Photo Credit: John S. Peterson

Nebraska’s Specialist Additions Aimed At Improving Poor Special Teams Play

December 23, 2021

One of the three phases of football, special teams, isn’t as glamorous or entertaining as the other two—offense and defense. It’s fun to dissect a quarterback and offense with your buddies. A stingy defense that flies around, get sacks and forces three-and-outs is something to be proud of and celebrated.

But with special teams, sometimes they’re only noticed and talked about when things go wrong. Nebraska fans know all too well.

According to the Fremeau Efficiency Index (FEI) ratings for special teams (STR), a statistic that combines kickoff return, kickoff, punt return, punt, and field goal efficiency into one overall rating, Nebraska finished 128th out of 130 FBS teams with an STR of -1.4. While the Huskers struggled on special teams, others within the Big Ten Conference flourished. The top two teams this season according to STR were the ones that played in the conference championship—Michigan and Iowa. The Wolverines, who you can catch playing Georgia in the College Football Playoff, had the best STR in the nation with 1.23 while Iowa was second with 1.08.

Since 2018, Scott Frost’s first season in Lincoln, the Huskers have never finished better than 109th in STR. In 2019, Nebraska finished 123rd (-0.71). In 2020, it was 115th (-0.49). According to STR, Bo Pelini’s 2014 Nebraska team finished fifth in the country with 0.75. Mike Riley’s average STR in his three seasons at Nebraska was 0.31 and his average national rank was 30th.

While it may be interesting to look at, Husker fans don’t need a stat to know how much Nebraska struggled on special teams in 2021. Two kickers—Connor Culp and Chase Contreraz—combined to make just 8-of-16 field goals. Culp was 28-of-31 on extra-point attempts. Meyer had his lone extra-point attempt blocked and returned for a safety at Oklahoma.

Two punters—William Przystup and Daniel Cerni—combined to average 40.31 yards per punt and downed only 12 of 47 punts inside the 20-yard line. At Michigan State, Cerni punted the ball in the opposite direction of where his coverage unit was going, leading to a game-tying touchdown for the Spartans in the fourth quarter. Nebraska’s punt protection had a breakdown against Iowa, leading to a blocked punt and scoop-and-score for the Hawkeyes that started an avalanche of bad for the Huskers.

The Huskers’ return game was close to non-existent and opted to safely call for a fair catch for much of the season. The Huskers ranked 122nd in average kick-return yards with 15.58. Punt returns were worse, as they ranked 128th while averaging 2.7 yards.

Special teams obviously hurt Nebraska in 2021. The team hasn’t announced its plans on how it’s going to handle the 10th and final full-time assistant coaching role. Frost could hire a full-time special teams coordinator and put the running back duties on an assistant who’s coaching another position, or let analysts handle it behind the scenes. He could also stick with what he did this past season and have a full-time running backs coach with another position coach handling the special teams with assistance from analysts, like outside linebackers’ coach Mike Dawson did.

Frost doesn’t believe Nebraska has a special teams problem. As for the specialists? That’s another story.

I’ll tell you what, Mike Dawson has done a great job running the special teams,” Frost said in November. “He has people in the building who are helping him in the office with that. But our special teams have vastly improved. Our specialists, we need to continue to get better in those roles. But our coverage units, when you watch the tape and compare to where we’ve been, I’m really happy with the progress we’ve made there. So, I think that’s just a, when we put the puzzle together, figure out if that’s a possibility or not. If it is, I would love to.”

In an effort to fix the specialist problem, Frost went out and got new ones from the FCS ranks. The Huskers added Brian Buschini from Montana, the FCS Punter of the Year. He also added two place kickers from Furman in Timmy Bleekrode and Spencer Pankratz. Frost used a scholarship on Buschini and Bleekrode while Pankratz joined the team as a walk-on, as did high school place kicker Charlie Weinrich and long-snapper Brady Weas of Georgetown.

Buschini averaged 46 yards per punt in 2021 with the Griz, which tied for third in the FCS ranks and is 6 yards better than what Nebraska averaged this season. He also had 28 punts that went for more than 50 yards and also pinned 30 of his 69 punts inside the opponent’s 20-yard line. On paper, it’s an upgrade.

In three seasons from 2019-21, Bleekrode made 84% (21-of-25) of his attempts, including a 47-yarder in 2020 and a 51-yarder in 2021. He also punted for the Paladins, averaging 42.9 yards in his career with 17 that traveled at least 50 yards.

The addition of Bleekrode, Pankratz and Weinrich puts Nebraska’s current known roster at eight place kickers. Attrition happens and has come to be expected in today’s college football, but those three newcomers will join a crowded room that includes Contreraz, Meyer, Brendan Franke, Gabe Heins and Josh Jasek.

Franke, a kickoff specialist, was the lone bright spot for the Husker special teams in 2021. Of his 62 kickoffs, 38 were touchbacks. Meyer, an in-state product from Ord, knocked all four of his kickoffs through the end zone. You’ll take Franke’s 61% touchback rate all day. In 2020, Culp, more of a field-goal kicker, took the kickoff duties and had just 12 of his 40 attempts go for touchbacks.

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