Huskers’ first-year punter has work to do, but strong leg wins Caleb Lightbourn starting job
LINCOLN — It’s still hard for Nebraska special teams coordinator Bruce Read to watch practice without Sam Foltz ripping punts into the summer sky.
Foltz, who died earlier this summer in a car crash, was so good at his craft, Read said, that he made coaching easy. Foltz had all that inside knowledge of a seasoned punter — where to line up, how to approach kicks out of his own end zone or on the opponent’s side of the field.
“We had all that worked out,” Read said. “Now everything’s brand-new. It’s a lot of work. It’s a lot of things I took for granted that he did that I knew that’s how we wanted it to do. Caleb is really just learning.”
And that’s how Read announced Foltz’s season-opening replacement, freshman Caleb Lightbourn. In recent practices, Read said, Lightbourn had “come to the front” in a position battlewith Issac Armstrong, who put up a good fight, Read said. Lightbourn has more upside and a stronger leg, Read said. He wanted to make a decision now, he said, because Lightbourn is right-footed while Armstrong is left-footed, so the protection schemes are different for each of them.
During Saturday’s scrimmage, Lightbourn did the bulk of the punting work, and one of his pooch punts downed inside the 10-yard line drew applause from the sideline.
But Lightbourn’s a work in progress in terms of directional punting. The 6-foot-3, 220-pounder — giant for a punter — is already accomplished at kicking the ball out of the stratosphere.
“We’re trying not to kick it too far,” Read said. “Just high and kinda far is really good. But he is very powerful.”
Lightbourn’s also 18, with limited experience as a punter at Camas (Washington) High School. A soccer player for most of his youth, Lightbourn punted just four times in 2015 because of a knee injury and didn’t punt much in 2014 because Camas’ offense was so good. Before the accident, Foltz was working with Lightbourn on improving his technique to go along with the booming leg.
Read thought he’d have a year to get Lightbourn ready. But he won’t. He’ll have Armstrong as a steady backup should Lightbourn struggle with the finer points of the game.
“He’s not going to be Sam,” Read said. “I have to keep telling myself that. Because Sam was almost — if we punted 10 times, nine of them, you’d like that. I don’t know what we’re gonna be, but we have to rally around this kid.”
Other special teams notes from Read, who generally talks just once before the season:
» Nebraska’s punt returner remains undecided. Read is looking at four candidates: De’Mornay Pierson-El, Jordan Westerkamp, Stanley Morgan and JD Spielman, who has been added to the mix in the last week.
“Westy’s got super-sure hands, DPE’s got the flash, Stanley has the work ethic — he doesn’t have the natural ball skills those other kids have — and Spielman can track the ball and chase it down. He’s a very natural catcher,” Read said.
» The kickoff return unit has been “revamped,” Read said, with Terrell Newby, Spielman, Tre Bryant and Mikale Wilbon as lead returners, and Jordan Nelson, JoJo Domann and Wyatt Mazour as the “off returner” who will block more often. Morgan and Brandon Reilly, Read said, are out of the mix so they can concentrate on wide receiver.
» The freshman class has been helpful in filling spots on special teams. Read said Domann and Lamar Jackson may start on several special teams.
“They’re both physically ready and they’re both mentally dialed up — don’t make a lot of mistakes,” Read said. “They are guys who, right from the very beginning, fit it. It’s hard to say that about the young guys.”
Spielman, Read said, is “super-talented and super-tough.”
“I love the kid,” he said. “He’s a natural football player. He’s got great instincts. He’s kind of a rare guy who can return kicks and cover them. You watch his highlight tape from high school. He blows people up. He’s a little guy, but he’s a tackling machine. This kid’s a baller, and it’s going to be hard to keep him out of the lineup.”