LINCOLN — Nebraska is spreading out its coaching duties on special teams as it moves on without Bruce Read, and first-year defensive coordinator Bob Diaco is even part of the mix.
Coach Mike Riley said Saturday that Diaco “came to me right off the bat” and volunteered to be the punter coach, an important role as Caleb Lightbourn comes off his freshman season.
Riley’s response: “Go at it.”
Diaco was a special teams coach at several stops early in his career, and immediately started working with Connecticut punter Justin Wain even after becoming the Huskies’ head coach in 2014.
“I think he’s really good,” Riley said. “I think what we’re trying to do there as a staff with Caleb is working with a talented person to make him more consistent. It’s always the mark of a specialist — at the end of the day or at the end of the season — they’re all basically going to be identified as to their consistency. And that’s where Caleb has got to make a big jump.”
Riley discussed special teams assignments Saturday after the Huskers’ fourth spring practice. Read had served as the special teams coordinator the last two seasons — and also for Riley during previous stints at Oregon State and with the San Diego Chargers — but was let go two days after the regular-season finale at Iowa.
“Every part of our staff at this point, or just about everybody, has a part,” Riley said. “And so we divided it.”
For example, Riley said Trent Bray is the lead person on the punt team, and assisted by Bob Elliott and Tavita Thompson. John Parrella is the lead on field goal block. Field goal protection is led on the interior by Mike Cavanaugh and Roman Sapolu, and on the edge by Reggie Davis and Thompson.
Asked if Nebraska might eventually appoint a special teams coordinator, Riley said: “I don’t know. I’m not really sure we’ll have a name.”
Nebraska ranked in the middle of the Big Ten in kickoff returns (21.5 yards) and punt returns (7.3) last season. Two of the Huskers’ top returners are back with De’Mornay Pierson-El and Tre Bryant.
Some blocks and other issues with the punt team led to the Huskers holding just a 33.6-yard net, better only than Rutgers in the conference. Lightbourn did get his average up to 39.7 yards per punt by season’s end, including 21 kicks inside the opponent 20-yard line.
NU will benefit from the return of senior kicker Drew Brown, who has made 47 of 62 career field goals (75.8 percent) and last season registered 30 touchbacks on kickoffs.
Install with different teams will continue through the spring. But Riley said “the foundation of what we want to do has gone in fairly well” with 10 more practices and the Red-White scrimmage still ahead.
“To this point, I think it’s been pretty smooth,” he said. “I think having a veteran kicker is a good thing for us in that fashion.”
Wain went on to be the Connecticut punter for all three seasons that Diaco was head coach, but Diaco’s initial interest in what he was doing required an adjustment.
“It was a little overwhelming at first because usually the head coach isn’t associated with the kickers,” Wain told the Hartford Courant in 2014. “That’s usually the special teams coach. Then, on the first day of practice, (Diaco) is standing next to me the whole time. So I’m like, ‘OK, this is not going to be something I’m used to.’ ”
Wain said they built a relationship, however, and Wain realized that Diaco had an eye for it.
“So it’s definitely been nice to have him right here to help me,” said Wain, who would eventually average a career-high 41.3 yards per punt as a senior in 2016.