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Fresno State vs. Nebraska, 9.3.16

Under pressure from Fresno State's Delvon Hardaway (6), Nebraska kicker Caleb Lightbourn gets off his first punt in the season opener Sept. 3 at Memorial Stadium.

If it was an uneven freshman year for Husker punter Caleb Lightbourn, Drew Brown can tell him to join the club.

Brown is proof how much a player can improve after a year of kicking footballs at the college level.

When Brown is asked about Lightbourn moving ahead, the kicker reminds, "I had a shaky freshman year as well. Most people do. It's not easy to step into the bright lights like that, especially the situation he had."

While Brown was a respectable 14-of-21 on field goals his freshman year in 2014, he took over a job that carried higher expectations than that. He was following behind high-level kickers such as Alex Henery and Brett Maher.

It was a challenge Brown has met.

During his sophomore year, he improved to 21-of-27 and was 12-of-14 on kicks from 40-49 yards. Last year, Brown missed only two of his 14 field-goal attempts, and one of those misses was a 56-yarder Mike Riley later took the blame for having him even attempt.

If Lightbourn can conquer the mental component that comes with punting, Brown expects him to rise in similar fashion.

"He's one of the most-talented guys I've ever seen," Brown said.

Having arrived on campus expecting to redshirt, Lightbourn became Nebraska's starting punter as a true freshman after the tragic death of Sam Foltz.

It's a tricky job to begin with. Even Foltz and his great leg had some inconsistent moments his first year, when he averaged 41.6 yards per punt.

Lightbourn showed big-leg capabilities, but finished averaging 39.7 yards, including a few bad mis-hits, such as one against Minnesota that bounced backward for negative 2 yards. Nebraska's net punting average of 33.6 was 123rd in the country out of 128 teams.

But the last outing was a good one. Husker fans might not have liked the team's bowl performance, but Lightbourn's individual efforts were solid, averaging 42.7 yards on his punts, with a long of 52.

"He's obviously got the physical makeup," Brown said. "But what separates the good kickers and punters from everybody else is the mental makeup. ... But it takes experience to gain that mental edge, for sure."

Don't let up: Brown is the only true Husker place-kicker on the roster, although Lightbourn was recruited as someone who could potentially handle that role in addition to his punting duties.

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The hope is another leg besides Brown won't be necessary in 2017. He expects to continue to handle kickoffs as well. For him, it's all about the details.

"It helps our coverage team when I put the ball in specific spots. We can win the field-position battle," Brown said. "It makes a big difference. You might not notice it, but if there's a ball 2 yards deep in the end zone right next to the pylon in the corner, or whether it's 2 yards deep on the hash, that makes a massive difference."

A returner is probably going to take a knee on the kick right by pylon. That's why Brown is putting such an emphasis on it.

He also wants to be a leader on this team in his final year at Nebraska.

"It's guys like myself and others who have played a significant amount of games in a Nebraska uniform, it's our job to kind of teach the younger guys how it needs to be done and how to win games," Brown said. "Especially when you're deeper in the season battling good teams."

Linebackers to keep in mind: The Huskers are loaded with scholarship linebackers, but ask Josh Banderas to name someone to watch this year and a walk-on's name quickly comes up.

"Always my darkhorse is Jacob Weinmaster," said the former Husker.

Weinmaster is a 6-foot, 215-pound sophomore from Loveland, Colorado, who Banderas and several teammates mentioned as being impressive last year. A back injury sidetracked his progress in 2016.

But he appears to be full-go, and Weinmaster was even chosen as one of the 11 offseason captains by his teammates.

"I'm real excited to see what that kid has in store," Banderas said.

He also mentions third-year sophomore Mohamed Barry, who worked on special teams last year and begins the spring second in line behind Dedrick Young at weakside inside linebacker.

"Mo Barry's always got his nose in the right spot," Banderas said. "He'll be fun to watch in the spring. He's on track for making some moves."

Banderas is getting ready to try to make his own big impression for pro scouts at Nebraska's Pro Day on March 14. But he admits it would have been fun to have a year in defensive coordinator Bob Diaco's 3-4 scheme.

"I'm more just kind of sad I missed an opportunity to learn a new defense," he said. "Because a lot of the NFL is that style of defense now. But I'm definitely staying in the ears of the guys in the linebacker room and still talk to Coach (Trent) Bray, so I'll be sure to probably know a little bit about it."

Reach the writer at 402-473-7439 or bchristopherson@journalstar.com. On Twitter @HuskerExtraBC.

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