There is no question the low point of Nebraska’s 2016 season was the tragic death of Senior punter Sam Foltz. Beyond his talents on the field, Foltz was a beloved team leader and his passing left a black mark on the entire season. It’s hard to say where Sam’s impact was greatest, which is a testament to his on field skill as well. Before last season you could have made a case that Foltz was the team’s best player, so expectations were tempered in his absence. That said, what followed can only be described as a mediocre season for the special teams, at best.
Though Drew Brown had a good year, the overall special teams play didn’t live up to the standards set by previous Husker squads. We may not be Virginia Tech when it comes to special teams, but there are more than a handful of Husker victories over the years that came in large part to special teams play. Although the new wrinkle in the extra point formation was clever, our overall return teams on both sides underwhelmed.
Special teams coach Bruce Read was let go and the special teams duties will be shared by the coaching staff (at least for now), which raises a number of questions for the coming season.
Bruce Read - In his two years as the dedicated special teams coach, the Husker’s special teams seemed to regress. There were circumstances beyond his control, but the fact that Reilly let his long time assistant go seems to confirm the fact that he wasn’t getting the job done.
Sam Foltz- Although Sam wasn’t able to help Nebraska on the field last year, the team played every game with him on their mind. His family attended every game, and beyond being memorialized in Lincoln, he was also honored at all of Nebraska’s away games.
Drew Brown: The Senior Kicker is poised for a big year after nailing almost 85% of his field goals last season. His FG percentage has improved every year and if that keeps up he could be in line for All Big Ten Honors and a chance to play on Sundays. Hopefully he’ll buck the trend of decreasing extra point tries too (55 in 14’, 40 in 15’ and 35! last season.)
Caleb Lightbourn: I feel bad for Caleb. I mean, he is young, athletic and going to school for free at a Prestige program just for kicking a ball... Ok, I don’t feel bad for him any more, but you have to admit he got tossed into a difficult situation. One minute he is a redshirt with a chance to learn from one of the best and the next he is replacing a beloved team leader in tragic circumstances. Geesh, I feel bad again, BUT the good news is I expect a big season
Demornay Pierson-El: With a few notable exceptions, we didn’t see the DPE many of us were expecting. After his sizzling freshman season, expectations have been high. Injuries have taken their toll, but I’m hoping DPE is healthy and motivated in his senior season because he is electric when his game is on. That said, because of the inexperience at wide receiver, I am curious to see if the coaching staff will risk DPE’s health by letting him return kicks. There are some interesting options in the pipeline.
Tre Bryant: There were flashes with Bryant as well, but I was expecting more. I’d actually rather just see him become the primary RB and leave the kickoff returns to someone else. Did I mention that there were some up and comers?
Zack Darlington: I’ll include him here as holder/razzle dazzle playmaker/decoy. You have to admire how Zach has embraced any role he has been asked to play in his time at Nebraska. I hope he gets to have a signature moment in a big game before he graduates.
Jordan Ober: Didn’t hear too much about Jordan last year, which I consider to be a good thing. Good work. He may go down as Bruce Read’s biggest impact recruit AND last scholarship long snapper ever at Nebraska.
JD Spielman and Tyjon Lindsay - One or both of these guys could put the “special” back into our Special teams. Spielman was a scout team star last season and Lindsay is the highest ranked skill position player we’ve had in quite some time. If nothing else they will provide some depth behind DPE, and best case is that they are so good that they allow him to concentrate on offense. I’d also be curious to see Mikale Wilbon returning kicks, as he reminds me of Darren Sproles.
All those Freshman Linebackers and Defensive backs. - The last two recruiting classes have brought in a lot of speed on defense. Hopefully that depth will show itself on special teams. I also think that new defensive coordinator Bob Diaco is going to have a hand in improving the team’s tackling, which will impact the special teams as well.
With a lot of new blood on the field and on the sidelines I expect a bounce back season for the Nebraska special teams, there is too much talent for it not to be.