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.