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Steven M. Sipple: Why NU's poor special-teams play sends up red flags about Frost's program
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Steven M. Sipple: Why NU's poor special-teams play sends up red flags about Frost's program

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Things I know, and things I think I know: 

The college football season still has time left on the clock. 

So, it's perfectly fine for Nebraska fans to look backward before they jump forward. 

Same goes for Husker head coach Scott Frost. If you're an NU fan, you hope Frost is looking hard (again) at how to improve special teams. It's basically become an annual conversation around here, or so it seems. Granted, Bo Pelini ended his tenure in Lincoln in 2014 with NU playing strong special teams. But it's been hit and miss ever since, and mostly miss.

As for Frost, he's tried it at Nebraska with a full-time assistant coach heading up special teams (Jovan Dewitt in 2018 and 2019), and he tried it this season with a senior special teams analyst (Jonathan Rutledge) running the show. 

It didn't work out all that well, and it's (again) cause for concern in part because if you're sizing up any organization's culture, or buy-in, you look immediately toward areas where people don't get much credit for their work. You look to the dirty work. If an organization attacks those tasks enthusiastically and successfully, well, it indicates strength in culture.

Special teams is largely about dirty work. Nebraska has to do better in special teams if it expects to turn the corner as a program. It certainly has to do better than being 111th nationally in net punting, as is the case at the moment. That's unacceptable. Iowa, a program NU is chasing, is fourth nationally in net punting. Why should such a lofty ranking seem like a pipe dream for the Huskers? 

Nebraska has to do better than finish 94th nationally in kickoff returns with an average of 18.27 yards per return. That's just slightly better than 2019, when NU averaged 18.13 (107th nationally). 

Nebraska has to do better than allow opponents to average 22.64 yards on kickoff returns (87th). Frost probably couldn't believe his eyes as Rutgers' Aron Cruickshank roared 98 yards for a touchdown in NU's season-ending victory. Bottom line, the Huskers won that game despite shoddy special-teams play.

Nebraska has to do better than allow opponents to average 12.17 yards on punt returns (103rd). Iowa and Northwestern both dinged Frost's crew with sizable punt returns. The Huskers lost close games in both cases in part because of poor special-teams play all around. 

The special-teams issues aren't something you want to hear Frost explain away. Not at this point in his tenure. 

Granted, Nebraska showed marked improvement in field goals, as Connor Culp was 13-for-15 with a long of 49 yards. It appears Culp will return in 2021 for another senior season. That would be very helpful to the program. 

Nebraska also received significant special-teams help from junior cornerback Cam Taylor-Britt, who returned six punts for 79 yards, an average of 13.17. Taylor-Britt's work was the impetus to NU finishing 14th nationally in that category. 

It wasn't all bad. But Nebraska's special teams need to be much better. Think about it this way: Many coaches identify favorable field position (often created by special teams) as one of the three keys to winning, along with turnover ratio and play in the trenches. The 3-5 Huskers this season faltered in all three critical areas (the offensive line generally was a disappointment).

So, Frost has a lot to think about in upcoming weeks and months. Yes, again. 

* Former Nebraska inside linebacker Collin Miller last week told the Journal Star he's talked to a few 2020 Husker senior defenders who are strongly considering a return to campus in 2021. Miller, who's retiring from the game, says it's "looking pretty good" that at least a couple of starters may come back. 

Nebraska defensive coordinator Erik Chinander obviously would welcome such a development. It's an extremely interesting conversation and speaks to the strong culture Chinander has developed on that side of the ball. Based on what I'm hearing from sources, I wouldn't be surprised if at least three of seven senior defensive starters are back in the fold next season. Let's leave it at that, for now.  

* Our ace volleyball writer Brent Wagner had an extremely interesting interview with Nebraska coach John Cook, who returns all of his starters from last season's Elite Eight team. Cook knows the season can begin Jan. 22, but he doesn't have a schedule from the largely inept Big Ten. 

Yeah, I know, it's shocking that the Big Ten would leave any of its sports teams in the dark. 

* Cook long has wanted a spring volleyball season that wouldn't coincide with college football. Yes, his sport may get more attention in coming weeks and months, but what will it look like? Since August, Cook estimated that all 15 of his players have been at practice on the same day only about 20% of the time due to COVID-19 reasons, small injuries or other illnesses that are watched more closely now. 

Goodbye, 2020. What a year. It's been a doozy. 

* Urban Meyer to the Jacksonville Jaguars? Watch this story closely. It could become reality. The Jaguars on Sunday locked up the No. 1 overall pick in the NFL Draft, which means it's Trevor Lawrence time in Florida. 

The Jaguars will have two first-round picks among its total of 11 selections for the 2021 draft after adding 12 prospects in this year's class. What's more, the organization has more salary-cap space than any team in the league. 

As an aside, Meyer is a noted stickler for strong special-teams play. No way I was going to forget that part. 


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