‘Sleepness nights’ for Huskers after special teams on point at times, off track at others against Arkansas State

‘Sleepness nights’ for Huskers after special teams on point at times, off track at others against Arkansas State
World-Herald News Service

LINCOLN — No special teams units in the country got the kind of wide-ranging workout Nebraska’s did last weekend.

The Huskers gave up a touchdown on a punt return to Arkansas State, then scored on the ensuing kickoff. They fielded a surprise onside kick and missed on an expected one. They tried two field goals and tried to block two field goals. They executed a free kick off a safety and fielded a free kick off a safety.

The only other Football Bowl Subdivision squad that comes close to what Nebraska saw on opening week was Louisiana-Lafayette, which also scored on a kickoff — twice, actually — and allowed a punt-return touchdown to FCS school Southeastern Louisiana. The Ragin’ Cajuns also returned a fumbled extra-point attempt for 2 points. But there were no safeties or field goals in that contest, which they held on to win 51-48.

“We saw a lot of scenarios,” Nebraska special teams coordinator Scott Booker said. “We practiced all those scenarios … and obviously there were some we did really well and some we’ve got to do better. We’ve just got to keep on learning from that film.”

The highs and lows came on the touchdowns. Coach Mike Riley said the punt Arkansas State took 63 yards to the house gave coaches “sleepless nights.” NU coverage members condensed when deep man Blaise Taylor muffed the initial catch, then they couldn’t recover as the ASU speedster scooped up the ball and weaved through would-be tacklers.

Riley called it a “technical, tactical mistake by us,” albeit one created through an unusual circumstance. It reminded him of an instance during his time at Oregon State when USC’s Reggie Bush surprised his team by scoring on a punt that looked like it would land out of bounds. He’s told the Huskers that story, he said, but they learned the hard way Saturday.

On the ensuing kickoff moments later, redshirt freshman JD Spielman broke a 99-yard touchdown sprint. Booker credited blockers like Collin Miller, Kieron Williams and Luke McNitt — who were on the field for both major developments — for recovering quickly.

“They came back, they fought, and that was a big swing,” Booker said. “For us to take the momentum back was huge.”

The kick return group — Booker calls it “Bomb Squad” — validated the optimism members of the unit had expressed for weeks. Unlike in some past seasons, players want to be part of special teams even if they have defined roles already set on offense or defense.

Spielman and Booker had been talking last week about taking a kickoff the distance. It didn’t take long for the 5-foot-9, 180-pound Spielman to meet his coach’s gaze after igniting the Memorial Stadium crowd with his flash through the A-State coverage.

“I found him on the sideline after the play and I looked at him,” Spielman said. “I looked at him and I smiled a little bit and I said, ‘I told you I was going to bring one back.’ We kind of laughed a little bit and after that we were back to focusing on the game.”

Spielman got a big assist from teammates on the play, Riley said.

“I’ll tell you what, the kickoff return play was blocked,” he said. “It was a nice run, but those plays don’t work without really crisp, good blocking.”

The way practices are structured allows for about 22 minutes a day for working on special teams, Riley said. They spend two periods a day on two specific units and another on either field-goal/extra-point block or field-goal kicking. Coverage teams get their time Monday and Wednesday and return groups go Tuesday. Everything is reviewed Thursday.

Kicker Drew Brown and punter Caleb Lightbourn also enjoyed strong games. Brown connected on his only field-goal tries of 21 and 41 yards and all five extra points. Lightbourn pinned the Red Wolves at their own 4- and 10-yard lines after halftime and also launched a 54-yard boot to flip the field. He averaged 42.4 yards on five punts, which ranks 41st nationally after one week (he was 93rd last year at 39.66).

“Whether it’s the onsides/hands team or some of the other things you see, we don’t get to practice all those scenarios as much as the offense and defense practice their scenarios, but, at the same time, those are the most critical times,” Booker said. “We talk all the time about, ‘Hey, we’ve got to end the game on special teams.’ So we work very hard to do that.”

Nebraska at Oregon

When: 3:30 p.m. Saturday

Where: Autzen Stadium, Eugene

Radio: 103.1 FM