WHAT WE LEARNED: Nebraska is making special teams a priority
Ed Foley has won Nebraska fans over with his tireless touring of nearly every high school and town in the state. We saw this spring that he and Rhule are putting just as much effort into improving NU’s special teams.
In the four brief viewing windows that media was allowed during spring ball, it was immediately clear that the third phase would not be glossed over. In fact, the Huskers made special teams a top priority.
Nebraska knows what it has in Buschini, who started all 12 games last season and ranked 25th nationally at 44.0 yards per punt. The junior emerged as one of the team’s top leaders through his work off the field and in the weight room this offseason.
The Huskers also seem to have their punt returner in Virginia transfer Billy Kemp. The sixth-year senior led the Cavaliers in punt return yards the past four seasons and looked like a natural in that role this spring.
Placekicker remains the biggest mystery, by far. Nebraska returns starter Timmy Bleekrode, who hit 9-of-12 field goals and 34-of-35 extra points in 2022.
However, the former Furman transfer had a less-than-inspiring spring game, going 1-for-3 on field goals with misses from 46 and 43 yards. Heralded incoming freshman Tristan Alvano could make things very interesting at that spot when he arrives this summer.
BIGGEST CONCERN: Who will be Nebraska’s kicker?
As mentioned, placekicker remains the most glaring unknown for Nebraska’s special teams going into the summer.
The good news is that the Huskers appear to have two viable options at the position in Bleekrode and Alvano.
Bleekrode was off and on last season. He started his NU career by missing two of his first three field goals, including a potential game-tying kick from 50-plus as time expired in the loss to Georgia Southern.
He rallied from there, though, making eight of his final nine attempts to end the year. Of his nine makes, seven came from inside of 40 yards.
The wildcard this fall will be Alvano, who arrives as one of the most celebrated high school kickers in state history.
He cemented his legacy by connecting on all five of his field goals – four from 40-plus – to lead Westside to a Class A championship game victory. His 16 makes last season also set a Nebraska high school record.
If Alvano picks up where he left off the last time he kicked in Memorial Stadium, he could have every opportunity to be a Day 1 starter as a true freshman.
SPRING SURPRISE: Rhule’s emphasis on situational analytics
Analytics have reshaped sports over the past 10 years, and Rhule has made it a point to stay at the forefront of how they have changed college football.
Rhule has relied on in-game analytics since he was at Temple, and it might not take long to see how that approach impacts Nebraska’s special teams.
Whether it’s deciding whether to go for it on fourth down, attempt a two-point conversion, or try an onside kick, Rhule, Foley, and staff will play the numbers and stay aggressive.
They already gave a glimpse of that by calling two fake punts during the Red-White Spring Game (neither was successful).
“There’s a lot that goes into that,” Rhule told the Huskers Radio Network this month. “There’s sort of like the purely mathematical model of ‘this is the best thing to do’ versus the feeling of a game. So we’ve tried to build that over the years to have those things compliment each other.”
LOOKING AHEAD: How much can the special teams improve?
Nebraska took a noticeable step forward on special teams last season, but it still left plenty to be desired.
The Huskers ranked 13th in the Big Ten in kickoff returns (17.1 yards per attempt) and only returned five punts, the fewest in the league. They also finished 12th in field goal percentage (.692) and ninth in net kickoff average (41.2).
For a team that has notoriously lost so many close games, special teams improvement could be critical in making Rhule’s first season a success.
NU needs to decide on its placekicker and figure out its kickoff return situation during fall camp. But at least the staff appears to have quality options at every specialist position.
Starters will continue to play big roles on the coverage and return units, and Nebraska has already shown it’s properly prioritizing the third element in practice.
If the Huskers can come up with game-changing plays on special teams, it could be the difference between a bowl berth and a seventh straight losing season.