Ed Foley was chosen for the special teams coordinator role because Matt Rhule trusted him. Foley’s worn a lot of hats in over three decades of coaching but spent the most recent one coaching the third phase. Most of it at Temple, then as an analyst at Baylor and an assistant at Carolina. Foley oversees special teams as Rhule wants it done.
In a high-energy 25-minute media meeting on Monday, Foley laid out his special teams philosophy. One of them being the best athletes. Rhule wants the best guys on the field on special teams. Historically this has meant offensive and defensive starters on punt and kick coverage. They also share a desire to use special teams to embolden either offense or defense. For example, a 10-yard punt return, Foley said, acts as a “first first down” for the offense. He pointed to Sunday’s AFC Championship game and how Skyy Moore’s 29-yard punt return moved the Kansas City Chiefs from their own 18 to their own 47. That created a shorter field for Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs to kick the winning field goal.
Despite some exceptional athletes last season, and in years prior, the Huskers haven’t provided an explosive spark in the return game. In fact, no Husker has returned a punt for a touchdown since JD Spielman’s 76-yard score against South Alabama in 2019. Spielman is also the most recent Husker to return a kickoff for a touchdown, doing so on a 99-yard return against Arkansas State in 2017. It’s not just that Nebraska hasn’t been able to spring a big return either—the team rarely tries. Nebraska’s opponents punted 60 times in 2022. The Huskers returned five of them for an average of less than 10 yards.
Enter this coaching staff and its approach.
“We will return kicks,” Foley said. “I want to take the ball out as far as we can as often as we can.”
Coaches want to take kicks out to the 20 and the 25 with the intention that, just maybe, two or three go for touchdowns over the course of the season. Foley’s approach to the players is tell them to get the ball north and south without committing penalties. A big return to near midfield increases the offense’s chance for success. That grows further considering the range of Nebraska field goal kickers Timmy Bleekrode and Tristan Alvano.
“The responsibility of the kickoff return is to put the offense in a position where it can have more success,” Foley said. “The further we can get the ball out of the end zone and into the middle of the field, maybe every once in a while we can get one, our responsibility is to get the offense in a better position to score.”
To Foley, punt returns is an ever-changing puzzle that involves returns and blocks. That complicates the basic kickoff philosophy of catching and returning. Rhule likes to block punts, especially early in the year. That shows a capability to immediately flip the field and forces opposing teams to block in max protection. As a result, it opens up real estate for the returner.
“We had some success with both of those things at Temple and Baylor so I hope we can continue to do that,” Foley said.
Nebraska had some success on punt pressure last season, blocking three. One came against North Dakota, one against Purdue and one against Indiana. Cornerback Malcolm Hartzog picked up Chris Kolarevic’s block in the Indiana game and ran it in 30 yards for a touchdown. It was the first time since 2009 that the Huskers returned a blocked punt for a touchdown.
In terms of when Nebraska punts, Foley complimented punter Brian Buschini. The special teams coordinator said Buschini takes a professional approach to his game with good strength and accuracy. Gutting through last season with a foot injury stood out to Foley as well. Buschini often flipped the field as an asset for the Huskers’ defense last season.