In total, Nebraska’s new coaching staff added 39 new scholarship players in the 2023 recruiting class. This puts the program’s scholarship numbers over triple digits in spring camp. With winter workouts ongoing and spring ball likely to impact who stands out to this coaching staff, Hail Varsity is taking a deeper look at what each position looks like right now.
Previous resets: Quarterbacks, Running Backs, Wide Receivers,Tight Ends, Offensive Line, Defensive Line, Edge Rushers, Linebackers, Cornerbacks, Safeties/Nickels/Rovers.
Nebraska announced new head coach Matt Rhule the day after the Huskers beat rival Iowa in Iowa City. Shortly thereafter, kicker Timmy Bleekrode and punter Brian Buschini announced their intentions to return for the 2023 season. Their decisions brought veteran experience to special teams, an emphasis for Rhule and his coaching staff.
Buschini was among the first Huskers in the Hawks Championship Center for Rhule’s introductory ceremony that following Monday. The Helena, Montana, native embraced Nebraska and announced he’ll change his number to No. 18 in the upcoming season to honor Brook Berringer. The 2021 FCS Punter of the Year at Montana averaged 44.0 yards per punt for the Huskers in 2022, breaking the top 10 in program history. In total, 16 of his punts surpassed 50 gross yards and 14 of them stayed inside the opposing 20. Not only that, Buschini stayed in every game despite sustaining a foot injury when Rutgers blocked a punt in the middle of the season. Buschini hobbled to the sidelines in pain but always came back out to flip the field.
The punter’s determination caught the eye of special teams coordinator Ed Foley. Last month Foley said they wouldn’t guarantee anyone jobs through the spring. Coaches want to spark a competition at every position and see who comes out on top. But Foley admired Buschini’s professionalism and liked how he approached the game.
“He’s good just beyond leg strength because he’s got a good leg,” Foley said. “I like the fact that he fought through some injury last year. I talked with him about that and what his mindset was getting through that, because I thought that was really unselfish of him.”
Foley thought Buschini challenged himself on direction of punts. The special teams coordinator said that’s a valuable trait this coaching staff wants to expand. If Buschini can complete that part of his game, Foley said, it could prepare him for the NFL and allow Nebraska’s coverage teams to swarm the ball.
Nebraska’s other punter on roster is former Nebraska Wesleyan starting punter Jacob Hohl. He’s originally from Lincoln, where he played high school ball at Southwest. Hohl is also a former all-Great Plains Athletic Conference punter who averaged 40.0 yards per punt for the Prairie Wolves in 2021.
The more prestige specialist competition comes at kicker. Timmy Bleekrode went 21 of 25 in three seasons at Furman before transferring to Nebraska ahead of the 2022 season. Bleekrode finished last year 9 of 12 on field goals and 34 of 35 on extra points (the lone miss was blocked). Bleekrode started the season 1 of 3. His first attempt, a 37-yarder against North Dakota, missed. He recovered to make a 46-yard attempt in the third quarter. Then came his 52-yard desperation kick at the end of the Georgia Southern game. He then made seven straight field goals before a missed 32-yard field goal against Iowa.
Another former Furman kicker, Spencer Pankratz, transferred to Nebraska with Bleekrode. Pankratz is a Lincoln native and his father played at Hastings College. He didn’t play last season.
Enter Omaha Westside standout Tristan Alvano. Nebraska didn’t offer him a scholarship until his perfect 5-of-5 state championship performance forced the issue. The new coaching staff arrived and re-offered Alvano. The special teams coordinator said his leg strength stood out initially. Then the situation and the pressure on each kick sold him.
“One of the things you get concerned about as a special teams coach evaluating kickers is you’ve got a guy with a huge leg but he’s not great under pressure because he just hasn’t faced that much pressure,” Foley said. “That guy’s faced a ton of pressure and he’s done it on this field. That’s really important for me.
“But in terms of seeing him make the big kicks, it wasn’t just the ones he made out here in the final, which were huge, but he’s done that throughout his career where he’s made some pressure kicks. That’s the difference to me in terms of what separated him.”
Foley, a 20-year veteran special teams coach, wanted to assure himself and contacted others for their opinions of Alvano. Everyone Foley double-checked with confirmed Alvano’s abilities. The Kohl’s kicking All-American will arrive on campus in the summer.
The Huskers added long snapper Marco Ortiz, a transfer portal arrival from Florida. He will compete with returner Camden Witucki for long snapping duties left behind by the exhausted eligibility of Brady Weas.