Photo by Aaron Babcock
Nebraska Football

Pinned Deep

August 16, 2017
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When you’re punting, you don’t want a lot of moving parts.

First step, fully extend the arm, contact. Work on that, perfect that and do it over and over again.

“Let’s say it’s your first step, if your first step is inside an inch, the body is going to correct itself on the next step and in that correction is where the problem is,” defensive coordinator Bob Diaco said. “If your arm is fully extended and locked out and contact happens, if on the next rep your arm is not fully extended when contact happens – it’s slightly bent – the ball comes in maybe an inch and a half inside. That’s where problems happen.”

It might seem insignificant, but that’s where Diaco lives – in the world of the little things that can cause big problems. In 2016, Nebraska had too many moving parts on special teams. After the death of Sam Foltz, Nebraska’s starting veteran punter, a then-true freshman Caleb Lightbourn was thrown into the fire. This happened, then that happened. Lightbourn was up-and-down all season long, in a position no one expected him to be in.

“I’ve been in a lot of difficult situations and it’s just made me more mature,” Lightbourn said when reflecting on last season’s struggles. The freshman averaged 39.7 yards per punt last season, ranking No. 93 out of 115 FBS punters. “[It] made me humble about every single situation.”

Even since the spring, Lightbourn has made massive strides, both physically and emotionally. Lightbourn doesn’t look like just a punter right now. The Nebraska roster officially lists him at 235 pounds, but that’s all muscle. In the summer, he increased his maxes in the weight room across the board. He has power-cleaned 285 pounds (even though he said he was shooting for 315) and risen to 215 on the snatch lift.

“My leg strength is definitely more consistent and a lot easier to get to,” he said. “I don’t have to punt as hard to get the exact same balls I usually would during the spring.”

The key word there is “consistent.” Lightbourn has never really struggled to boom the ball. Strength was never the issue, control was. Now that he’s not thinking about how hard he has to kick it to reach the desired distance, his mind is freed up to focus on the more technical things. That’s where Diaco comes in.

“I have a lot more body control than I did before when Coach Diaco wasn’t here,” Lightbourn said. “I think that’s helped me a lot. I had all the tools going into it, he just brought it all together.”

Now, if Lightbourn doesn’t “jump through the ball,” as Diaco puts it, he’s doing up-downs. If he messes up the drop, up-downs. If he shanks one too many punts in practice, up-downs.

“Whatever the little thing is that he needs to tweak he’s going to tell us and he’s going to be honest with us whether it’s harsh or not,” Lightbourn said. “He’s a really intense guy but he really cares and he wants us to be perfect and I think that’s what really matters.”

So far, Diaco has been pleased with what he’s seen.

“He’s becoming more consistent, he’s maturing, he takes accountability more,” Diaco said. “He’s accountable and coachable. He really spends time inspecting his movement and the things that went wrong.

“He’s very critical of that sweet spot, that movement, that groove that he needs to be in.”

All that work figures to add up to good things once fall camp comes to a close. Special teams coach Scott Booker said the Huskers need to be better than they were last year if they want to be a successful team, but he believes Lightbourn is helping in that regard.

“He’s dedicated to his craft and you can see him growing every day,” Booker said. “I don’t think he’s a finished product yet, I don’t think he’d say he’s a finished product yet, but he’s a willing young man.”

Lightbourn’s willingness to learn and be better than he was is paying dividends. He said he’s seen the improvement, the results of his labor, and it’s slowly but surely lifting a weight off his shoulders.

“Going in there and just knowing all I have to do is go in every single day and work hard and knowing that working hard is going to get me the results I want,” he said. “Regardless of if it’s a good or bad day, I know if I put in the work I’m going to get the results I want when it counts.”

One of the areas he hopes that work will manifest itself in is head coach Mike Riley’s favorite play in football.

“Something I’ve been working on really hard is pinning [the opposing team] inside the 10 [yard line] every single time,” Lightbourn said. “I haven’t had a single one outside the 10 when we’ve been doing hang-ten. I’ve been really taking pride in getting that because it’s Coach Riley’s favorite play, he said, in football. So, I’ve been really taking that seriously and taking that to heart and making him proud and helping out the team.”

Considering pinning opponents is often more about placement and accuracy than pure strength, Lightbourn appears to be heading for a much better 2017.

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