Nebraska Football: NU Re-View, White 43, Red 39

One of the strangest spring practices drew to a close with the annual Spring Game on Saturday. Due to injury concerns, the format was changed to offense v. defense with a modified scoring system. Quite honestly, I hope they keep this format – being able to see a full first-team offense against a first-team defense seemed quite illustrative.

Here’s the standard caveats. This is a practice, not a game. In the first half, the teams were basically playing touch football, so even less about the running game could be taken than otherwise even from an event like this. Take it for what it’s worth.

Still, at least we have something to keep our Husker hearts warm until August. So in reviewing the Spring Game …

THE GOOD

Casey’s Crew. Transfer portal phenom Casey Thompson didn’t get a lot of time to shine on Saturday, but he made the most of it. On the first play from scrimmage, Thompson threw wide to Nate Boerkircher who was double-covered. As God as my witness, when the ball left his hand I thought it was going to be a pick-six, that’s how conditioned I’ve gotten over the last few years watching Nebraska.

But it wasn’t. Thompson fit the ball into a snug window and completed the pass for an 11-yard gain.

Yes, one swallow does not a summer make. And Thompson basically spent the rest of the game on the sideline, signaling as clearly as possible that he’s the guy this fall. But at least from the small sample size we got on Saturday, Thompson looked like the real deal.

Tailback Talent. Most of the first half was a punt-fest, with neither offense able to generate much momentum. But Anthony Grant took a stretch play to the right, cut it back left, and outran the defense for a 60-yard touchdown. Grant’s explosive first step and lateral quickness were on full display.

Jacquez Yant looked every bit like 2018 Devine Ozigbo, a big back who looks to have developed speed and shiftiness. The touch-football rules of the first half definitely hindered Yant’s ability to shine on Saturday, as I lost count of how many gallops to the end zone he had to cut short because he was touched down coming through the hole – plays where he would have been able to lower his shoulder and be able to power through in a real game.

A number of other backs – Markese Stepp, Trevin Luben, Connor Jewett, amongst others – got carries as well and looked impressive, especially in the second half where defenders had to bring a ball carrier to the ground.

The Sea(ish) of Red. Nebraska hasn’t been to a bowl game since 2016. Nebraska was 3-9 last year and hasn’t won a football game since October 02, 2021. And still – still – 54,357 people showed up at Memorial Stadium to watch a practice.

Much digital ink has been spilled (including at this very site) fretting about how continued failure in football will eventually wear a fanbase out. I still think that’s true. But once springtime arrives in Nebraska, hope still pops its green shoots out of the ground.

THE BAD

Tackle Trouble. We talked earlier about the first half being a punt-fest. That was in no small part because Nebraska’s offensive tackles were routinely being eaten alive by the outside pass rush of the defense. Garrett Nelson, in particular, looked like a man amongst boys with the way he was able to terrorize the green-shirted quarterbacks.

And yes, that could have been a “Good” about the game. But coming into the Spring Game, Nebraska’s offensive line was a huge question mark. Nothing about this practice – and, again, it’s just one practice – gives any reason to doubt that conclusion.

Oh God Not Special Teams Again. Stop me if you’ve heard this one. A 14-yard punt. A missed 40-yard field goal. An extra point shanked so badly it almost missed the net.

A smart and particularly handsome analyst observed that with even a league average special teams unit, Nebraska would likely have been bowl-bound in each of Scott Frost’s non-pandemic-shortened seasons. Nebraska hired a special teams coach whose only job is to make the unit better. Specialists at punter and kicker were transfer portaled in to improve the talent.

And still. And still. Yes, it’s just one practice. But Judas Priest, some of those things just should never happen, practice or not.

AND THE GREAT UNCERTAINTY

I have been uncomfortably disconnected from Nebraska football this offseason. Yes, some of that is just life interfering, but some of it really is just feeling the effects of the soul-destroying way Nebraska’s 2021 campaign unfolded.

Coming back to Memorial Stadium on Saturday – which, I can confidently say, is still my favorite place on earth – was salve to some of those old wounds. I may or may not have teared up as the band played “There Is No Place Like Nebraska” – I had sunglasses on, you can’t tell.

But then the offensive struggles of the first half made me flash back to the reflexive pessimism that had developed as a coping mechanism. The 14-yard punt and the shanked extra point gave rise to bitter black humor that has become an emotional defense strategy.

And to top it all off, it’s impossible to avoid the feeling that Frost’s tenure in Lincoln rides on this year being successful – and if it is not, then the wandering in the desert looks to continue even longer.

My wife, who came with me even being an Iowa fan, observed how much more pleasant the Spring Game crowd was because it lacked the nervous tension of a game day environment. She was right, and it really got me thinking.

It’s not nervous tension she feels, I think. It’s just fear. That’s where Nebraska’s fanbase is in 2022. It’s where it will be in September when North Dakota comes to town. And heaven help us if Nebraska drops the week zero game against Northwestern in Ireland.

