Nebraska spring football consisted of just two practices before it was halted due to concerns about the coronavirus pandemic. Even so, conversations with head coach Scott Frost, several players and almost every assistant coach provided at least some information about every position on the field.
The Journal Star is taking a position-by-position look at the Huskers, what was learned early in March and what to look for whenever NU returns to the field.
Scholarship players: None
If you’re in the market for head-scratching special teams factoids, the 2019 Nebraska season is a good place to look.
Maybe you point to the six place-kickers who attempted field goals for NU, making just 12-of-20 overall. Of those six, the only one left on the roster now is walk-on Lane McCallum, who is listed as an outside linebacker.
Or maybe you note the kickoff duties, where Nebraska’s 21.1% touchback rate was No. 111 in the nation and its 56.2 yards per kickoff was No. 121.
Or maybe it’s the backbreaking kick-return touchdowns allowed against Wisconsin and Iowa in close November games.
“We are waiting on a few of our commits and recruits from last year to come in and give us depth and more talent at certain places,” head coach Scott Frost said in March. “Certainly kicker has been an issue for a little bit around here. We are not in the best place right now.”
Or maybe you recall that, after Wan’Dale Robinson put a 39-yard kick return to his name in his collegiate debut, the Huskers’ best was a 30-yard return by freshman walk-on running back Zach Weinmaster. Same for JD Spielman in the punt-return game. He ran back a 76-yard touchdown against South Alabama and then had 10 returns for 32 yards in the final 11 games.
Bottom line: A solid but certainly not spectacular punt unit was about all Nebraska had going for it in 2019.
And all of that will have to be rectified in 2020 without a scholarship specialist (so far), without spring ball and without a special teams coordinator.
New faces abound. Chase Contrerez and Tyler Crawford will battle with holdover Gabe Heins for the place-kicking job. William Przystup and Grant Detlefsen (and maybe Crawford) will try to win the punting job. The kickoff job will be wide open. Cade Mueller probably has the first crack at the long-snapping job.
If Spielman returns to the team, he’ll be a factor at punt return again. Otherwise, a group of mostly young players including receivers Robinson, Alante Brown, Demariyon Houston and Jamie Nance will all have chances in the return game, as will DB Cam Taylor-Britt, RB Rahmir Johnson and perhaps others.
And it will all be overseen by senior special teams analyst Jonathan Rutledge.
“We’re going to try this,” Frost said of the new setup. “I didn't really want to burden someone like (assistant coach Mike) Dawson with making sure our outside linebackers improved and running all four special teams. That's a heavy role. I wanted somebody that could kind of do the Xs and Os and schematics off the field for our special teams and really train our coaches to go out and implement it with our players.
“It's going to save our position coaches a lot of time and have somebody whose entire time is dedicated to making our special teams better."
Frost on how much special teams cost Nebraska in 2019.
“One of our focuses and emphasis on the team was special teams potentially costs us three or four games last year,” he said. “You could probably make an argument for more of that. But we definitely need to be better in that area. … The effort needs to change. The details need to change. And having one guy (Rutledge) to drive it I think is going to help us, and all the coaches are on board, too.
“We know how important it is and we’re going to make sure we put in the time to be better at it."
Special teams talk usually centers on the specialists themselves, but the Huskers also must improve in the general ranks, too. That’s where Frost is hoping Rutledge makes a difference, in the implementation of scheme.
On the plus side, freeing a big redshirt freshman class (21 scholarship players) from the constraints of the four-game rule should help in roster depth, which often leads to better special teams play. But it will be a challenge even there, as NU will have to replace some of its better core special teams guys like Isaiah Stalbird (transfer) and Jeremiah Stovall (graduation) who led the team in special teams tackles with 10 and seven, respectively.