Photo by Aaron Babcock
Nebraska Football

What to Expect From Nebraska's Special Teams In 2018

July 19, 2018
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There’s skill and scheme to it, absolutely, but at the end of the day, there’s a lot of randomness to it, too. The majority of the teams that are at the top of the blocked-kicks leaderboard in college football one season aren’t there the next. Jovan Dewitt-coached units are one of the exceptions. 

For each of the last four seasons, Dewitt has handled Army’s third unit (2014-15) and then Central Florida’s (2016-17). He’s got multiple blocked kicks in every season (his 2015 Army squad blocked four kicks, seventh-most in the country) and as many in the last four years as Nebraska has had in the last seven.

Going after a kick on special teams requires a choice. Do you risk a penalty that could potentially prolong the opponents’ drive? Do you essentially, well, punt on a return by sacrificing downfield protection for up-front chaos? It’s a good metaphor for the larger thing. 

Coaching special teams in college football usually comes down to two different philosophies. Teams either say, “We’re going to take this seriously and dominate this aspect of the game,” or they take a more conservative approach and just try not to screw things up for whichever unit is getting ready to take the field next. Nebraska has, for the most part, fallen into the latter camp in recent years. Dewitt has himself firmly planted in the former.

A reader asked what fans can expect from the Husker special teams under the new staff and though the participants might not be set in stone yet, we might have a pretty decent picture of what’s going to happen when they are. 

Last season, Nebraska was 30th in the country in special teams efficiency (the average value generated per possession by a team's non-offensive and non-defensive units, a catch-all number from FootballOutsiders.com). It had success rates that ranked 56th (kickoffs), 66th (punt returns), 68th (kick returns) and 79th (punts). We’ll start with punts, seeing as the central figure of Nebraska's 2018 special teams unit will undoubtedly be junior punter Caleb Lightbourn.

As a sophomore, Lightbourn upped his overall average from 39.7 in 2016 to 42.1 yards per punt in 2017 on fewer attempts. On 124 total punts, he’s forcing a fair catch 33 percent of the time and downing opponents inside the 20-yard-line another 31 percent of the time. Even better, he’s improved in that regard from his freshman season (combined 55 percent) to his sophomore year (combined 73 percent). 

One of the bright spots of Bob Diaco’s brief stint as the Husker defensive coordinator last season was the work he accomplished with Lightbourn. Before the season, Diaco stressed the details (the right spot to hit the ball, when to drop it, leg speed, etc.) and the impact was obvious. The sophomore was much more consistent in 2017 than he was in 2016. Context matters here — the situations were different, no denying that — but Diaco’s work can’t be discredited either.

Lightbourn has continued to work on developing his body (he legit looks like a linebacker now) and should have an even stronger frame in 2018. Maybe the per-punt yardage continues to creep up, or Dewitt works with him to hone the accuracy and Lightbourn gets even better at pinning teams.

One area where Dewitt-led units have improved year-over-year is in flipping the field. The punts-inside-the 20 percentage has risen each year since his first year on the job at Army, peaking at a ridiculous 52 percent last season at Central Florida, and the net field position has followed a similar trend. The difference in average starting field position ranked in the 100s for Dewitt in 2015 and 2016 and then skyrocketed to eighth in 2017. His teams have also gone from 110th in kickoff efficiency to 30th (Army in 2014, then 2015) and 93rd to 50th (UCF in 2016, then 2017). 

With four-year starting kicker Drew Brown now gone from the program, Lightbourn will also take over kickoff duties as well. Nebraska was 105th in the country in kickoff efficiency last year; that number should rise.

The biggest change could and probably will happen in the return game. Efficiency wasn’t an issue for Nebraska but it just didn’t produce enough game-changing plays. The Huskers were 86th in average yardage gained on punt returns and 31st on kick returns. Central Florida was sixth and 10th. The difference means a ton when you’re talking about a four-win team.

The one play folks recall most when discussing Dewitt’s UCF unit is Mike Hughes’ kickoff return against South Florida on Nov. 24 last year, the one Hughes took 95 yards for the game-winning and American East division-winning touchdown. Rightfully so. But Dewitt-led teams have been finding success in the return game for some time.

Over the course of his four years as a special teams coordinator, his units have scored at least one return touchdown each season. In 2014, Army was one of only 16 programs with at least two punt return scores. The 2016 version of Central Florida had one score each on kickoffs and punts before registering three total last season. (The Huskers have had one total since 2014.)

At both Army and Central Florida, Dewitt has bumped up the average return yardage, success rate, efficiency and explosiveness in each facet of the game. In the last four years, his teams have four punt returns of 30 yards or more and six kickoff returns of 40 yards or more.

With each team, Dewitt has tinkered with his approach depending on who he has at his disposal.

“As far as a punt return mentality, I think it’s really going to truthfully depend on who we have back there catching kicks and their skill set,” Dewitt said. “So our first year at UCF and at West Point, we were way more block-oriented because we just didn’t have that dynamic of a returner back there. This last year we had Mike Hughes who is as dynamic a returner as there is in the country and we were way more return-oriented. I think situationally it will depend upon who we have back there.”

Offensive and defensive starters are going to play in the oft-overlooked third of the game; Dewitt along with head coach Scott Frost stated as much. Wideout JD Spielman, easily Nebraska’s most dynamic returner a season ago, is an option as a return man. Sophomore Tyjon Lindsey is another. Even senior star Stanley Morgan Jr. took reps during the spring. Maybe a new arrival takes the job and runs with it. The extra benefit of overhauling the weapons cupboard on offense is you have more dynamic athletes to work with on special teams. 

If he’s comfortable with what he’s got, he’ll turn the return game loose. That will be a welcome sight for fans.

As for the field goal unit, best not to try and get too deep into the mind of a kicker. They’re something else entirely. Nebraska will go from a seasoned veteran with 45 made field goals in his career to either a true freshman or a redshirt freshman. There will be lumps.

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