Today marks the end of our journey that revisited a series from January that broke down and gave each of Nebraska football’s positions a score of 1 through 10.
If that position was given a 1, things weren’t looking good and you should be worried about that group in the fall. If it was scored a 10, that’s great and you should have no doubts that position will be a strength during the season.
Last, but certainly not least, we break down the Huskers’ specialists. Here’s our original breakdown from January, which gave the specialists a 5.
It’s no secret that Nebraska’s special teams need to be better. The mistakes in that phase of the game cost the team a total of 25 points last season. Fans likely don’t need to be reminded of how those errors piled up to equal 25, but here they are anyway:
- Two points on a punt-return safety at Illinois
- Two points on an extra point that was returned for a safety at Oklahoma
- Seven points on a punt return touchdown in the fourth quarter at Michigan State
- Seven points on a kick return touchdown to begin the game at Wisconsin
- Seven points on a blocked punt that was scooped-and-scored for a touchdown in the fourth against Iowa
According to Football Outsiders’ Fremeau Efficiency Index ratings, which combine kickoff return, kickoff, punt return, punt, and field goal efficiency into one overall rating, Nebraska ranked 129th out of 130 FBS teams with a rating of -1.46. What might make matters worse is finding out the top two teams nationally in FEI are from the Big Ten in No. 1 Michigan (1.28) and No. 2 Iowa (1.02).
Changes needed to be made, and the Huskers addressed the situation in the offseason. Bill Busch was promoted from analyst to special teams coordinator. The program also brought in a couple scholarship transfers in punter Brian Buschini and kicker Timmy Bleekrode. Both are expected to start.
Nebraska’s punters who saw action last season, Daniel Cerni and William Przystup, are off the team. Cerni went on medical scholarship while Przystup entered the transfer portal. Connor Culp ran out of eligibility after making half of his field goal attempts (6-of-12) in 2021, one season after being named the Big Ten Kicker of the Year. Chase Contreraz, a former transfer from Iowa Western Community College, returns to the team after going 2-of-4 on field goals last season.
Buschini transferred in from Montana, the same FCS program that produced last year’s leading receiver, Samori Touré. Buschini averaged 46 yards on 69 punts in 2021—better than Przystup’s 43.39 and Cerni’s 36.88—and was named the FCS Punter of the Year. He downed 30 of those 69 attempts inside the 20-yard line and booted 38 at least 50 yards. Przystup and Cerni each downed six punts inside the 20.
During the spring game, Buschini averaged 40.2 yards on eight punts and downed two inside the 20. His punts gave the Memorial Stadium crowd something to cheer about during the scrimmage, and that includes his head coach.
“The biggest applause all day was the bomb punt that Brian hit, and rightfully so. I would’ve been clapping too if that hadn’t been inappropriate,” Scott Frost said.
Buschini has been making a good impression on his teammates, as well. Grant Tagge is one. The walk-on from Omaha Westside was a key special teams player last year who covered punts and kicks. He’s seen firsthand what kind of air Buschini can get under his punts.
“There’s been a couple times that we’ve been indoors doing special teams because it’s been raining and cold, but he’s smacking the top of the roof in the Hawks,” Tagge said. “That’s something we just haven’t always had and I think we’re really excited to go cover kicks for that guy.”
Busch said this spring he’s looking for punts that travel 42-43 yards with hang times close to 4.2 seconds. He wants good hang times because that usually draws fair catches from punt return units. Another important factor to punt coverages are gunners, or the two players on the outside who race to the returner at the snap.
“It’s a punter-gunner game,” Busch said. “I want hang time, I want the ball controlled, because any time as a special teams coach, if I’m coaching someone that’s bombing balls, I can’t wait to get a return on you because we’re going to catch the ball with about 25 yards of space. So you want to be able to get the net, is what you want to be able to get done. If you’re average in that area, you’re going to be top-five in the country.”
When Buschini committed to Nebraska, he talked about wanting to mimic former Husker Sam Koch, who has been punting for the Baltimore Ravens for 16 years. Buschini mentioned net yards, too.
“He has a bunch of different types of punts that he hits that makes it harder for returners to catch, makes it harder for the other team to get return yards,” Buschini said of Koch. “The only stat that matters in punting is net punting, so I’m excited to work day in and day out to try to improve my net average and do what’s best for the team.”
Bleekrode wasn’t an early enrollee and won’t get to Lincoln until this summer. He spent three seasons at Furman, an FCS program, where he kicked field goals and punted. As a field goal kicker the past two seasons, the Atlanta native went 21-of-25 and had a long of 51 yards in 2021. He also averaged 42.9 yards on 91 career punts, downing 32 inside the 20-yard line.
If there was a silver lining of Nebraska’s special teams, it was kickoff specialist Brendan Franke. The 2021 campaign was the Gretna, Nebraska, native’s first as a Husker after spending the previous year at Morningside College. Of Franke’s 62 kickoffs, 38 were touchbacks. That 61% touchback rate was much better than Culp’s 30% in 2020, though, to be fair, Culp was a field goal kicker being asked to do kickoffs.
Gabe Heins, Charlie Weinrich and another transfer from Furman, Spencer Pankratz, are other options at place kicker. Jacob Hohl and Grant Detlefsen will provide depth at punter.
The Huskers also added longsnapper Brady Weas, a transfer from Georgetown, another FCS program.
Nebraska did what it needed to on the special teams front, and that was overhaul the specialists room. Both Buschini and Bleekrode appear to be upgrades on paper, though they’ll need to prove it on the field during the season.
Not much has changed since January. Buschini and Bleekrode were expected to start day one in January, and that continues to be the belief. The score stays the same with a 5.