Through the opening stanza of Nebraska preseason camp, Jovan Dewitt feels much more comfortable with the Cornhuskers’ special teams units than he did a year ago.
That shouldn’t be mistaken for total peace of mind, though.
“The old axiom is, ‘What do you feel about your team’s execution?’ and the one guy says, ‘I’m all for it,’” said Dewitt, NU's special teams coordinator. “It was really bad. I can’t sit here and sugar coat it. I’m not going to say it was good when it wasn’t. What I did notice, though, was as the year progressed, how it got progressively better and progressively better.”
The Huskers finished dead last in the conference in kick return average (15.8 yards) and more than half of their 150 punt return yardage on 16 tries came from one JD Spielman touchdown against FCS Bethune-Cookman in late October.
NU was ninth in net punting and middle of the pack in kickoff average, but had to make major changes to both units when Caleb Lightbourn lost his job midseason.
So far this summer, the waters have been a little calmer.
“I feel way better, just watching the drill work over the course of the past couple days,” Dewitt said. “Really the first part of camp for us is all drill and technique work as opposed to scheme, you feel so much better about some of the stuff that’s going on with our guys and just them having a base understanding what we’re trying to get accomplished.
“My heart rate isn’t quite as high every time we line up to kick a football.”
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Having a kicking operation largely intact certainly helps. Sophomore place kicker Barret Pickering made his final 10 kicks of 2018 and enters his sophomore year not only with confidence, but with placeholder Isaac Armstrong and a veteran long-snapper in Chase Urbach also in place.
“You started to realize, yes, there’s the Barret I recruited,” Dewitt said of watching Pickering get hot over the second half of the season. “He knows more about what he’s doing. His yips, per se, from the previous year were really all based on his initial footwork. Once he realized his consistency in terms of his footwork was off and he fixed it, that’s when he became a lot better.”
Armstrong, who assumed the punting duties last year when Lightbourn was benched, will have stiff competition from Michigan State transfer punter William Przystup, a redshirt freshman who joined the Huskers this summer after appearing in four games for the Spartans last year.
“(Przystup) is actually someone we’ve known for quite some time, seeing as how he’s from Florida,” said Dewitt, who added that NU measures hang time, distance and placement on every kick over the course of camp. “He’s played in big-time games, so he’s got the experience and Isaac has the experience. I don’t anticipate either of them getting rattled with any form of competition on the field or off the field. I feel good about those two battling it out throughout camp and Isaac knows he’s going to have to perform if he wants to maintain being the starter.”
The return game might represent the biggest question mark. The Huskers just haven’t been able to generate much juice in that department in recent seasons, though there are certainly some candidates to sort through in the coming weeks.
Spielman is a good return man, but he also suffered the high ankle sprain that cost him the last two games of the season during a return against Illinois last fall, and his workload will certainly be watched carefully. Sophomore running back Maurice Washington handled some kick return duties, as did senior wide receiver Jaron Woodyard.
There are several young options, too, including freshmen receivers Wan’Dale Robinson, Jamie Nance and Demariyon Houston, among others.