Nebraska Football: Position-by-Position Breakdown of the Spring Game

MVIMG_20190413_130052

On Saturday, Nebraska had its final practice of the spring, and over 85,000 people happened to show up and watch. The Spring Game, won by the Red squad 24-13, gave Nebraska fans a booster shot of football to get them through the long hot summer before South Alabama Week arrives.

Sure, it looked like a game and it sounded like a game. But remember, it’s just practice, and just one practice at that. So the standard caveat of “don’t read too much into this” applies. Having said that, though, it’s all we’ve got to work with, so let’s take a look position-by-position and see what we’ve learned about Nebraska’s upcoming campaign.

Quarterback

Weirdly, it’s easy to forget about Adrian Martinez. Closing Time is not only consistently remarkable, but he is so mature and undramatic that he’s easy to think of as a known quantity. And in a time where Nebraska has so many other questions to answer, fans can be forgiven for filing the signal-caller away and thinking “we’re good, Adrian’s here.”

That’s not wrong, of course. But it makes it easy to forget just how good 2AM is. Check out his touchdown throw here (starting at 0:51) and you’ll see what I mean. Martinez rolls to his left, uses his acceleration to evade a defender, then on the run against his body delivers a perfect 21-yard strike to a well-covered Jaron Woodyard.

It was a remarkable feat, but it feels like the play was somewhat lost in the shuffle only because we seem inured to Martinez’s consistent displays of awesome. (And that’s not even taking into account Woodyard’s amazing hoodie he wore under his pads!) We shouldn’t. Martinez is the most talented offensive player that’s worn scarlet-and-cream since Ameer Abdullah, and that’s just seeing him as a freshman. I maintain that he’s the second coming of Russell Wilson, and Nebraska fans should not take that for granted.

Behind Martinez, Noah Vedral looked smooth and confident, much different than the tentative and rusty version of himself we saw against Bethune-Cookman last year. Clearly, not being bounced between Nebraska and UCF and being able to settle into his role has made a difference. Andrew Bunch also looked solid and smooth, clearly benefitting from a year in the program.

Running Back

Keep in mind that there are four players (incoming freshmen Ronald Thompkins and Rahmir Johnson, transfer Dedrick Mills, and sophomore Maurice Washington) that didn’t play in the Spring Game this year. So the guys we saw on Saturday have a steep hill to climb just to make the two-deep.

Having said that, Jaylin Bradley looked good, with great lateral movement and decisiveness. Brody Belt and Wyatt Mazour were both very effective in the roles they were given. And Miles Jones got a good look on the White squad, although he still looks more effective as a pass-catcher rather than a running back.

Wide Receiver

Much like with running back, it’s hard to judge what we saw with the absence of incoming freshman Wan’Dale Robinson and junior JD Spielman. A number of players had opportunities to make a splash, and really didn’t. Woodyard looked good with his touchdown grab (and his hoodie!) but also missed a reception on the sideline. Andre Hunt seemed to get more into the game in the second half, and certainly has the frame to be the X receiver Nebraska is looking for. Jaime Nance had a few opportunities to show off his speed but was largely contained. And Kade Warner got loose again for a big play early in the game – do not be surprised if Warner ends up as a starter once we get to South Alabama week.

Tight End

A sneaky strength of the team. Projected starter Jack Stoll was unable to participate, so we got to see a lot of Austin Allen, Kurt Rafdal, and Katerian LeGrone. All three – although more Allen and LeGrone in this game – demonstrated the type of mismatches that these massive pass-catchers can present to a defense. Having an offensive difference-maker at tight end has been a unicorn Nebraska has hunted for many years – but 2019 might be the year it bears fruit.

Offensive Line

It looks like the tackles for Nebraska’s offensive line are pretty well set, with Brendon Jaimes and Matt Farniok installed on the ends. It’s in the middle that the questions arise. Walkons Boe Wilson and Trent Hixson look to be in pole position at guard, while the center position looks up in the air with competition between converted tight end Cameron Juergens, walkon AJ Forbes, and redshirt freshman Will Farniok in the mix.

“In the air” might be a poor choice of words for the center competition, as a number of the shotgun snaps were errant enough that the quarterbacks had to show off their athletic ability to keep the ball off the ground and avoid a disaster. Center in specific, and offensive line in general, is the biggest question about Nebraska going into 2019.

