LINCOLN — Special teams — the frayed ribbon that wrapped up Nebraska football’s 2019 season in an untidy bow — will be improved this season, Husker coach Scott Frost said twice in the week leading up to NU’s season opener at Ohio State.
“It had to get better,” Frost said Thursday. On Monday, he said the caliber of the specialists — kicker, punter, kickoff specialists, returners — is a key ingredient in determining the quality of special teams.
At kicker, Nebraska will start LSU transfer Connor Culp, who beat out several other kickers — including freshman Tyler Crawford — for the job. Culp last attempted a kick in 2017, when he hit 11 of 16 field goals and 20 of 23 extra points for the Tigers. In recent seasons, he’s been beat out at LSU for the job.
At punter, William Przystup, who backed up Issac Armstrong last season, will be the guy. He had strong competition from incoming scholarship punter Daniel Cerni in fall camp. Cerni has experienced an injury “setback,” Frost said, and will not be available for at least the first game. Przystup didn’t boot any punts last season — at Michigan State in 2018, he averaged 40.6 yards — but he was NU’s primary kickoff man until the final three games of the season. Przystup was not responsible for either of the kickoff returns for touchdowns in losses to Wisconsin and Iowa.
Nebraska’s special teams were an abject disaster in 2019, as NU cycled through six placekickers and ranked 112th in special teams rankings, according to Football Outsiders. Iowa ranked No. 1. Ohio State, Saturday’s opponent, ranked eighth.
After the season, NU parted ways with special teams coordinator Jovan Dewitt and hired an off-the-field special teams analyst, Jonathan Rutledge, away from Auburn. Rutledge lured Culp and Cerni to Nebraska. Rutledge coordinates the Huskers’ strategy away from the field while assistants coach on the field.
Husker defensive coordinator Erik Chinander said on Tuesday that Nebraska has the luxury of using more young players on special teams because the NCAA isn’t counting this season against anyone’s eligibility clock because of the pandemic. Tight ends coach Sean Beckton works with NU’s returners, but running backs coach Ryan Held said there are several young players in the mix for both return roles.
Rahmir Johnson, Cam Taylor-Britt, Wan’Dale Robinson, Brody Belt and Marcus Fleming are among the top options for kickoff returns, Held said.
“The way the kickers are, sometimes it’s hard to get kickoff returns now, they’re kicking the doggone thing 10 rows deep,” Held said. “But, you never know with the weather in the Big Ten. You’ve got to be prepared to have these returns changing field position, which we’ve got to do a better job of.”
» Receiver Omar Manning — the top junior college wide receiver in the nation last season and one of NU’s top 2020 recruits — may not play at Ohio State. Frost did not say whether Manning, who missed time in camp for health and personal reasons, will make the trip.
"We're still working through that," Frost said. "Omar's had a few setbacks, too. Feel good about his progress. Don't know if we'll have him this week or not, but hopefully it won't be very long."
» Nebraska will take two antigen tests on Friday — once before players get on the plane to Columbus, once when they arrive in Columbus — but Frost doesn't expect too many differences with travel. The game day protocols, he expects, will be different, especially in "cavernous" empty stadiums without any fans in them.
» Frost said right tackle Bryce Benhart — who will get his first start on Saturday — "learned on the fly" this fall.
"We feel good about where he is, really talented kid," Frost said. "Think he's pretty confident right now. He's going to get tested, the type of team we're playing in week one, but he's going to be really good."
» Nebraska is mentally ready to roll for Ohio State — the Big Ten's best overall program — but Frost wants to see how the team adjusts and reacts in the game.
"I'm anxious to see their response when, inevitably, Ohio State makes a play or two on us, hits us in the mouth, scores on us," Frost said. "Whatever happens, I want to see a bunch of guys who don't like that but aren't afraid of the next play and go out and continue to try and make great plays. That's all we can do. I feel good about that, but we also have to respond the right way during the games."