LINCOLN — Daniel Cerni has a small, dark tattoo of a smiley face on the inside of his arm. It’s a design you’d see on a T-shirt or the back of a car window, and notably, it matches the interview demeanor of Nebraska’s starting punter.
From Canberra, Australia, Cerni has the wide grin of a guy who stumbled onto the unplanned dream of playing American football not long after his hopes of a pro career in Australian Rules football vanished.
“It’s definitely an experience of a lifetime,” Cerni said. “It’s taught me a lot about myself — seeing the good out of a bad situation.”
The multiyear journey to punting for NU had its bumps.
Cerni fell out of love with his original sport when he got moved out of the prominent center-half position. As Cerni’s passion waned, he visited an old girlfriend who was playing basketball at Idaho State. Cerni said Bengal Athletic Director Pauline Thiros was standing behind him at an event.
The two started talking, and Cerni’s chat with Thiros turned into a message to Idaho State’s football coach.
Cerni toured the facilities and loved it. He went back to Canberra, got involved with Prokick Australia — a punting pipeline that has developed some of the best punters in college and the NFL — and eventually heard from then-Nebraska special teams analyst Jonathan Rutledge. Cerni chose NU and arrived in Lincoln as classes were about to start.
He quarantined for 14 days, promptly got COVID-19 — which kept him out more time — and upon joining practice, sustained a season-ending injury to his leg. The 6-foot-4, 225-pounder insists he wasn’t trying to tackle anyone when it happened — tackling comes naturally to an Australian Rules football player — but Cerni was smiling, too, as he insisted that.
“Unfortunate little trip-up in practice — someone came across my leg — and it happens,” Cerni said. Coaches now tell him to avoid contact during practice.
The injury allowed Cerni, in a sense, to learn more about the sport from kicker Connor Culp and punter William Przystup. Culp joked in an August press session that Cerni had to be taught everything. Cerni laughed as he suggested Culp might be “overstating” Cerni’s cluelessness.
“But he’s definitely been there for me when I have a little, silly question,” Cerni said. Przystup has, too.
The two competed throughout fall camp for the starting job that Cerni won, in part, because his rollout, rugby-style punts topple end-over-end and can be hard to return. Cerni’s style produced a 40-yard net average against Fordham. Forty yards is NU’s baseline goal.
Cerni’s debut at Illinois didn’t go so well. He averaged 34 yards in net punting.
Special teams coordinator Mike Dawson said Cerni has to “trust his technique” and keep his leg swing the same regardless of the drop he’s using for a given punt. He didn’t excuse Cerni’s initial performance, but chalked the low net up to the vagaries of a quirky punt style and Cerni “trying to be perfect.”
“Especially when you’re kicking crossfield, that ball’s going to bounce weird,” Dawson said last week. “Sometimes it’s going to roll forever, but we had one check up on us.”
Said Cerni: “I didn’t feel too much pressure — I just felt silence around me. Everything went quiet and the next thing I knew I had the ball in my hand. I think the one thing that got to me was, I was trying to control the ball too much, and I didn’t kick through it enough. That’s a learning curve for me.”
Cerni has both his Husker teammates and brotherhood of Australian punters — Nelson Foley at Miami and James Burnip at Alabama are among them — to lean on for support. He’s also grown close to the three Australians on the Husker women’s basketball team — Isabelle Bourne, Jaz Shelley and Ruby Porter. He likes the state of Nebraska, too. The soft landing of the place made leaving a tightly knit Croatian family back home a little easier.
“It’s a little hidden gem in America,” Cerni said. “It’s often overlooked from Australia, and it’s widened my perspective.”