The Nebraska football team will return to work on Tuesday after taking a week off from spring drills. With the Red-White Game looming on April 15, Mike Riley and his staff have only 20 more days before the curtain lifts on one of the country’s best-attended spring games.
Below is a breakdown of the special teams, which has been led by a team effort from the Husker coaches this spring. You can also check out analysis on the quarterbacks, running backs, wide receivers/tight ends, offensive line, defensive line, linebackers and defensive backs.
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Drew Brown will become a four-year starter at kicker, following in the shoes of his older brother, Kris, who did the same thing (1995-1998). Drew Brown has made 47 of 62 career field goals and missed just two extra points in his career. At punt returner, De’Mornay Pierson-El hasn’t yet been able to recapture his freshman year magic — when he had three touchdowns — but he’s as healthy as he’s been since that year. NU returns punter Caleb Lightbourn and kick returner Tre Bryant, but neither was stellar in those roles last season. Lightbourn, pressed into service after the death of Sam Foltz, has a big leg but poor direction control. Jordan Ober enters his third year as a scholarship long snapper; he hasn’t had a bad one yet. On coverage teams, Domann and Luke McNitt were two of Nebraska’s best tacklers.
CALL FOR BACKUP
Kickers and punters rarely get injured, but walk-on Isaac Armstrong is the backup punter — he’s a left-footer — while incoming freshman walk-on Cole Frahm from Omaha Burke is a strong-legged kid who could be Brown’s heir apparent. Among returners, Nebraska has options on kickoffs — Bryant will be one, but so will Mikale Wilbon, Wyatt Mazour and others. At punt returner, Pierson-El, who struggled to judge punts at times last season, may not necessarily be a lock. JD Spielman and incoming freshman Tyjon Lindsey will get looks, too.
WHO’S IN, WHO’S OUT
Lindsey is the one to watch. He’s pretty electric with the ball in his hands, and he’s not going to shy away from opportunities to play. Can he push for the starting jobs at punt or kick return? And, presuming he doesn’t redshirt, incoming freshman Ben Miles could be a dynamo on coverage units.
Lightbourn. Aside from a few games — the bowl game was a bright spot — punting was a problem, and it was a contributing factor in the dismissal of special teams coordinator Bruce Read. Lightbourn was raw at best last season, and defensive coordinator Bob Diaco — who appointed himself, essentially, to coach the punters — has to get Lightbourn to be more consistent with distance and direction. No more kicks into the bleachers. Pierson-El could stand to get better at returning punts. Last season, he made some odd choices, fair catching punts that appeared well set for returns.
» After Read’s firing, Riley divvied up the coaching duties among his assistants, but he’s hired a special teams consultant, Scott Booker, who used to work at Notre Dame.
» NU has had fewer than 700 kick return yards in each of the last two seasons.
» NU lost two of its best specialists in linebacker Brad Simpson (coverage) and Jordan Nelson (returns). Both graduated.