Defensive Line

The strength of the 2019 squad, at least at this point. Nebraska’s defensive line – particularly at nose tackle – finally look the part of a Big Ten defensive line. The Daniels brothers (Darrion and Damion) and the Davis brothers (Khalil and Carlos) look ready to be far more stout against the run and generate an interior pass rush. Add in Ben Stille, and newly-added junior college transfer Jahkeem Green, and the defensive line could go from a disappointment in 2018 to a strength in 2019.

Linebacker

At inside linebacker, Mohammed Barry may well be the best player on the defensive squad. The depth behind him, though, is what is of concern. Collin Miller looked the part next to him, with Nebraska needing to count on a return to health from Will Honas and a contribution from true freshman Jackson Hannah for 2019.

At outside linebacker, JoJo Domann looks to be settled in to his role, and with some additional depth at safety it may be that he can settle there. Alex Davis looked the role as a pass rusher and athletic coverage weapon – but he did at last year’s Spring Game, so a word of caution still needs to be heard. Quayshon Alexander and Breon Dixon also showed flashes, which may help provide depth.

Secondary

Nebraska’s starting cornerbacks, Lamar Jackson and Dicaprio Bootle, are pretty well set. Cam Taylor will likely be the third cornerback up next season, with incoming freshmen like Noa Pola-Gates and Myles Farmer likely to get their first look at corner.

At safety, Deontai Williams looked to be the best athlete of the crew last season, and if he’s learned the defense then he could be the breakout Blackshirt of 2019. Marquel Dismuke looked comfortable at the other safety position, with Cam’ron Jones and C.J. Smith pushing for playing time.

Specialists

No one really stood out punting, meaning that Isaac Armstrong likely will be keeping his role at starter. Caleb Lightbourn announced that he was transferring, which will leave Armstrong a clear field at the position.

As for placekicker, well … *whispers* Barret Pickering hasn’t missed a kick since October 13, 2018, at Northwestern. It seemed like Nebraska fans kind of set their impressions of Pickering based on his early season struggles last year – and, in fairness, Pickering’s missed kicks (a field goal and an extra point) likely cost Nebraska a win in Evanston. But he also was a crucial part of Nebraska’s all-grit win over Michigan State, kicking three field goals in the snow. A smart and particularly handsome analyst referred to Nebraska as Kicker U, and just maybe Pickering can be next in that legacy.

GBR, baby.

Nebraska Football: What the 2017 Recruiting Class Means for the Cornhuskers (And a Super Six!)

DSC09452

On Wednesday, Nebraska signed a class of 20 prospects who will join the Cornhusker roster for the 2017 season. The eight defensive and 12 offensive players were rated no. 21 nationally by ESPN, no. 23 by 247 Sports, and no. 20 by Rivals. Bill Connelly of SB Nation does an aggregate recruiting ranking, which puts Nebraska at no. 22 nationally this year, no. 22 over a two-year timespan, and no. 26 over a five-year timespan.

So, a decent class, but not the top-15 heights that some were hoping for. But what does this mean for where Nebraska is now as a program, and where it’s going?

Fishing in the Right Streams

Yeah, holding your breath on National Signing Day to wait for high school kids to put on a hat is a little nerve-wracking. And given that Nebraska only signed 20 players instead of the expected 22 or 23 means that spots were likely being held for Signing Day decision-makers like C.J. Verdell, Joseph Lewis, and Deommodore Lenoir, who went elsewhere.

Oh, yeah. And there was Jamire “Three Commitments” Calvin, too.

And while that’s frustrating and disappointing, it’s something you’d better get used to as a Husker fan if you want to sit at the Big Kids’ Table in college football. For Nebraska to get over its four-loss plateau, it’s going to need the talents of players who wait until National Signing Day to put on a hat.

The fact that Nebraska is in the mix right to the end with so many of these players is a great sign. Landing one more of those guys would likely have put Nebraska safely into the top 20. This year’s class has decommits from Ohio State and Florida, showing once again that head coach Mike Riley can go toe-to-toe with national juggernauts and win recruiting battles.

So, yes, Nebraska’s 2017 can definitely be chalked up as a good-but-not-good-enough performance. But this is also coming off a second season of Nebraska’s on-field performances being somewhat less than inspiring. If the addition of a quarterback friendlier to Riley’s offensive system and the addition of new defensive coordinator Bob Diaco bear fruit on the field in 2017, then 2018’s class may have even more promise to offer.

An Incomplete List

Nebraska signed 20 players to Letters of Intent, bringing its total of scholarship players to 83 (the roster breakdown done by the Omaha World-Herald is here, although at the time of writing it did not have the entire 2017 class listed). In his discussion with the media about the 2017 class, Riley said that he liked the flexibility of having a couple extra scholarships available to use.

