s Special Teams

October 17, 2019

With the Huskers’ season at a natural midway point, we’re handing out report cards this week on Hail Varsity dot com for the offense, defense and special teams. We started with the defense on Tuesday, then Jacob Padilla graded the offense Wednesday, which means it's now time for the special teams. 

First, a name: Bill Connelly’s special teams S&P+ rating.

Now, an explainer: “This is an initial attempt to measure play-for-play special teams efficiency, weighted for overall importance.”

Now, a number: 126.

Nebraska’s special teams unit ranks 126th out of 130 FBS programs in a catch-all, “how good is your third unit” metric.

The group ranked 80th last year. 

They were 47th in 2017 and 36th in 2016. It has been a steady decline for the unit, reaching a decade-plus-long low this season.

Nebraska has been flagged on a special teams play 13 times in seven games, it has a lower touchback percentage on kickoffs than Rutgers, has punted more times than any Big Ten school not named Rutgers, has missed two extra points and only connected on four field goals all season.

This group has basically been asleep at the wheel.

Again, let’s grade group-by-group.

The Kickers

First, a name: field goal efficiency.

Now, an explainer: “The average value generated per field goal attempt as compared with national success rates in proximity to the end zone.”

Now, a number: 126

Nebraska ranks 126th nationally in field goal efficiency. The value of a Husker field goal attempt in context is minus-1.11 points. 

College kickers. Amiright?

Nebraska is 4-for-10 on kicks this season and hasn’t made a kick beyond 36 yards yet. Sophomore Barret Pickering, Nebraska’s only scholarship place-kicker, evidently has one of the weirdest, most mysterious injuries ever suffered by a kicker (slight hyperbole) and it has a redshirt year looking almost like a foregone conclusion at this point. 

Pickering was going to offer stability to the position after growing leaps and bounds throughout the course of his freshman season. Most every FBS team only carries one scholarship kicker. If that kicker is unavailable, the position becomes a patchwork project. 

The Huskers tried with Dylan Jorgensen, Pickering’s primary backup, but the true freshman walk-on pushed his first field goal attempt from 31 yards out (it was partially blocked) and drew touchbacks on just three of his first eight kickoffs. 

An unknown injury to Jorgensen against Colorado forced punter Isaac Armstrong to kicker and backup punter Will Przystup to kickoff man. Armstrong hit two of his five kicks and was replaced at halftime against Northern Illinois with walk-on safety Lane McCallum. 

The former Air Force man had the game-winning kick against Northwestern, but he hasn’t exactly been a rock at the spot either. 

Nebraska has gone for it on fourth down 12 times this season in large part because head coach Scott Frost feels better about picking up, say, 7 yards with his offense than he does picking up three points with a kicker. 

Hard to operate that way. Especially when picking up 7 yards with this offense isn’t exactly as easy as its supposed to be right now. The Huskers need Pickering to get right or they need someone to step up and offer some consistency. McCallum is the closest the Huskers have and he’s limited to 35 yards and in. 

Grade: D-

The Punters

First, a name: The Sadness Index

Now, an explainer: This is not an actual thing.

Now, two numbers: six and 57

Nebraska has the sixth-most punts in football this season but the 57th-best average on those punts. Armstrong’s 42.4 yards-per-punt average this year is closer to Caleb Lightbourn’s job-losing output of 2018 than it is to Armstrong’s job-taking output of 2018. 

The field position battle has been lost this season for a number of reasons, most of which don’t fall at the feet of Armstrong (who’s actually on pace for a better season in terms of pinning teams inside the 20 than he had last year) but Armstrong set the bar high last season and has shown a little bit of regression this year.  

He’s still only allowed 24 return yards on his 39 punts but he’s not flipping the field for the Huskers when they need him to.

Grade: C-

The Kickoff/Punt Returners

Nebraska has fielded and returned 11 kickoffs this season. It’s averaging 20.6 yards on those returns. I don’t have anything cute here. Freshman Wan’Dale Robinson is an exciting option in the return game, he just hasn’t broken a big one yet. Again, Nebraska has only won the field position battle twice in seven games this season. Just like with Armstrong, that’s not all on the return man, but when none of the parties are doing their job properly, one guy has to try and pick up the slack to break the cycle.

Things are working a little better in the punt return game, as JD Spielman has fueled a group that ranks fourth in the conference in average return yardage, and Nebraska now has back-to-back seasons with a punt return touchdown after three straight years without one, but Spielman also just tried to field two punts from at or inside his 15-yard-line against the Gophers and ended up muffing one from the 5. 

It’s hard to label the return game as anything other than average when there aren’t enough big plays to negate the nothing plays.

Grade: C

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