Football returns in just a few short days.
Leading up to that point, we’re looking at a bunch of different angles, storylines and questions that might loom large throughout the spring period. We’ve looked at three questions facing the offense, three facing the defense and now, it’s time for the special teams.
Nebraska’s special teams unit ranked 80th in the country last season by S&P+. And the last few weeks of the season made that look even better. At one point in 2018, there was talk over whether the Huskers’ unit was the worst in football.
Let’s get straight to the areas that need improving.
Who’s the Return Guy?
When was the last time Nebraska had a return game?
In 2014, the Huskers led the Big Ten in average punt return yardage, getting just under 16 yards a return. That was De’Mornay Pierson-El’s breakout. Of his 34 returns, he took three to the house. The Huskers have only one punt return for a score in the 65 tries over four years since. Over that time, Nebraska is averaging 8.1 yards a return. Six other Big Ten schools average more and eight other schools have returned more for scores. (Over that same time, the Huskers have the third-fewest punt returns in the league, so part of this is about simply creating those opportunities, but Nebraska isn’t doing the most with the ones it has.)
In the kick return game, it hasn’t been much better. Nebraska was the worst team in the conference last year on kick returns, averaging 15.8 yards on 31 tries. And over the same four-year time frame we used with the punt return game, the Huskers rank 11th in the Big Ten in average kickoff return yardage, getting 19.5 yards per return.
J.D. Spielman and Maurice Washington were the primary returners last season on kickoffs and once Tyjon Lindsey left the team, Spielman took over punt return duties as well. With Spielman moving into even more of a featured role in the offense than what he had last year, it’ll be interesting to see if putting him in the return game is viewed as an unnecessary risk.
One of the things Scott Frost talked about often when addressing this 2019 signing class was the ability of the skill position guys to factor into the return game. Wan’Dale Robinson and Darien Chase and Jamie Nance and Demaryion Houston all returned kicks for their high schools.
It wouldn’t be a surprise to see one of those new guys push his way into that return game conversation. Nebraska needs difference-makers in that area of the game because, outside of Spielman on kickoff returns in 2017, it just hasn’t had any recently.
Part of that falls on the shoulders of the blockers as well, and the Huskers will need to decide whether they want to get aggressive in the punt return department or stay with the conservative approach they’ve been using (they’ve just tried to simply field punts cleanly the last two years). If Spielman remains the guy in the punt return game, great, but those blockers need to do a better job of giving him time to operate; 11 of his 17 fielded punts were fair caught.
Clean Up the Execution
In 12 games, the Huskers were flagged on special teams 12 times for 114 yards. The Huskers had holds and blocks in the back that negated returns, kick catch interference calls, facemask penalties and offsides. Now, in the last six games of the season, Nebraska was only called for three penalties on special teams. It got better after that Northwestern game, which was right around the time the Huskers flipped their season around.
Nebraska needs that to continue. Sloppiness on special teams affects everything. The further back in your own territory you start, the harder it is to playcall. And Nebraska’s offense ranked 123rd in the country in starting field position. The Huskers started drives, on average, at their own 26 yard line. Opponents were starting at their 31; only 29 teams let their opponents start further down the field than the Huskers.
Take, for example, a 19-yard, third-quarter punt return for the Huskers that would have started the offense at the Northwestern 32-yard-line. Nebraska could have run three kneel-downs and still been in field goal range, up 20-14. Instead, a hold pushed the start of the drive back to the 42-yard-line and the Huskers turned the ball over four plays later.
Or a fourth-quarter kickoff to Minnesota that was returned to the Gophers’ 41-yard-line. A facemask added 15 yards to an already bad play and Minnesota started at Nebraska’s 44. The Gophers found the endzone three plays later.
“If you can get a return and start your possession on the 29-yard-line or better, you have a 75 percent more likely chance of scoring points on that drive,” special teams coordinator Jovan Dewitt said last fall. “One of our goals is to make sure we get that ball out past the 25 to the 29-yard-line. That’s the difference over the last two years for us, especially. If we get the ball to the 29-yard-line our scoring percentage shoots way up. If we only get the ball out to the 25-yard-line our scoring percentages go down.”
Special teams at the college level is often times a crap shoot. But this Husker coaching staff puts a premium on the third phase of the game. They don’t play bottom-of-the-depth-chart guys on kickoff and punt teams, they play guys they trust to go make plays and in some instances that includes starters. Some of those guys who played roles last year are gone.
Will we see more of an embracing of special teams right away from the locker room this upcoming season? It will start in the offseason when the coaching staff figures out who really cares about the third phase of the game and who doesn’t. Last year should serve as a reminder of its importance.
What Becomes of Caleb
Caleb Lightbourn is still around. The senior-to-be scholarship punter can’t really transfer at this point in his Nebraska career — who is looking for a transfer punter with one year of eligibility left? Which leaves him here to fight for his job, which is what he’s doing, despite what some thought might happen.
Lightbourn is enigmatic. Bob Diaco pulled something out of him in 2017 — maybe Diaco’s only Nebraska acheivement — that no one else has been able to. A detail-oriented approach helped Lightbourn improve a freshman year punt average of 39.6 yards (12th in the Big Ten in 2016) up to 42.1 (sixth in 2017). Of his 59 punts, he downed 20 inside the 20-yard-line and forced fair catches on 23. His freshman season struggles were mostly written off because of an awful situation that had nothing to do with football. He looked like a promising piece of Nebraska’s future in 2017.
But in 2018 he slipped on a rugby-style punt and flubbed an onside kick attempt against Ohio State that made blooper reels all around the college football world and suddenly Lightbourn’s confidence was shredded.
He averaged 41.6 yards a punt last year, which isn’t bad, but only downed two inside the 20 and struggled with placement all year. Instead of angling his punts to the boundaries, Lightbourn routinely blasted kicks right down the middle of the field, yielding 11 returns on 24 punts for an average of 16.4 yards a return.
When Frost replaced him with junior walk-on Isaac Armstrong, Frost said it was because he wanted the ball to go where it was supposed to. Armstrong delivered, with a 43.6 yards-per-punt average (second-best in the Big Ten) and 10 of his 32 kicks downed inside the 20.
The eye-opening stat with Armstrong is that he only allowed six returns for an average of 0.2 yards each. That’s placement.
Lightbourn might have a chance to win his job back — he has the leg to match Armstrong distance kick for distance kick — but he’s going to have to prove he can do the same things Armstrong could. At this point, Lightbourn’s struggles seem more mental than physical. Is he able to get out of his own way this spring and really make this a two-man race or is Armstrong the guy you can pencil in for the opening weekend?