Last week, special teams coordinator Jovan Dewitt was pretty mum on the race to be Nebraska’s next starting kicker. On Tuesday, he was a little more forthcoming.
“I would say probably, if you had to give an edge right now it’s probably more of a — [Barret] Pickering’s done a really good job in terms of his accuracy and his location,” Dewitt said. “He’s done a really good job. Caleb [Lightbourn] has been probably the most consistent in terms of kickoffs. It’s still an ongoing battle, obviously. There are limited reps for those guys throughout the course of camp just because it becomes really expensive for the team to have to go through the reps of covering a kick in terms of expense on their leg. We try to limit those as much as we can and still have the competition.”
Pickering is the true freshman out of Birmingham, Alabama. He’s listed at 6-foot and 195 pounds.
“He’s pretty good,” Dewitt said. “He’s surprisingly got a lot more distance in his leg for field goals than you would think because he’s not a big person, right? He’s kinda little. But he’s got a pretty good range. The other day I think he was just shy of 56, so that’s pretty good.”
Cole Frahm, a 6-foot-5, 235-pound walk-on out of Omaha Burke, is the other kicker competing for the job.
On the opposite end of special teams, Dewitt said he’s excited by the options he has in terms of kick and punt returners.
“It’s going to be a familiar crew for a lot of those guys,” Dewitt said. “Tyjon [Lindsey] has done really well, Stan [Morgan Jr.] has done really well, Maurice Washington has done some really good things in terms of the back end, being able to securely catch the ball and getting loose. The good thing about it is we have a plethora of guys that we can use right now. There’s a good number of guys; we’ve got a lot of depth in terms of returners. Each one’s got a slightly different skill set in terms of being able to turn it on or make people miss, but I’m pretty pleased with the progression of those guys.”
JD Spielman is also in that mix and Dewitt said he’s “a lot of fun to watch.” Last season, Spielman was the primary kick returner and averaged 24.8 yards per return as a freshman, which included a 99-yard touchdown return on his first touch of the season.
Morgan and Lindsey only returned one kick apiece last year, but Morgan did lead the Huskers with 14 returns for an average of 23.1 as a freshman.
De’Mornay Pierson-El was the designated punt returner last season with Morgan and Lindsey again logging one return apiece (for a combined total of 1 yard). Morgan also returned one punt as a freshman for 5 yards.
During fall camp, most of the returners are working at both kickoff and punt return.
“It is a slightly different animal,” Dewitt said. “We have a unique situation in the fact that we have some guys that are able to do both. They’re not always able to do both, but it makes it a lot more fun for me to be able to coach it when a guy can do both.”
Outside of Spielman’s touchdown, Nebraska’s return game was mostly ineffective last season. Dewitt said he’s been impressed by the work ethic shown by the players as they look to change that for 2018.
“I’m really impressed with the work that the guys put in over the summer on those skill sets,” Dewitt said. “That’s typically something you have to kind of harp on guys and they were out there doing it on their own, so that’s really a good thing to see … They get a lot of work pre-practice every day catching even if it’s not a day where we’re catching kicks, they get a lot of reps pre-practice before that.”
Dewitt said before spring ball that his mentality on special teams in terms of going for big players and playing it safe depends on the talent he has on hand, and it sounds like Dewitt likes that talent at Nebraska.
“We’re going to be aggressive, now,” Dewitt said. “We’re trying to go after some stuff. I am excited. It’s really cool because they’ve really bought into a lot of the mentality that we’ve got on special teams. We’re going to be as aggressive as anybody you’ve seen in terms of special teams. We’re going to pick and choose strategically when and where we need to go after things, when we need to return things so we’re not making dumb mistakes, but the mentality that we’ve got is to be as aggressive as we can possibly be.”
That goes for the coverage units as well. Dewitt is fostering a culture where the best players on the team fight for roles on special teams as well.
“We’ve all got one goal at the end of the day,” Ole Miss transfer Breon Dixon said. “We’ve got a lot of seniors, a lot of guys. If I don’t touch the field one time [on defense], at the end of the day I’m going to try to be on special teams, helping all these guys get to that goal that we have that’s going to be a Big Ten championship, that’s going to be to get into the playoff. No matter if that’s me just being on every kickoff, that’s the only thing I’m going to get on the field to do, I’m going to do that 100 percent, try to be a playmaker as I am. I’m going to try to rip the ball out, try to do anything. I think everybody’s attitude and mine is right now that no matter what it is, how you contribute to the team, you be the best at your role and whatever you bring to this team.”
Whether it’s on offense, defense or special teams, fans are likely going to see a very different Nebraska in 2018, on that takes the fight to the opponent rather than letting the opponent dictate the pace and style of play.
Jacob is in his third year with Hail Varsity covering Husker athletics. He has also written extensively for SB Nation’s Bright Side of the Sun and The Creightonian. His love of basketball can best be described as an obsession and if you need to find him, he’s probably in a gym somewhere watching, coaching or playing hoops.