And we're finally here. Spring ball. And the final Nebraska Cornhuskers group preview.
It's probably not a coincidence that the resident comedian draws the special teams preview. But as both Bo Pelini and Mike Riley will attest, there is value in the third phase of the game. It is why Pelini himself became more involved in special teams prior to last season, and it is why Mike Riley has brought Bruce Read and his barely-there mustache along with him to Lincoln.
Riley and Read already left their fingerprints on recruiting season, signing a pure long snapper in a class with limited scholarships. Jordan Ober will be expected to win the job and perform immediately, as there are only so many times a coaching staff can offer a full ride to a long snapper. But until Ober arrives on campus, the long snapping duties fall onto the shoulders of Josh Faulkenberry. Aside from noticing his name sounds like that of a sugary cereal, Husker fans have probably paid no mind to Faulkenberry in his one year at Nebraska. Faulkenberry earned a spot on the roster as a walk-on, but after injuries ended the career of Gabe Miller, Faulkenberry was eventually pushed aside by one-year Miami transfer Paul Kelly. Faulkenberry did see action in all 13 games, appearing primarily on the punt team when he did get on the field. If he is ever going to be a regular contributor, he has to make a splash (or in the case of a long snapper's role, go completely unnoticed) this spring in order to stand a chance in the competition against Ober in the fall.
Kicker and punter have been historically strong positions for Nebraska (sometimes all in the same person), and as such, they are easy to take for granted. Whether it was Drew Brown's inexperience, or Bo Pelini's reticence toward relying on him in big moments, Husker fans were repeatedly reminded of how spoiled they have been in this department for years. Brown was serviceable as a freshman, though without the dynamic leg of his older brother, Kris. Brown was a respectable 14-for-21 on field goals (as well as a perfect 59-for-59 on extra points), but it was the bonus points that he struggled to nab. While nearly automatic inside of 40 yards (12-for-14), Brown was just 2-of-7 outside of that range.
Pelini and crew became so concerned with Brown's lack of range that such kicks no longer became an option. In the last four games, the Huskers only attempted one field goal longer than 34 yards. When faced with the opportunity to tie the game late in the Holiday Bowl, interim head coach Barney Cotton passed up a 49-yard field goal in favor of an ill-fated fourth down attempt.
Senior Mauro Bondi has had no such questions about leg strength. It is merely consistency questions that have kept him from doing anything besides kicking off, a position he has had nailed down since he arrived in 2012. Motorcycle accidents aside, it is hard to tell if those stability questions are founded, as Bondi has had few attempts to defend himself. Bondi has attempted just two field goals in his three seasons, making both. In his only attempt last season, he connected on Nebraska's longest field goal of the season, a 45-yarder. The only other kicker on the roster is Kearney junior Spencer Lindsay, who has nine kickoffs to his credit, netting one touchback.
The competition between Brown and Bondi will be interesting, but Read has proven in the past that he is not one to lock in on a certain kicker. Just last season at Oregon State, Garrett Owens and Trevor Romaine had nearly identical amounts of field goal and kickoff attempts. More than anything, it will be important to see how each has developed over the offseason. If Brown's leg strength has improved, or if Bondi has asserted himself as a reliable option, one could separate himself from the other. But if things remain unchanged, Nebraska has two serviceable kickers with completely different skill sets.
There is significantly less uncertainty surrounding the punter position. Sam Foltz enters his third year as the starter as the only punter on the roster. In 2013, he was named to the Big Ten All-Freshman Team with a 41.6 yard average. He nudged that average up to 42.2 yards per punt last season, while also pinning opponents inside their own 20-yard line a Big Ten-leading 26 times. Foltz struggled with consistency his freshman year, and for the most part, he tightened the bolts last season. With a new offense learning the ropes, his importance could be amplified this year.
Technically, I was only supposed to write about the kickers, punters and long snappers, but we're all just looking for reasons to talk about De'Mornay Pierson-El, aren't we? As is the case with Foltz, a new offense could mean added importance for Pierson-El. Whether he manages second-year expectations, as well as the frustration of punts not coming his way with the same regularity as last season, will be the keys for DPE. He was the most explosive freshman in the nation last season, as well as one of the most exciting players in all of the country. He tied for the national lead with three punt return touchdowns, while ranking second in the country with 17.5 yards per punt return.
Pierson-El was less dynamic on kickoff returns than he was on punts, averaging just 14.5 yards per kick return. Obviously, Riley will want to use Pierson-El as often as possible. How that affects his productivity and overall use on special teams remains to be seen. Who might be joining him on kickoff returns also remains a mystery at this point, as nearly anyone with speed is likely to be tried out this spring.