Nebraska Football: Four Takeaways from the Spring Game

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On Saturday, Nebraska’s Red squad handled the White squad, 49-9, in front of a nation-leading 86,818 fans at Memorial Stadium. (Sorry, Iowa). The buzz around new head coach Scott Frost reached fever pitch as Nebraska fans got their first glimpse of their native son returning home to restore the glory of yore.

As always, this caveat for any Spring Game. It’s a practice. One practice. This year, it’s not even the last practice of the spring. So even though it’s the only football we’re going to get until September, it’s really important not to put too much weight into what you saw. Just ask starting quarterback Zack Darlington about that.

With that said, here’s three takeaways from what we saw on Saturday.

Go wide to go deep

Yes, Nebraska’s offense was very vanilla, and the much-vaunted tempo wasn’t anything like what we are likely to see this autumn. But one thing that was very clear is that Nebraska’s offense is intended to attack defenses horizontally. Running the ball, Nebraska attacked the edges with outsize zones, speed options, and zone reads. Throwing the ball, Nebraska showed off a swing pass game, a quick-strike short passing offense, and at least an attempt to get a screen game going.

That attacking of the edges, then, opened up the middle of the field. The best example of that was quarterback Adrian Martinez’ draw play for a touchdown after faking an outside throw.

There’s a lot more to see about Frost’s offense against Akron in September. But at least conceptually, we got a good taste of what’s to come on Saturday.

Contrast in styles

If you were judging on one game, then Martinez was certainly more productive than Tristan Gebbia at quarterback. But there’s little question the two quarterbacks have a very different skill set.

Gebbia, along with surprising walk-on Andrew Bunch, throws a simply gorgeous ball, spun perfectly with consistent accuracy. And while Gebbia did display some instinct and skill as a runner, there’s little doubt he’s more dangerous with his arm than his legs.

Martinez, on the other hand, was more functional as a passer. His stats were great, but the balls he throws simply aren’t the statuesque spirals that Gebbia or Bunch offer. But when Martinez tucks and runs, he’s special. Not only can he accelerate quickly, he has moves in his locker like a hesitation step that will make him a nightmare to defend.

The quarterback battle won’t be decided until the autumn (and maybe not until the first game, like when another freshman quarterback named Martinez was dubbed the starter), but Frost’s choice as his signal-caller will likely tell much of the story of how he wants his offense to work.

A return to pressure?

Hey, that was something we didn’t see a lot of last year. Both of Nebraska’s defensive units were, at times, able to generate pressure and be disruptive forces in the opposing backfield. DaiShon Neal and Alex Davis were certainly the standouts in that category, getting two and three sacks respectively. But it was a team effort in terms of defensive penetration. If there’s anything to hang your hat on in terms of hope for 2018, that performance might be a sneaky category.

Lots of big targets

Wide receiver and tight end are both positions of strength for Nebraska. With leading returners Stanley Morgan and JD Spielman out with injuries, there was plenty of space on Saturday for other guys to get a look. And it was hard not to notice that Nebraska’s got a lot of big guys rumbling down the field looking to catch passes.

Wide receiver Justin McGriff (six-foot-six) had two grabs, Bryan Reimers (six-foot-five) had one, tight end Austin Allen (six-foot-eight) had three, Jack Stoll (six-foot-five) had three, and Kurt Rafdal (six-foot-seven) had one.

That’s five guys that are six-foot-five or taller that got at least one catch on Saturday. It’s also at least a plausible starting five for Tim Miles, in a pinch. Being able to throw that kind of height, especially in volumes, at an opponent can create huge mismatch opportunities.

Nebraska made a living for a little while taking advantage of big-bodied Maurice Purify at wide receiver – and he was “only” six-foot-three. On Saturday, it felt a little bit like Nebraska had a whole stockpile of Maurice Purifys running routes.

GBR, baby.

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Nebraska Football – Pre-Spring Game Offensive Preview

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The problem – well, one of the problems – with missing a bowl game is how long you as a fan have to wait to see football. In an ordinary, bowl-game-including season, the longest wait for Nebraska football is from the Spring Game until kickoff of the new season.

But after Nebraska’s 4-8 campaign in 2017, the firing of Mike Riley, and the hiring of Scott Frost, the wait from the end of the 2017 season to the 2018 Spring Game will be even longer. So if it seems like that ugly loss to Iowa on Black Friday was a long time ago, well, it actually was.

Even with snow still on the ground in April, then, spring football is here, and it’s time to start getting ready for what life will be like under Frost. Let’s take a look at the offense first, to get somewhat of an idea of what to expect.

Quarterback – Three schollies and a lot of questions

There’s a whole bunch of unknowns for Nebraska coming into 2018. But one of the biggest unknowns is who will be Nebraska’s signal-caller to start the season.

Nebraska’s two returning scholarship quarterbacks are redshirt sophomore Patrick O’Brien and redshirt freshman Tristan Gebbia. O’Brien has the only returning experience, playing in three games including the entirety of Nebraska’s 54-21 loss to Minnesota. Both O’Brien and Gebbia were recruited to play former head coach Mike Riley’s pro-style system, quite different from Frost’s no-huddle, up-tempo attack.

That doesn’t mean O’Brien or Gebbia couldn’t run Frost’s offense, though. As O’Brien told the Lincoln Journal-Star:

“I’ve been paying attention,” O’Brien said of the Knights. “Their offense is really fast, and they’re a good team. It’s going to be exciting for us to run that here. I feel like I fit in it pretty good. I ran something pretty similar to it in high school, and I feel like it fits my skill set, so I’m just ready to go.”

