MOSCOW, Idaho – Figuring out college and the demands of an NCAA Division I sport ought to be enough for a freshman to take on.
But University of Idaho punter Caleb Lightbourn brings to his graduate transfer season with the Vandals a worldly realization he learned at the beginning of his college career. Life will confront you with things beyond your control that can affect what happens afterward.
Five years ago, Lightbourn came out of Camas (Washington) High School with a powerful leg and a rudimentary knowledge of punting, having played for a high school team that played for a state championship when he was a sophomore and went 10-1 and 11-1 when he was a junior and senior, respectively, and so rarely punted.
Based on his potential, though, he entertained offers from the University of Washington and Nebraska and chose the Cornhuskers. The way things should have gone, in his first year he would have backed up senior Sam Foltz, an All-Big Ten punter on the Ray Guy Award watch list, and a product of the cherished Nebraska tradition of in-state walk-ons who made good playing for the Big Red. In that kind of rookie season, Lightbourn could have paired his kicking talent with a reliable, repeatable technique and observed what it took to kick in Big Ten stadiums, including Nebraska’s regularly sold-out 85,000-seat Memorial Stadium.
But in June 2016, Foltz, former Michigan State punter Mike Sadler and LSU kicker Colby Delahousseye were returning from a Wisconsin kicking camp where they were instructors. On a rain-soaked rural Wisconsin highway, on a locally notoriously dangerous curve, Sadler lost control of the car in which they were riding. It left the pavement and crashed into a tree. Foltz and Sadler were killed. Delahousseye escaped with minor injuries.
Lightbourn was thrust into the role of being Nebraska’s punter.
“I took his place,” Lightbourn said of Foltz.
In his first game, a 43-10 win against Fresno State, Lightbourn punted four times for a 36.3-yard average. He learned quickly and for the season averaged 39.7 yards on 65 punts. After hitting on a 47.2-yard average against Oregon, including a season-long 58-yard punt, he was named the Big 10 Freshman of the Week.
As a sophomore, he improved to a 42.1 average on 59 punts and kicked the longest of his career, a 69-yarder against Wisconsin. The following year, however, he punted in only five games, averaging 41.6 yards and instead became a kickoff specialist.
Lightbourn’s career with Nebraska swung between impressive performances and inconsistency.
The Cornhuskers were also on a downward spiral. After going 9-4 in Lightbourn’s freshman year, Nebraska slipped to 4-8 in both 2017 and 2018. Mike Riley, the coach who had recruited Lightbourn, was fired after the 2017 season.
Lightbourn became more uncertain about his future at Nebraska and following his junior season transferred to Oregon State. He sat out 2019 and punted for the Beavers in the pandemic-shortened 2020 season, when the Beavers finished 2-5. Lightbourn averaged 40.2 yards per punt.
“I have no regrets about anything I have done,” he said of changing schools. “I have love for both places. I have no ill will.”
But after Lightbourn graduated from Oregon State, he decided he was not done with football. He established a connection with Idaho special teams coach Adam Breske, and Lightbourn is using a graduate transfer season to play for the Vandals.
“It all starts with the transfer portal,” Breske said. “We got his name through there. I reached out, and we began to build a relationship.”
Idaho was looking for someone to replace graduated All-America Cade Coffey. Lightbourn was seeking an opportunity to get a dream of playing professional football back on track.
“Both of our needs matched up. It’s worked out well so far,” Breske said.
Lightbourn’s college football past might have made him an old soul.
“I’ve only known him a short time. He’s very mature. He thinks his way through things. He thinks about his craft,” Breske said. “He’s very much the technician.”
His story has rounded back to Nebraska. Lightbourn is using his time in Moscow to take classes in film and TV production.
“I am working on a screenplay,” he said. “I would like to make a short film about my whole freshman year at Nebraska. I have wanted to do something with that story for a long time. This seems like a good opportunity.”
Reflecting on his challenging introduction to college football, “my whole freshman season I was nervous,” Lightbourn said. “Nebraska was tough. But it definitely made me better as a player.”
His last season as a player, and his year as an Idaho grad student trying to make a movie, might give him a chance to make sense of a time that affected his subsequent college football career.
“This is definitely a good atmosphere,” he said.
In addition to punting for the Vandals, Lightbourn also gets to hold on field goals.
“It’s very exciting. That’s something I have wanted to do since I was a sophomore,” he said.
Lightbourn wasn’t called upon to punt in Idaho’s season-opening 68-0 rout of Simon Fraser. Against Indiana, he had a punt blocked, another returned for a touchdown, and a long return set up a third touchdown.
“That didn’t go so well,” he said, but in seven punts against the Hoosiers he averaged 50.1 yards.
Idaho travels to Corvallis to take on Lightbourn’s former team, Oregon State, this week.
“We might have to calm him down a little bit,” Vandals coach Paul Petrino said of Lightbourn facing the Beavers.
In the 45-year history of Idaho’s Kibbie Dome, only a handful of punters seemed like they could bounce a ball off the 150-foot roof. Lightbourn is one of them. It is not something he is trying to do, he is quick to say, but he gets monstrous hang time in addition to distance on his punts.
As someone who has been around, he can hold forth knowledgeably about punting in Nebraska’s wind and cold, in Oregon’s damp air, in high elevation and indoors. Now a final season might offer him screenplay material about going out on top as a college punter with all his varied experience only now paired with confidence equal to his talent.
“If I hit a big ball,” he said, “it should be a big ball no matter where I hit it.”
This is also where the Vandals come in, Breske said.
“When we protect him, give him time to do his thing, he can really let it rip.”
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