For two years running now, we’ve done this series in the months immediately following the end of the season. It’s back. We’re scoring Nebraska’s position groups on a 10-point scale based on where things stand right now, before spring ball, relative to the various other groups. Each day will bring about a different room, but they will all be scored the same way. The three heaviest influencers on the scores: 2020 play, returning production, and incoming talent.
We’ll close the 2021 series out with a whole unit. . .
Returning: P Daniel Cerni (2Y FR), K/P Tyler Crawford (2Y FR), K Ryan Novosel (2Y FR), K Gabe Heins (3Y FR), P Grant Detlefsen (3y FR), K Chase Contreraz (3Y SO), P William Przystup (4Y SO), K Connor Culp (6Y SR)
Incoming: K/P Kelen Meyer (FR)
Returning production: 100% of field goal attempts, 100% of punts, 100% of kickoff returns, 88.9% of punt returns (8/9)
**This might feel like numbers overload, so I apologize ahead of time. There’s a lot to cover.
|FGs||35+ FGA||40+ FGA||50+ FGA||Long||PATs|
|Connor Culp||13/15 (86.7%)||3/4||1/1||-||49||20/20|
|Attempts||Touchbacks||Touchback %||Out of Bounds|
As a collective unit, Nebraska’s special teams were a minus in 2020. Bill Connelly’s SP+ model rated the unit 93rd nationally. That was a step up after rating as one of the worst in the country in 2019, but it was still a problem.
Even that statement needs couching, though. That special teams has been as big a discussion as it has been in the last three seasons means there’s more wrong elsewhere.
Nebraska’s offense did more to harm field position than should be the case, with 18 turnovers in eight games and the lowest scoring output for a Nebraska side in decades. The defense didn’t produce enough turnovers to cancel out the offensive minuses. The return game (either kick or punt) failed to produce a single touchdown for the first time under Frost.
If the offense was further along, Nebraska wouldn’t have the margin for error it does, and special teams probably wouldn’t be such a swing factor.
But that’s not the case. Nebraska’s special teams were improved but not improved enough, and the man tasked with primarily running the unit was let go after the year.
It’s absolutely worth pointing out here that Frost’s public statements continue to hammer home the idea that special teams has to matter to the team, but personnel decisions have pushed special teams management to the background.
Nebraska replaced an on-field coordinator with a senior analyst—joining a select few among the Power Five ranks—then let that analyst go after only one season. Recently, Nebraska announced three staff hires, including two new analysts, but has yet to announce any hires for the open special teams analyst role still listed on the university’s job site.
The strategy last season was to have Jonathan Rutledge plan practices that would be run by the assistants coach on the staff. Everyone divvied up the responsibilities. In filling out the assistant coaching staff a year ago, Frost said he “didn’t really want to burden” any one position coach with managing their room and also running all four special teams units.
So divide and conquer was the approach.
Let’s take each group individually.
NU’s 30% touchback rate on kickoffs ranked 81st nationally and 10th in the Big Ten. Connor Culp handled kickoffs and place-kicking for the Huskers, and though he never put a ball out of bounds, his returnable kicks yielded 23 yards on average for opponents. That mark ranked 11th in the conference.
The unit didn’t surrender a kick return score until the last game of the season, but it was notable that it came on a kickoff that followed a game-tying offensive score in the third quarter against Rutgers. Aaron Cruickshank took a kick 98 yards to the house after doing literally the exact same thing to the Huskers—in the same situation—a year prior when he was with Wisconsin.
“Put the ball where it’s supposed to go” was a common refrain from Frost in 2019. It wasn’t the same kind of issue in 2020, but it did pop up again in a key spot. That’s probably pretty nit-picky, but only 34 programs that played in 2020 gave up a kickoff score. Margins, y’know?
More depth on the team theoretically leads to better play from the coverage units. Look for that area to improve. It’ll be interesting to see if Culp holds on to the kickoff role.
