Nebraska vs. Iowa, 11.25.16

Nebraska punter Caleb Lightbourn is working on consistency after a trying freshman season.

Francis Gardler, Lincoln Journal Star

LINCOLN — The offense has Tanner Lee. The defense has Bob Diaco.

The special teams have stability.

The unit talked about the least through fall camp will head into Nebraska's season opener as perhaps its best unit.

And a critical piece of that unit, after a trying freshman season, has fully embraced the role he maybe wasn't quite ready for when last season began.

"I think last season was a lot harder than I thought it was (at first). Because during the season I was trying not to be in my head too much," sophomore punter Caleb Lightbourn said after a recent practice. "But as far as being mentally prepared, I think I'm so much more mentally prepared because I know exactly what to expect. I played every day, and I've been in a lot of different situations, and it's made me more mature, made me humble.

"You've got to take advantage of every opportunity you get."

Nebraska players and fans don't need the reminder of how Lightbourn's opportunity came about last season. Expecting to redshirt, Lightbourn instead was thrust into duty after the auto accident that killed Sam Foltz and Michigan State punter Mike Sadler just weeks before the start of the season.

An 18-year-old kid in his first extended time away from home suddenly had an important job he wasn't expecting to have.

While no one could blame him for an up and down year, Lightbourn is ready to atone.

"There's a big perception that specialists don't do much. ... But we're always doing drill work or conditioning and always trying to perfect our craft," Lightbourn said. "I think that's just, that's the meaning of being a specialist. You have to be working harder than everybody else because what you do is a lot more technical and it's a lot more precise than other positions."

Lightbourn now works on his skills under the most precise of coaches in Diaco, who oversees the punters as well as the defense. It's been a good mesh for player and coach.

"He really spends time inspecting his movement, and the things that went wrong. He spends time and discipline trying to habit the movement, because you don't want to have a lot of moving parts, so you try and duplicate the same thing over and over again," Diaco said of Lightbourn. "And he's very critical of that sweet spot, and that movement that he needs to be in that groove. We're working hard at it, and he is too."

After first being surprised by Diaco's energy level, Lightbourn has found the coach's enthusiasm refreshing. It's led to improved performance on the practice field, where Lightbourn said he's averaging about 48 yards per punt in workouts.

Lightbourn also knows workouts are different than games. He needs only to look back to his negative 2-yard punt against Minnesota and inconsistency in other games if he needs a reminder.

"Consistency. That's all it is. I knew I had the leg to do it, there's no question," Lightbourn said. "I just needed to get consistent, and that's what I worked on the most and where I developed the most."

This summer, Lightbourn attended the same Kohl's Kicking Camp in Wisconsin that Foltz did. He strengthened bonds with other specialists that were made last season.

"It was really nice. We were all really close — and all the specialists, not just in the Big Ten, but across the country," Lightbourn said. "It's a really tight-knit group, and you can't really get anything better than that because everybody knows everybody, everybody does the same thing, and we all have a special relationship, especially through Sam.

"It brought us all closer together, so it was a really good experience."

It was a high point in an offseason spent working toward a job that wasn't supposed to be his until this season. Now, along with senior kicker Drew Brown and senior return man De'Mornay Pierson-El, Nebraska has a strength few in the Big Ten would appear to be able to match.

"I think just looking forward, you don't really want to look at statistics. But I think a lot of things I look at, I really want to see the results as good; see the result of hard work," Lightbourn said. "And I'm just really excited to see what the season has for me."

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