LINCOLN — The special teams gaffes piled up enough that Nebraska football coach Mike Riley committed to an immediate evaluation of the unit with two games still remaining in the regular season.
After Iowa dominated the special teams battle in a 40-10 win, Riley had seen enough. On Sunday, he fired special teams coordinator Bruce Read — who’d worked with Riley for 16 years.
“I want to thank Bruce for his hard work and contributions to our football program over the past two years,” Riley said in a statement. “I also appreciate the contributions he made while a member of my staffs prior to Nebraska. As we continue to build our program with the pursuit of championships at the forefront of everything we do, we will look for a great coach, recruiter and teacher to join our staff.”
Read received a $450,000 salary to coordinate NU’s special teams. The salary, combined with the units’ performance, often drew derision from fans on social media and message boards. Read worked 11 seasons for Riley in three stints at Oregon State, three seasons while Riley was coach of the San Diego Chargers and two seasons for Riley at Nebraska. He was also a special teams coach in the NFL for the Giants and Cowboys.
“His scouting report, game-plan stuff comes with a ton of thought,” Riley said in mid-November.
Read’s experience didn’t translate to good performances from Nebraska’s special teams.
Several times late in the season, Riley criticized the units, calling them “a mixed bag.” After the loss to Iowa — in which the Hawkeyes enjoyed a 19-yard average field position advantage over the Huskers — Riley said the units were “less than that.”
The Hawkeyes returned punts for 44 and 29 yards, respectively. Safety Nate Gerry was flagged for running into a kicker, which eventually led to a touchdown. In an interview with The World-Herald, Read blamed that mistake on Gerry and the defense.
“He looked back and he was looking to see if the guy made the kick,” Read said. “Then he walked into the kicker. Really, the defense has that part of the game. He needs to pay attention to where he is.”
Punter Caleb Lightbourn — a true freshman who took over after All-Big Ten punter Sam Foltz died in a summer car accident — struggled against the Hawkeyes, uncorking a 5-yard punt that traveled several rows into Kinnick Stadium’s seats.
“He’s just been up and down. Some punts are good and some punts are bad,” Read said. “That’s how it’s been all year. He’s doing the best he can. He was thrust into a really difficult situation, as we all were. There’s no excuses for it. We’ve just got to keep working and try to get more consistent.”
NU is second-to-last nationally in net punting (32.5 yards). NU is 106th nationally in yards allowed per punt return (11.15) and tied for 91st in yards allowed per kickoff return (21.91). Nebraska had two punts blocked (Fresno State and Indiana) and one partially blocked (Purdue). Lightbourn also freelanced a fake punt run that failed against Wyoming. The Huskers had a field goal blocked against Maryland.
In the return game, Nebraska struggled to make hay on punt returns, as returner De’Mornay Pierson-El was often swamped by defenders. Pierson-El also made questionable decisions on when to return punts, such as a decision Friday to field a punt at his own 6 when Iowa defenders surrounded him.
NU’s punt return unit was flagged for 12 players on the field for one return against Minnesota. The Gophers got a first down, which later resulted in a touchdown. Riley called that scenario “junior high.” Defensive coordinator Mark Banker ultimately took responsibility for the mistake. But against Maryland, NU had 10 men on the field when the Terrapins successfully converted a fake punt pass.
“We want to become a factor in the return game,” Riley said in mid-November. The Huskers ranked 73rd nationally in yards per punt return (7.3) and 41st in yards per kickoff return (21.97).
The mixed bag of special teams was a continuation of struggles in 2015, when NU had one of the nation’s worst kickoff return units. Riley chose true freshman Jordan Stevenson to return kickoffs over Read’s preference for a different returner. Stevenson averaged 14.2 yards per return and left the program midway through last season.
Read’s biggest success was tied to the improvement of kicker Drew Brown, who made 32 of 40 field goal attempts the last two seasons.
Nebraska now has an assistant job open for the second straight season. Last year, Riley fired defensive line coach Hank Hughes after one year. He hired John Parrella to replace Hughes.
Riley could look for another special teams coordinator or get another position coach for the offense or defense. One potential candidate: Nebraska graduate assistant tight ends coach Tavita Thompson, who is in his last year as a GA.