I don’t think Mike Riley let special teams coach Bruce Read go because he was bad at his job, though it seems plenty of people will disagree with me on that point. Rather, Read wasn’t so good at his uniquely specific job to justify keeping him. Add in that Read was a primary pain point for much of the fan base and the angst over the humbling loss at Iowa on Friday, and letting Read go killed three birds with one stone: 1) Nebraska’s special teams felt disorganized, tough to swallow when it has someone assigned to that unit full time, 2) It removed the assistant most fans seemed to like the least, and 3) It provided some evidence — sorely needed after the loss on Friday — that Riley is serious about improving.
Over two years with Read, Nebraska put up some pretty pedestrian numbers on special teams. Here are the special teams efficiency national rankings from BCftoys.com for Nebraska since joining the Big Ten in 2011. The color scale represents the six-season highs and lows. (KEY: STE=Special Teams Efficiency, FGE=Field Goal Efficiency, KRE=Kick Return Efficiency, PRE=Punt Return Efficiency, PE=Punt Efficiency, NFP=Net Field Position)
You can tell at a glance that it is hard to argue in Read’s favor, though maybe not as easy to argue against him as people have found it to be this season. His numbers are basically in line with pre-Read Nebraska.
Some of those rankings are heavily influenced by the players available. Punt efficiency was good with Sam Foltz kicking, less so with others. Drew Brown has been a good kicker for two years, thus Read’s field-goal efficiency ranks pretty well. De’Mornay Pierson-El made a difference in the punt return game this year.
But pre-Read Nebraska didn’t have a full time special teams coach. In two seasons with Read, Nebraska never seemed to have a great plan on kickoff returns, by far the worst category looking at both years in tandem. There were the blocked punts this season and many other failings. Instead of moments where fans were left to think “that’s why you have a special teams coach,” the opposite was frequently occurring.
It couldn’t have been easy for Riley to fire a coach that he has worked with at four different stops over the course of 16 seasons, but there was virtually no upside to keeping Read. The results weren’t there, but the angst of a fan base very much was.
The move comes at a critical time in the recruiting calendar. Today was the start of a “contact period” for football recruiting, meaning the coaches are out on the road making visits. I’m guessing Nebraska will get graduate assistant Tavita Thompson approved to go on the road and recruit and I wouldn’t be surprised if Thompson, who currently coaches tight ends, gets a full-time assistant’s spot. His graduate assistant clock was up at the end of this season anyway, so if Nebraska wanted to keep him it was going to have to find him a full-time spot.
Now there’s one available and Nebraska could let Thompson keep working with the tight ends and reassign special teams within the current staff. There also seems to be growing support for a proposal to allow schools 10 full-time assistants, which, if passed before next season, could have an impact here as well.
Brandon is the Managing Editor for Hail Varsity and has covered Nebraska athletics for the magazine and web since 2012, Hail Varsity’s first season on the scene. His sports writing has also been featured by Fox Sports, The Guardian and CBS Sports.