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Nebraska Football: How Scott Frost Has Addressed Special Teams in a Major Way for 2020

Frost is hoping an overhauled special teams operation can help spark his team's turnaround

Problems littered the nooks and crannies of Nebraska's 2019 season resulting in another year without a postseason appearance. The Cornhuskers' offense sputtered and stopped preventing any consistency while their defensive front seven was unfortunately porous.

 

But the third phase of the game — often the most overlooked until problems arise — may have had the greatest effect on the season's ultimate shortcoming.

 

Converted punter Isaac Armstrong was put into an unenviable position versus Colorado in the season's second game. On the road, Nebraska squandered a 17-0 halftime lead as the Buffaloes fought all the way back and then went ahead 34-31 in overtime. During his first collegiate start at the position, Armstrong's 48-yard attempt to extend the game and give the Big Red new life fell short.

 

Should the Huskers win that contest and start the year 2-0, do they struggle as mightily against Northwestern, fall at home to Indiana or stumble and bumble to a loss against Purdue? Momentum would've meant a great deal to Frost's second squad in Lincoln. It could've very well been parlayed into a bowl game. Instead, further frustration set in.

 

If only some faith could've been had in making even medium-range kicks with regularity. Instead, Frost found himself opting for punts or trying to convert on fourth down as the weeks went by with those odds clearly being more preferable.

 

Nebraska's field goal conversion rate tied for 111th in the nation at 60 percent (12-of-20). Only one Big Ten team had a worse performance in 2019 (Maryland went 2-for-5).

 

The Huskers' punting game was just about as shaky, averaging 40.69 yards per boot to rank 87th nationally. That mark was bested by eight other conference teams alone, including Big Ten West foes Illinois and Iowa.

 

Nebraska's special team issues were initially addressed by the hiring of Auburn's Jonathan Rutledge as senior special teams analyst in mid-February. In addition, Nebraska recently added Bobby Maffei in a defensive analyst capacity, but he also spent a season as special teams coordinator at Richmond, an FCS program.

 

Over Rutledge's two-year stay with the Tigers, they would excel not only in blocking kicks but punt return yardage as well. An area that Nebraska has struggled to find success with over the past several years, Auburn's Ryan Davis ranked 24th in the nation in 2018 with 9.86 yards per attempt while Christian Tutt held the seventh-best mark last year (13.61 yards).

 

While Noah Igbinoghene fell just short of the necessary required number of kickoff returns to qualify per NCAA rules, he averaged 35.2 yards per attempt. For comparison's sake, Utah State's Savon Scarver finished the season with an average of 33.73 yards per return.

 

Ameer Abdullah's efforts in 2011 are the closest any Husker has come to that number in the past decade (29.35 ypr). The last time any Nebraska player could claim a similar level of punt return success was in 2014 as De'Mornay Pierson-El placed third nationally (17.53 ypr).

 

During the 2019 campaign, the Huskers cycled through a grand total of six kickers with only Lane McCallum returning. He's currently slated as an outside linebacker for the upcoming year.

 

Frost endeavored to shore up the position by securing several walk-ons looking to rejuvenate the position including Chase Contreraz from Iowa Western Community College and former LSU starter Connor Culp.

 

The competition for the starting punter job won't lack for candidates either with former Michigan State transfer William Przystup, redshirt freshman Grant Detlefsen, and walk-on Ryan Novosel all in the mix. Nebraska also used one of its remaining scholarships to bring on Australian Daniel Cerni to add some international flair. If the placekicking situation again becomes dire, both Detlefsen and Novosel have the experience necessary to fill in.

 

While this overhaul won't directly aid in or prevent any touchdowns from being scored, the reorganization can begin to pay dividends over the course of a single offseason.

 

In order to make a bowl game this season — a feat that would do wonders at this point in Frost's short tenure — having even an above-average group of specialists can easily mean the difference between elation and even more extreme disappointment.

 

Unlike refurbishing an 11-man offensive or defensive attack, a few additions can go a long way to securing more wins. While this doesn't guarantee Nebraska the 7-0 start that fans crave, it certainly bumps the possibility up a few notches.

 

— Written by Brandon Cavanaugh, FWAA member and a part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Be sure to follow him on Twitter (@eightlaces). To contact him, click here.

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