It’s a strange place to be. But at least for one glorious spring afternoon, it was good to be home.

GBR, baby.

Nebraska Football: Five Things To Watch in Spring Practice

So, the Double Extra Point has been on a bit of a hiatus, not posting since November 04.

It’s been … an eventful few months, with the turnover of the entire offensive coaching staff, the departure of the entire leadership cadre of players including talismanic quarterback Adrian Martinez, the remake of the roster through the transfer portal and *gasp* the hiring of a special teams coordinator.

Now we are back at that annual rite of passage, the beginning of spring practice. But in a year unlike any other, expect a spring practice unlike any other. Here’s five things to be watching for.

WHO IS GOING TO PLAY QUARTERBACK?

Martinez will be leading the Kansas State Wildcat offense in 2022, which will be a strange enough sight. But Nebraska’s quarterback room is quite full. Nebraska signed two transfer portal quarterbacks in Casey Thompson and Chubba Purdy. Nebraska also signed a scholarship high school quarterback in Richard Torres. And Logan Smothers and Heinrich Haarberg are still on the roster and will be fighting for playing time.

For the first time in quite some time – and certainly the first time in Scott Frost’s history at Nebraska – we will be seeing a legitimate quarterback battle.

WHO ARE THESE PEOPLE ON THE DEFENSIVE LINE?

Of all the departures from the 2021 squad, it’s possible defensive tackle Damion Daniels’ loss will be the most keenly felt. Particularly in the B1G, being able to have a strong presence in the middle of the defensive front to stand up against the run is of paramount importance.

Sophomore Nash Hutmacher will like be called upon first to fill Daniels’ role. Hutmacher saw limited playing time last year, but he (and the players behind him) will have a lot to prove.

WHO ARE THE OFFENSIVE SKILL PLAYERS?

Like with quarterback, the transfer portal saw a remaking of Nebraska’s receiving corps. Nebraska added Trey Purdy, an electric playmaker and return specialist, and Isaiah Garcia-Castenada to a group likely led by Omar Manning and Oliver Martin.

But perhaps the biggest addition to Nebraska’s pass-catchers will be the star of last year’s recruiting class, tight end Thomas Fidone. The five-star recruit from Iowa was sidelined last year after an injury in spring practice, but looks ready to contribute in 2022.

WHAT WILL THE OFFENSE LOOK LIKE?

Of all the new arrivals on Nebraska’s coaching staff, new offensive coordinator Mark Whipple might be the most intriguing. Frost arrived at Nebraska with a reputation for innovative, high-scoring offensive prowess. But after four years, his offenses have not exactly lived up to that billing.

Whipple’s arrival signals a number of things. First, he’s been successful wherever he has been, most recently guiding an offense that lead quarterback Kenny Pickett to a Heisman finalist season and likely a first-round selection in this year’s NFL Draft. Second, and perhaps just as important, Whipple brings a wealth of experience.

When Frost arrived in Lincoln, he brought his entire coaching staff from Central Florida. While that made some sense at the time given UCF’s success, one thing that was missing was a voice of experience to help guide and advise Frost. I still believe that one element of former head coach Bo Pelini’s downfall was his refusal to bring in coaches with outside experience that could challenge him and help him to grow.

Frost has done that with Whipple, at least in the hiring. How much that will translate to offensive performance on the field remains to be seen.

WILL SPECIAL TEAMS BE NOT QUITE AS TERRIBLE?

Even if Nebraska were just as mediocre as it was on offense and defense in the last two years – and that’s been plenty mediocre, believe me – Nebraska would still have made bowl games in each of those years were it not for comically, hysterically, inexcusably bad special teams play. Just last year, a win on the road against Michigan State – which could very well have inspired confidence and sparked more of a run the rest of the season – turned into a loss on a punt return.

That’s just one example of Nebraska’s special teams disaster area, from an inability to kick a field goal to the inevitable touchdown kickoff returns against Iowa and Wisconsin (including on the opening kickoff against Sconnie last year *insert angry face emoji*). If Nebraska was just average – not good, just average – in special teams over Frost’s career, NU would have been in bowl games each of those seasons.

It was very much an open question as to whether Frost would hire a special teams coordinator. After the end of last season, he seemed quite stubborn in his perception that special teams was not an area that needed drastic change.

But Nebraska did hire Bill Busch as a special teams coordinator, a reflection that at least special teams will get individualized attention. Now, having a special teams coordinator is no guarantee of success – Mike Riley had Bruce Read in that position, and Nebraska’s special teams that season were about as bad as they have been under Frost.

However, at least Nebraska is trying something different this year. And while one hesitates to say this for all the karma it can bring, statistically speaking it would really be hard for Nebraska to get much worse than it has been.

GBR, baby.