Photo Credit: Eric Francis

Nebraska Punting Improves Through Two Weeks, Rest of Special Teams Remains Uncertain

September 04, 2022

In the offseason leading up to a 2022 season, Nebraska put a focus on improving its special teams.

That unit has been a notable issue for the Huskers each year under head coach Scott Frost. While Nebraska hasn’t been devoid of any special teams success since 2018 — Connor Culp was the conference’s kicker of the year in 2020 — each season has featured its own unique struggles. Last year was arguably the low point, with the team being near or at the bottom of the conference in most special teams statistics.

Frost’s fix for the issue was hiring a full-time special teams coordinator in Bill Busch. The team also brought in standout FCS transfers at both punter and kicker. Transfer wide receiver Trey Palmer was a solid kick returner at LSU as well.

Two games into the year, it still may be too early to make any big determinations on special teams improvements or the lack thereof. That being said, punting has been a clear upgrade.

Brian Buschini, who was the FCS Punter of the Year at Montana in 2021, has given the Husker punt team a significant boost. In 2021, Nebraska was last in the Big Ten in net punt yardage — second-to-last if you don’t account for return yardage. Through two games, Buschini has punted eight times with an average of 45.9 yards, about five-and-a-half yards higher than last year’s average and 10 yards higher than last year’s net average. There is yet to be a punt return attempted against Nebraska.

While it’s unlikely that the Huskers won’t have return attempts against them moving forward, if Buschini keeps up a pace similar to this one, Nebraska will end up as one of the better punting teams in the Big Ten.

“That’s as well as I have seen the ball punted around here for a long time,” Frost said about Buschini’s performance against Northwestern. “Unfortunately, they had some more chances to pin us than we had to pin them and gave us some longer fields, but I feel great about that unit going forward with him punting the ball.”

Frost’s acknowledgement of Northwestern’s punt team, which pinned the Huskers inside their own 20-yard line four times, shows another aspect of the first two weeks. While there’s been some improvement, Nebraska still has only matched the efforts of the opposing special teams, if not been outplayed in that area. Of course, the unit can’t do much when an opposing punter has a strong day.

Nebraska has still had plenty of self-inflicted struggles, though. The most notable remains the team’s failed surprise onside kick attempt against the Wildcats while up 11 in the third quarter. Northwestern scored with the short field and took control of the game from then on.

After that game, Frost said he wouldn’t have made the call if he had it back. It came as a result of the team’s aggressive mindset and getting a specific look from the opposing return unit.

“Anytime something doesn’t work, you want it back. We’ve been talking to the kids about being aggressive and attacking this thing for weeks and I think they did that. Part of it was we had a couple things we wanted to be aggressive on … we got a look that was really good for it,” Frost said. “At that point in the game I thought all the momentum was on our side, I thought if we got it we could end the game.”

The Huskers had another onside-esque scare in the win against North Dakota. After going up 24-17 in the third quarter, Nebraska kicked off from midfield after a North Dakota penalty during the previous extra point. Brendan Franke fired a short kick right which hit off a player in North Dakota’s front line, and that same player recovered it at his team’s 31-yard line.

However, it looked as if it wasn’t intended to be an onside kick, and Frost clarified postgame that it was indeed a misfired squib kick.

“We practice that all the time,” Frost said. “If we get a 15-yard penalty on the PAT, rather than kick it out of the end zone and give them the ball. We try to squib it and bury them inside the 20. Our aim has been off on a couple of those, and we hit somebody. I’m glad that wasn’t a penalty kick in a soccer game to win the game or he’d have hit the goalie in the face.”

The poorly executed kick gave North Dakota better field position than it would’ve had with a touchback, but it went three-and-out anyway.

Nebraska’s aim on field goals has also been inconsistent. The Huskers have been automatic on extra points, but have missed two of their three field goal attempts. Franke got the first try of the year, missing a 56-yarder against Northwestern. Bleekrode missed his first attempt against North Dakota, a 37-yarder, then made a 46-yard field goal later on. The two misses may be forgiven for the time being, given one was an extra-long attempt at the end of a half, and the second was by a kicker who made a longer try later on in a win.

Something to watch moving forward may be whether or not the Huskers develop a return game. Nebraska’s best starting field position after a kickoff has been its own 27, and that was result of a short Northwestern kick that was caught and immediately kneeled down. Otherwise, the Huskers have returned two kickoffs to the 25-yard line, one to the 20, and two to the 17.  One of those was muffed by running back Anthony Grant and recovered at the 17-yard line. The team is yet to attempt a punt return.

Last year, Nebraska attempted the least punt returns in the conference and the second-least kickoff returns, after having more disastrous plays than positive ones in that aspect over the first few weeks of the season. The aforementioned Palmer has rotated with a number of other players in the returner spot, and his longest kick return was a 25-yarder to the 25-yard line.

Another notable positive Nebraska special teams play was almost marred by what happened shortly after. Javin Wright blocked a North Dakota punt on its second drive of the game. It’s not out of the ordinary for the Huskers to block at least one kick in a season, so this was par for the course.

However, as the ball rolled after the block and nearly came to rest past midfield, wide receiver Wyatt Liewer attempted to pick it up. The multiple North Dakota players standing over the ball reacted almost immediately, nearly costing the Huskers the ball with good field position. Liewer was able to hang on, so the Huskers still kept possession despite the bizarre play.

Overall, Frost still isn’t satisfied with what the special teams unit is currently putting out. He wants to be outplaying opponents on special teams, and according to him, mistakes were made this week which had previously been addressed.

“There were some dumb plays on special teams that I know are getting coached because I’m in the meetings and listening to them,” Frost said. “Those things need to get better.”

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