LINCOLN, Neb. — Consistency is key for Nebraska punter Caleb Lightbourn. After a rocky freshman season, the sophomore has worked tirelessly to become more consistent. He has a new coach to thank for that, too.
Defensive coordinator Bob Diaco likes coaching punters. That’s why he was more than open to the opportunity when he was hired by Nebraska in January.
“Punting the football is a fundamental system,” Diaco said after a practice last spring. “There are some tangible traits that are going to make you a little bit better than somebody else. But if your fundamentals are off then you’re going to be a bad punter. There’s no way to not be. And if your fundamentals are great you’re going to be a good punter. And then your tangible traits can make you a great punter.”
Lightbourn averaged 39.7 yards on 65 punts last season. He downed 21 punts inside the opponent’s 20-yard line and had 10 punts of at least 50 yards. His best week came in a 35-32 win against Oregon, when Lightbourn averaged 47.2 yards on five punts and was honored as the Big Ten Freshman of the Week.
However, there were also the rough moments during Lightbourn’s freshman season. That included the punt against Iowa that only traveled 5 yards, as well as the punt that went for negative 2 yards. Those are the moments Lightbourn would like to forget — and prevent from happening again — in 2017.
With Diaco’s help, he’s on his way.
“He’s becoming more consistent,” Diaco said after Tuesday’s practice. “He’s maturing. He takes accountability more and is coachable. He really spends time inspecting his movement and the things that went wrong. [He] spends time and discipline trying to [make a habit of] his movements. You don’t want to have a lot of moving parts. So you try to duplicate the same thing over and over again. He’s very critical of that sweet spot, that movement that he needs to be in that grove.
“We’re working hard at it and he is too.”
Lightbourn likes Diaco’s personality. He feels it’s a lot like his own in many ways, which has made the transition from former special teams coach Bruce Read to Diaco an easy one for Lightbourn.
“We’re both very straight-forward people,” Lightbourn said. “We don’t really beat around the bush much. We have very similar personalities. He’s made several references that I’m similar to his son and I thought it was a joke at first because that was my first impression of him. ‘You remind me of my son.’ And I was like, ‘What?’ I didn’t realize it. Now I can understand that because he and I have a lot of similarities and we’re both very energetic.
“We take what we do very seriously and if we mess up, we take it personally. That’s kind of how you have to go about things. You don’t want someone to say you don’t work hard at what you do. That’s just something we do work hard at.”
And through the hard work, Lightbourn is finding consistency. Safeties coach Scott Booker has been a big reason the kickers and punters stay through the entire practice now. Lightbourn recalls only having to be at practice for 20 to 30 minutes as a freshman, but that has changed.
By being present, Lightbourn is able to do more conditioning and skill work. That includes working on his drops and walking his lines. With Diaco there to help, Lightbourn has noticed the improvement.
“He’s definitely a very energetic coach,” Lightbourn said. “He has a lot of positives. He’s uplifting but at the same time, he’s going to tell you what he thinks and how to fix it. You just have to listen and go with what he says. Most of the time, he really does know what he’s talking about and I definitely listen to what he has to say because everything he says does help me.”
Lightbourn wants to be great and he will do what it takes to get there. With Diaco’s help and a year of experience under his belt, Lightbourn is ready for round 2.
He plans to continue working on the consistency aspect of his game, but he feels much better about it today than he did a year ago.
“I was really unsure about last year,” Lightbourn said. “I didn’t really know how it was going to go and this year I know my consistency improved a lot and I’m just looking forward to going out there and punting and just having fun.
“It’s going to be a good time.”