Two transfer portals, winter workouts and an entire spring season have passed. There’s now a clearer picture for Nebraska’s scheme and personnel. Hail Varsity is taking a closer look at what we’ve learned about each position now that the spring season is over and the portal is closed.
Previous resets: Quarterbacks, Running backs, Wide receivers, Tight ends, Offensive line, Defensive line, Linebackers, Defensive backs.
Nebraska’s two returning kicking specialists have NFL ambitions. They both trust special teams coordinator Ed Foley and the coaching staff to help them fulfill those dreams. They both, while in somewhat different levels of competition, fought through the same conditions during the spring game.
Brian Buschini sent a 35-yard punt that was not returned on the Red’s opening drive of the Red-White Game. Walk-on Jacob Hohl came in later and booted a 39-yard punt that Billy Kemp IV returned for a 3-yard loss. The punt unit returned twice later when head coach Matt Rhule wanted to keep the game close. Buschini’s pass attempt fell short to convert. Newcomer Kai Wallin tripped Buschini on an attempt to run for the first down. The punter said previously in the spring he likes to show he’s just as much of an athlete as his teammates.
Returning field goal kicker Timmy Bleekrode knocked down a 49-yard field goal on the opening drive. Spencer Pankratz stepped in later in the first quarter and converted from 38 yards. Bleekrode returned to miss from 46 and 43 yards, respectively, after that. It’s worth noting all those kicks occurred on an unseasonably chilly late-April afternoon with a whipping wind. Rhule wanted to watch film from the spring game before diving deep into the performance but mentioned initial thoughts in the kicking game.
“Timmy (Bleekrode) knocked that big one early,” Rhule said. “Obviously, that left something to be desired later, we missed a couple of kicks. There’s probably lots of work on both sides, but I’ll get really granular with it as I watch it.”
Bleekrode and Buschini both conducted kickoff duties. Bleekrode averaged 57.7 yards on three kicks while Buschini averaged 57 across four kickoffs (two each for Red and White). It’s unclear who will kickoff for the Huskers. Buschini mentioned the different form involved in kickoff, which is more taxing on the leg than punting. In the interest of player safety, Rhule implemented XFL rules on spring game kickoffs. That didn’t influence where kickers aimed or kicked from. Returners accrued 128 yards in seven returns (Zavier Betts returned the longest for 27 yards).
Among the special teams, it’s worth noting the reliable snaps on punts and field goals. Marco Ortiz, who transferred from Florida via the December portal, didn’t show any issues snapping in the elements. The Huskers also have Camden Witucki on roster to aide in the position.
Buchini and Bleekrode both started at their respective positions last year. Foley, in the spring, initially said no position was set in stone. Minutes later he, essentially, assured Buschini is the front runner to punt. Bleekrode’s future is less certain. The former Furman transfer was 9 of 12 last season kicking field goals. He was 1 of 3 in the spring game. Omaha Westside kicker Tristan Alvano arrives this summer on the heels of a 5-for-5 performance in the state championship. His leg booted the winning field goal as time expired inside Memorial Stadium. Foley complimented Alvano’s career work, his powerful leg and his unflappability in the clutch. Bleekrode is aware the Huskers are bringing in another scholarship kicker this summer and welcomes the competition.
“In terms of bringing in a new kicker, competition never hurts,” Bleekrode said in early April. “Iron sharpening iron in my opinion. it will be good to work with him, bringing in a young kicker and getting to know him and kick with him. It never hurts having good kickers on the roster.”
Foley agreed on the importance of competition.
“I’ve never been anywhere where the competition hasn’t been beneficial,” he said. “I think it’s really critical. I think it’s important to have it at returner. I think it’s important at kicker, punter. Anywhere we can have competition, guys pushing each other, is going to make us all better.”
The special teams coordinator admitted the competition at kicker is slightly easier than other positions because it’s more quantifiable. You either make the kick or you don’t.