Wan'Dale Robinson runs down the field past Northwestern defense
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Special Teams Key for Nebraska in 2020: ‘We’ve Got to Get That Fixed’

October 20, 2020

Football has been weird since the season kicked off. Upsets are happening. Defenses are handing out points the way Oprah gave her audiences gifts. Special teams, in a number of instances, has been a hot mess.

Nebraska knows what that’s like. Special teams can win you games, this Husker coaching staff believes, and if you execute that third phase of the game poorly, it can lose you games. Scott Frost was asked Monday if he’s learned anything from all the chaos the first several weeks of the season, and he made a tongue-in-cheek comment that you might have missed.

“Obviously, you don’t want to get a punt blocked,” he said. “That’s cost some people some games.”

Rewind the tape to Nov. 3, 2018. Nebraska’s on the road and it’s an underdog. The Huskers get the ball first and march right down the field—75 yards in 12 plays—to score on the opening possession. There’s a seven-point Nebraska lead on the scoreboard and close to 100,000 people in the crowd looking a little shocked.

Then a special teams disaster that made its way onto the end-of-the-year highlight reel at ESPN’s College Football Awards show. But the defense stuffs a fourth-and-2 run from Nebraska’s own 23-yard-line and gives the ball back to the offense.

The offense doesn’t gain a yard on its next possession. It lines up in punt formation with Isaac Armstrong set to receive the snap. Ohio State comes after the ball and blocks it, recording a safety on the play.

It was a shift in momentum. The Buckeyes scored 16 unanswered points and Nebraska wound up losing by five.

Ohio State was ranked 10th in the nation at that point. That was the last time the Huskers were in Columbus.

With NU preparing a return trip for this weekend, a game that be the team’s opener for the 2020 season, special teams is at the forefront of everyone’s mind.

Sure, quarterback is a big storyline. As is figuring out how to contain Buckeye star Justin Fields, how to keep the Buckeyes’ defense at bay, and a whole host of other things. But special teams has been dreadful for Nebraska in recent seasons. It has to be better in 2020.

“We’re all out there,” running back coach Ryan Held said. “It’s a high-energy deal. We’ve got to get special teams right. Special teams has hurt us at times, and we’ve got to get that fixed.”

This offseason, with the departure of Jovan Dewitt to North Carolina, Nebraska lost its special teams coordinator. Dewitt double-dipped as the man in charge of coaching up the outside linebackers and special teams.

Scott Frost and Co. elected to go the analyst route to fill the special teams vacancy. They brought Mike Dawson back to coach the outside ‘backers but didn’t hire a full-time assistant with special teams responsibilities. Rutledge came over from Auburn—a “Senior Analyst”—but he’s not allowed to coach on the field during practices.

Frost has said he wanted someone that could devote their full time to that third phase of the game. Which Rutledge can. But the structure means the 10 assistant coaches and Frost have to handle actual on-field instruction.

Rutledge’s role is limited to the film room and pre-practice set-up.

“He’s able to kind of coordinate,” Frost said. “Our coaches have to do the coaching of it. He has certainly helped us by giving us a guy that can devote his time to it. It’s still on the assistant coaches to take the plans and get them executed with the players. But I think that that formula has helped us.”

In what ways?

“I think we’ll punt the ball better, and I think we’ll kick the ball better,” he said. In a number of areas Monday, Frost played things close to the vest.

Daniel Cerni, the only scholarship kicker/punter on the roster, was brought over from Prokick Australia this offseason. He’s expected to handle punting duties when healthy.

After trotting out six different kickers a season ago, Nebraska has two guys contending for the lead place-kicker spot: junior college transfer Chase Contreraz and LSU transfer Connor Culp.

Tyler Crawford, a freshman walk-on from Broken Arrow, Oklahoma, is expected to handle kickoff duties.

“Feel good about a couple guys that we have that are new,” Frost said. “Special teams has certainly cost us games instead of helping us win games, getting the right specialist on the field is an important part of that and think we’re in a better position there.”

During practice, coaches have split up responsibilities. For instance, tight end coach Sean Beckton works with the punt and kick returners. Ryan Held works a specific side on punt and kickoff team, and certain numbers on punt return.

“All of us coaches are involved heavily in special teams,” Held said.

With JD Spielman off to TCU, Nebraska is in the market for a new return man as well.

Held offered a list of names to watch for the kickoff return spot: running back Rahmir Johnson, cornerback Cam Taylor-Britt, wideouts Wan’Dale Robinson and Marcus Fleming, and utility guy Brody Belt.

Nebraska didn’t put out a depth chart this week. We’ll have to wait until game time to know who’s actually going to line up deep for kicks and punts.

Spielman was the primary punt returner a season ago. He only fielded 14, averaging 8 yards a return. Robinson was the primary kick return guy, averaging 21.5 yards on 11 returns, but Nebraska used more guys there, with Spielman, Taylor-Britt, and Belt all handling at least one.

In practice, Held said it’s been difficult to simulate a kickoff return because “they’re kicking the dog-gone thing 10 rows deep.” That’s a good problem to have. Last season, Nebraska ranked 111th (out of 130 teams) in touchback percentage on kickoffs; opponents got a crack at a return on nearly 80% of kicks.

Combine that with a middle-of-the-road punt return unit (tied for 65th in yards per return) and a porous kick return unity (107th) and you get a consistent “L” in the field position battle.

Last season, on average, the offense started at its own 29-yard-line (74th). That represented an improvement from 2018 (their own 26, 125th nationally) but it still wasn’t where NU wants to be.

“You’ve got to be prepared to have these returns be changing field position,” Held said. “We’ve got to do a better job (there).”

It’s not just walk-ons or young guys buried on the depth chart anymore who take up special teams roles, but guys who play regular snaps on either side of the ball.  “The coaches really want guys who are going to be playing to be on special teams as well,” said tight end Travis Vokolek. Nebraska’s coaches want guys who will attack that phase of the game.

But this year presents a unique opportunity.

“You can use some of those redshirt guys on special teams and not worry about running them down just on kickoff,” said defensive coordinator Erik Chinander.

Because the NCAA froze eligibility for fall athletes, a true freshman can play all nine games (or whatever the number becomes) for Nebraska this season without using up a year of eligibility.

Think of a guy like Quinton Newsome. A true freshman corner a season ago, Nebraska burned his redshirt largely for work on special teams.

“That’s always the scare before, are you just gonna run them down on kickoff and that’s gonna blow their redshirt year? Well, now you can use everybody,” Chinander said.

That makes travel rosters for road games a little clearer. Your 1s and 2s on offense will be automatic takes. Your 1s and 2s on defense will be automatic takes. But also, Nebraska is going to prioritize the 1s and 2s on special teams. There’s a two-deep there, too.

That unit ranked 124th in Bill Connelly’s SP+ efficiency rating at the end of 2019. By Connelly’s metric, that unit cost NU 2.2 points a game. In 2018, it ranked 80th.

When the margins are slim, as they have been in Lincoln for quite some time, you need help anywhere you can get it. Nebraska wants that phase of the game to be better.

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