He sure ain’t losing the place kicker job. Culp might not have the biggest leg in the league, but he was absolutely one of the most reliable, enough to earn the Big Ten’s Kicker of the Year award. Only 14 teams in the country made a higher percentage of their field goal tries, and only 12 kickers made a higher percentage of their kicks than Culp, who kicked every attempt Nebraska tried.
Rutledge was largely responsible for bringing him from LSU to Lincoln. After the senior lost his kicking job to a pair of underclassmen in back to back years, Culp bet on himself. The results were pretty glowing.
In 2019, Nebraska used six different kickers and made fewer combined field goals in more games and more attempts. It was a mess of a year. Culp provided the exact opposite. Assuming health, there’s no reason to worry about the Huskers’ kicking game in 2021. Culp will be back. His reliability should continue to give Frost confidence play-calling on second and third down whenever NU gets inside the 40.
The other big Rutledge addition was Daniel Cerni, an Aussie punter who accepted a scholarship to come stateside and compete for the starting job. Considering the fact he didn’t play a single snap for the Huskers in 2020, it’s hard to really get too high or too low on the punting game.
Will Przystup averaged more yards per punt last year as the lead guy than Isaac Armstrong did in 2019, and he was pretty good at downing kicks inside the 20.
The flip side: Nebraska gave up 12 yards a return on punts. Only 21 teams gave up a higher average. The big selling point with Cerni was his ability to hang kicks in the air and give his coverage unit time to force fair catches.
Twelve of NU’s 33 punts were returned; that’s after only 11 of Armstrong’s 59 punts were returned in 2019. In fact, with Armstrong skying kicks, Nebraska was one of the best in the country at limiting opponent punt returns (2.3 yards allowed).
Nebraska has turned to Przystup for a number of roles since coming over from Michigan State. He’s been an adaptable and important piece for special teams each year since his transfer. But he was the No. 2 behind Armstrong in 2019 and viewed as the likely No. 2 behind a healthy Cerni in 2020. If Cerni’s available, you have to think he’ll be the guy at punter in 2021.
Rutledge had great success with Aussies at his previous stops, and Cerni certainly looks the part. We’ll see. There’s plenty of room for improvement in the punting game, but the guy NU has in place is plenty encouraging.
Kick return next. Nebraska got nothing from it and for long stretches of the year was rather risk-averse in the return game, an interesting approach for a team that had open-field athletes like Wan’Dale Robinson, Cam Taylor-Britt, and Alante Brown.
A little over half of opponent kickoffs went for touchbacks. Nebraska returned 15 of the 67 kickoffs it received, and averaged 18.3 yards per return (94th nationally). The offense began drives at the 23-yard-line on average (105th nationally).
Brown was the primary guy. Does Nebraska let him cut loose next season? Give the job to someone else? If so, do they get the same treatment?
Again, it’s hard to get too high or too low with a group that wasn’t making plays but also wasn’t really making mistakes. And when you factor in Nebraska’s relative strength as a punt return unit, the two feel like a wash.
Taylor-Britt—an established playmaker—was the primary punt returner. At 13.2 yards per return, the corner ranked among the nation’s better return men in the punt game. But he only got six returns in eight games. Is that his fault? Not really.
Could Nebraska use a few field-flipping returns or a score from either unit? Most definitely. Does it have guys on the roster who could provide that with more opportunity? Probably. Can Nebraska help itself? Yep.
Cut down the mental errors. Play sound. Get Cerni healthy. There’s work that needs to be done, but the pieces are promising.
Who’s putting them together? Can’t just matter at the podium.
Derek is a newbie on the Hail Varsity staff covering Husker athletics. In college, he was best known as ‘that guy from Twitter.’ He has covered a Sugar Bowl, a tennis national championship and almost everything in between (except an NCAA men’s basketball tournament game… *tears*). In his spare time, he can be found arguing with literally anyone about sports.