LINCOLN, Neb. — Caleb Lightbourn has taken the punting job he didn’t want yet and run with it.
Lightbourn, a Camas High School graduate, expected to spend this season as the understudy to one of the nation’s best punters in Sam Foltz. But Foltz was killed in a car crash in Wisconsin in July, and Lightbourn was named his successor following a five-day competition in preseason practice.
After up-and-down performances the first two games, Lightbourn was named Big Ten freshman of the week for shutting down Oregon’s powerful return game in a 35-32 victory in Lincoln on Sept. 17.
“You could always see the upside with this kid,” special teams coach Bruce Read said. “I thought if we could play him, he could get better and better. He has a great mindset, he’s a very determined young man, he’s a pretty mature kid. He does a nice job of being able to focus and block out the distractions.”
There have been lots of distractions.
Foltz was another in a long line of small-town kids who walked on at Nebraska and made it big. He was beloved by fans, and his death continues to be mourned statewide and throughout the college football community.
Lightbourn is the first Nebraska punter since 1995 to come in on scholarship, so there were going to be high expectations no matter when he made his debut. But the circumstances for his first appearance would be almost unfathomable for any freshman.
It came on the first series in the opener against Fresno State. Before he jogged onto the field, Nebraska lined up in a 10-man formation in an emotional tribute to Foltz.
“I almost came to tears when I was going out on the field because it was such a special moment,” said Lightbourn, whose 29-yard punt was not returned. “I was just glad to get the ball off and get my college career rolling, and doing it for Sam.”
Lightbourn struggled with the swirling wind the next week against Wyoming, and he made an ill-advised decision when he took off running on a fourth-and-10 and was stopped well short of a first down.
But on a near-perfect afternoon against Oregon, Lightbourn averaged 47.2 yards on his five punts. His last three were all inside the Oregon 20, including one at the 3. The Ducks’ Charles Nelson, who entered the game ranked 11th nationally in punt returns, never got an opportunity to run one back.
“I got a lot more confidence through that game and that experience,” Lightbourn said.
Lightbourn actually was a better kicker than punter in high school, said Read, who worked with him at Oregon State summer camps for three years before coming with coach Mike Riley to Nebraska. Lightbourn had a knee injury his senior year at Camas High, and he received no offers from any school except Nebraska.
The 6-foot-3 Lightbourn is listed at 220 pounds, but Read said he’s closer to 240. His father, Edgar Lightbourn, was an elite high jumper. His mother, Marjie Van Der Laan, was a nationally ranked rower in high school.
“He gets his power from her. He gets his explosion from his dad,” Read said. “He never really punted all that much. Knowing the bloodlines, and having the history of working with him behind the scenes, we took a shot at him. We were confident he could be a real good player someday. We just didn’t know when.”
Read said Lightbourn should excel in the Big Ten, where cold and strong winds become bigger factors as the season progresses.
“Guys who don’t have pop aren’t able to deal with this conference very well, so you need big, powerful guys, which is a reason he was a real fit for us,” Read said. “I figured with a year, we could work and groom him into being that guy. It just happened to come on a lot faster than we thought.”
Lightbourn arrived at Nebraska in June with the plan to take a redshirt year and learn from Foltz. The two worked together when time allowed, and Lightbourn sensed Foltz taking him under his wing.
“He told me he wanted me to do the best I possibly can. He told me right before he went to Wisconsin, a few days before that, to kick how you know how to kick and don’t let anything influence you too tremendously,” Lightbourn said. “I think going out there and doing the best I possibly can is what would make him happy.”