Ahead of Nebraska football’s season-opening game on Saturday, Aug. 28, The Daily Nebraskan is previewing all three phases of the team. We started by taking a look at the Husker offense on Monday, and previewed the team’s defense on Tuesday. For the third and final installment we’re previewing Nebraska’s special teams, which look to take another step forward in 2021.
The Huskers got better on special teams in 2020, largely thanks to the help of a strong place-kicking game, but still have plenty of room to improve in 2021. Kickoff coverage was mostly shaky and the punt return team allowed two fake punt runs to reach the first down completely unguarded.
Head coach Scott Frost noticed the need for improvement and appointed assistant coach Mike Dawson as special teams coordinator, a position the Huskers haven’t had on the staff since 2019. Frost and Dawson will attempt to work towards maintaining the team’s place-kicking game and shore up return coverage and punting.
The kicker position was the biggest upgrade of Nebraska’s special teams in 2020. After using six different placekickers in 2019, senior LSU transfer kicker Connor Culp took full control of the position in 2020.
Culp excelled in his first year as a Husker, going a perfect 20-for-20 on extra points and 13-for-15 on field goals. For his efforts, Culp was awarded the 2020 Bakken-Andersen Kicker of the Year Award by the Big Ten and named first team All-Big Ten by both coaches and media.
Culp should have the starting placekicker position locked up, however he might not be the only kicker to attempt a field goal for the Huskers this season. Culp’s career-long field goal is 49 yards, which is impressive, but short of what two incoming Huskers are capable of.
Iowa Western Community College transfer kicker and freshman walk-on Josh Jasek made a 56-yard kick in the Reivers’ season finale this spring, a new career long for the program. Nebraska freshman walk-on kicker Kelen Meyer also made a 58-yard field goal in his senior season at Ord, tying for the second longest kick in Nebraska high school history. If the Huskers arrive in a situation where they need a field goal from 50-plus yards, Jasek or Meyer could get the call.
While Nebraska’s kicking position is in a great place, kick return coverage is one of the biggest concerns for the Huskers in 2021. The team ranked 87th in the nation in 2020 with 22.64 yards per return and one touchdown given up in 2020. The easiest way to prevent big returns is by kicking the ball out of the end zone for a touchback, something the Huskers have only done 26 times in the past two seasons. Culp handled the majority of the kickoff duties for Nebraska in 2020, kicking 12 touchbacks in his 40 kickoffs.
Looking to change the Huskers’ touchback woes is freshman Morningside College transfer kicker Brendan Franke. While at Morningside, Franke bombed a touchback on 35 of his 59 kickoffs in 2020. Also in the mix is Meyer, who kicked eight touchbacks through the goalposts at Ord in 2020.
Much like Nebraska’s kickers, there are plenty of Husker punters capable of making an impact this season. Sophomore punter William Przystup had a solid campaign in 2020, downing seven punts inside the 20 and having five punts of more than 50 yards. His 41.3 yards per punt ranked him 81st nationally, leaving room for improvement at the punter position.
Freshman Tyler Crawford stepped in for the final two games after Przystup suffered an injury, and struggled to find consistency. His 61-yard punt against Minnesota was a season-long for Nebraska, but he also shanked a season-low 8-yard punt in the same game.
Also challenging for the starting gig is freshman punter Daniel Cerni. The Australian was competing for the starting job before an injury in camp ended his 2020 season before it began. A starting punter has yet to be named, so the competition could be decided on the field Saturday.
In addition to struggling to contain big kickoff returns in 2020, the Huskers also struggled to make big returns of their own. Nebraska averaged 18.3 yards per return, ranking 94th nationally. Freshman wide receiver Alante Brown was the primary kick returner for the Huskers, returning ten kicks for 196 yards with a long return of 29.
Brown is one of many players expected to get looks returning kicks in 2021, with junior cornerback Cam Taylor-Britt, junior wide receiver Omar Manning, and true freshman wide receiver Kamonte Grimes all being mentioned as possibilities.
Taylor-Britt was the primary punt returner for Nebraska in 2020. He helped Nebraska to a solid 13.3 yards per return, but also had a costly muffed punt in the fourth quarter against Iowa that set up a late Hawkeyes field goal.
Rounding out the Huskers’ special teams unit are the long snappers. At a position that typically only gets noticed when mistakes are made, these Huskers stayed perfect in 2020.
Sophomore long snapper Cameron Pieper snapped on all of Nebraska’s field goal and extra point attempts in 2020, helping lead Culp to a breakout season. Przystup was the primary holder for the field goal team, a role he is likely to keep in 2021.
On the punt unit, snaps were executed by sophomore long snapper Cade Mueller.
Improving on special teams is a key focus for the Huskers in 2021. Focusing on the little things like improving field position on kickoffs and kickoff returns, as well as staying consistent on punt coverage could go a long way in improving Nebraska’s record.