Also competing for the position will be true freshman Adrian Martinez, a four-star dual-threat quarterback. Frost was not shy about his praise of Martinez, according to Land of 10.

“I’m excited about him. He has a lot of potential,” Frost said. “When I was evaluating quarterbacks a year ago around the country, he was my favorite one. His ability to run and throw and his maturity as a kid are going to serve him really well, and for the offense that we run, I didn’t think there was a better fit in the country. Once we took the Nebraska job, we got a hold of him right away and we’re thrilled to have him on campus.”

So yes, Husker fan, at some point in the near future you’ll have a Martinez slinging the ball around Memorial Stadium. Get ready for your flashbacks.

It’s tempting to thing that Martinez will get the nod when Nebraska tees it up against Akron in September. At Central Florida, Frost didn’t hesitate to play a freshman quarterback in McKenzie Milton. But don’t discount the experience and athleticism of both O’Brien and Gebbia.

It’s likely that Frost and co. will want Martinez to show up ready and win the job. But it’s very unlikely that a true freshman will be able to pull of that feat. Look for O’Brien or Gebbia to get the nod, at least to start the season.

I-Back – Questions about the guys coming back, and the guys showing up

Nebraska looked like it had a real answer at I-back with Tre Bryant. For two games, Bryant looked to be the go-to back Nebraska had been hoping for since Ameer Abdullah,  averaging 5.86 yards per carry and 149.5 yards per game.

But lingering injuries sidelined Bryant for the rest of the season, and he remains a question mark as to what he will be able to contribute in 2018. Devine Ozigbo and Mikale Wilbon will be the backs returning with the most experience. Sophomore Jaylin Bradley flashed some potential, as well, in the limited opportunity he got towards the end of the season. And with the demise of the fullback, it’s likely that Ben Miles will look for his ability to contribute as an I-back, if not on special teams – if he remains part of the program.

This year’s recruiting class, however, has put some new faces into the mix. Junior college transfer Greg Bell was a jewel of the class, and with two years of eligibility left it’s hard not to see Bell competing hard for playing time right away. And on signing day (well, old school signing day anyway), one of Nebraska’s big wins was four-star running back Maurice Washington.

What the I-back position will look like in Frost’s new offense is still an open question. And given the new and returning faces in the room, who will be filling the role next season is just as much of an open question.

Wide Receiver – Stan’s squad

One of the best pieces of news Frost got upon taking the job in Lincoln was learning that wide receiver Stanley Morgan Jr was returning for his senior season. Morgan’s offensive output last year – 61 catches, 987 yards, 10 touchdowns – was one of the bright spots in an otherwise dismal 2017 season. Indeed, while Morgan did break Johnny Rogers’ 1972 single-season receiving record, his chase for 1,000 receiving yards ended up being about the only compelling thing to watch for Nebraska fans as the season wore down.

Also returning is JD Spielman, who had a breakout freshman campaign with 55 receptions, 830 yards, and two touchdowns. Spielman’s game would seem to translate well to Frost’s speed-based offense, and his year of experience should set him up well to contribute next year.

Tyjon Lindsey, one of the prize recruits from last year’s class, also returns with a year of experience. Lindsey struggled to find his place in the offense last year, but he remains one of the players for whom a year of experience and a change in system might pay the biggest rewards.

Nebraska’s also got some returning question marks, including Jaevon McQuitty coming off of an injury, and Keyan Williams looking for an opportunity to make his contribution. There was also a swell of receiving talent arriving in this year’s recruiting class, including junior college transfers like the speedy Jaron Woodyard and big-bodied Mike Williams. Incoming freshmen Miles Jones, Dominick Watt, and Andre Hunt will also find themselves competing for playing time in 2018.

Tight End – Spoiled for choices

Nebraska has one returning tight end with any experience, sophomore Jack Stoll, who hauled in eight catches for 89 yards and two touchdowns in 2017.

So, there’s some holes to fill for Nebraska at the position. The tight end is another position that looks to undergo some big changes in Frost’s offense, and the advantage Frost has is that he’ll have some options to choose from.

Stoll, as the only returning contributor, likely has an advantage in competing for playing time. But he’ll be fighting with oft-injured Matt Snyder, as well as highly-recruited Austin Allen and Kurt Rafdal. And don’t be surprised if Nebraska native David Engelhaupt is in the mix this season as well.

This year’s recruiting class also brought in three big-bodied, move-style tight end weapons in Cameron Jurgens, Katerian Lagrone, and Justin McGriff. So while Nebraska doesn’t have a lot of experience coming back, at the very least it will have a lot of options from which to choose.

Offensive Line – The perennial question

Nebraska should feel comfortable with returning talent at guard, as Tanner Farmer, Jerald Foster, and Brendan Jaimes will all be back. At center, Michael Decker and Cole Conrad will likely be competing for the spot, but both have injury issues that will limit their participation in spring practice.

Tackle is by far the biggest question on Nebraska’s offensive line – and that’s a big position at which to have a question. Matt Farniok will get a shot to slide out to tackle, and it also is time for Broc Bando and Christian Gaylord to step up and make their mark.

Nebraska has some additional line depth – Chris Walker, Boe Wilson, Jalin Barnett, and Matt Sichtermann will all have their opportunities. Freshmen Will Farniok and Willie Canty will be coming to Lincoln, but it’s always a challenge for freshmen linemen to play.

(h/t to Sam McKewon of the Omaha World-Herald for his offensive line preview)

GBR, baby.

All stats courtesy of cfbstats.com unless otherwise stated.