OK, sure, having those extra scholarships can be useful if there is a late-available kid or for a JUCO target. But let’s be real. Those spots would have been filled if guys like Lewis or Lenoir would have picked Nebraska.

That leaves Nebraska’s roster a little thin, particularly at wide receiver. And with all the talent departing next year, recruiting defensive backs is going to be a huge priority for 2018.

Winning the West

Nebraska hasn’t won a conference title since 1999. If there’s anything that’s an indictment on how far Nebraska has fallen from mid-nineties glory, that lonely “1999” on the West Stadium sign for conference championships should serve as a reminder in ten-foot-tall lettering.

But to win a conference title, you need to win your division. Perhaps in year seven (!) in the Big Ten, Husker Fan will finally be ready to embrace its divisional rivals as the primary focus for Nebraska’s success.

So how is the rest of the B1G West doing in recruiting (according to Bill Connelly’s five-year recruiting rankings from SB Nation)?

Team 2017 Nat’l Rank Two-year Nat’l Rank Five-year Nat’l Rank
Nebraska 22 22 26
Wisconsin 38 36 34
Iowa 40 41 50
Illinois 46 57 58
Northwestern 53 48 48
Minnesota 56 52 55
Purdue 69 72 71

What do all these numbers mean? Well, the first thing that jumps out is that no one from the West is ready to compete nationally. We’ll talk more later about why recruiting ratings matter, but here’s a fascinating bit of statistical analysis from Stewart Mandel of FOX Sports.

Power 5 teams (of which there are 65) that consistently recruit Top 20 classes have a 60 percent chance of becoming a Top 20 program and a 35 percent chance of regularly inhabiting the Top 10.

By contrast, Power 5 teams that finish outside the Top 20 in recruiting have a lower than 18 percent chance of fielding Top 20 teams and just a 6.7 percent chance of reaching the Top 10.

The only team that’s even close to consistent top 20 recruiting performance from the B1G West is Nebraska, but as you can see from the five-year ranking, even that has been buoyed by recent performance.

This, by the way, is precisely the point where those college football fans who disdain recruiting rankings (such as Keyshawn Johnson, by the way, as told to Erin Sorensen of Hail Varsity) will point out that Wisconsin has been one of the most consistent national powers over the last ten years, and that Iowa is only one season removed from an undefeated regular season and being one play from the College Football Playoff.

Wisconsin is a fair point. The Badgers have been in the final AP Top 25 every year since 2013, topping out at no. 9 this year. And in 2012, Wisconsin won the B1G (although I don’t remember what happened in the conference title game) and played in the Rose Bowl.

But that means Wisconsin is dramatically overperforming its overall talent. It does so by recruiting to a system and narrowly focusing on players that are good fits for that system (which might sound like some other guy Nebraska fans have heard of). It’s a valid strategy, as Wisconsin has clearly proven. But it also means you have to significantly outcoach opposing teams and consistently either unearth diamonds in the rough or develop average players into top-flight college performers.

That’s tough to sustain. Just as Michigan State, which follows a similar model to Wisconsin and endured a 4-8 season one year after a College Football Playoff appearance.

Well, how about Iowa? No one is going to take last year’s 12-0 performance away from the Hawkeyes. But it was also in large part the product of the stars aligning and the schedule softening. Outside of that magical 2012 run (which, unfortunately, ended with a bit of a thud), Iowa hasn’t lost fewer than five games since 2009. That would suggest 2012 was an outlier, and Iowa’s performance is about what a team that recruits in the forties nationally should expect.

Yes, Nebraska’s time in the B1G has not been as productive in the trophy cabinet as Husker Fan would have liked or expected. But, the bottom line is that Nebraska should have a clear talent advantage over the rest of its divisional rivals. Even more encouraging, Nebraska is one of only four teams in the B1G West (along with Iowa, Illinois, and Purdue) that is improving on its five-year average, suggesting positive momentum in recruiting. Now, it just needs to start translating that recruiting advantage to wins on the field and trips to Indianapolis in December.

Super Six (and a Sleeper)

It wouldn’t be a National Signing Day piece without an obligatory review of the signing class. So here is the official Double Extra Point Super Six for Nebraska’s 2017 class:

No. 6: Kurt Rafdal / Austin Allen (TE)

OK, OK, I know I’m cheating by listing both of them. But these are two impressive-looking tight end prospects coming to Lincoln. Rafdal is six-foot-seven and 230 pounds, while Allen in six-foot-eight and 210 pounds. Both are offensive weapons, and with the potential for a quarterback to truly spread the field, they should be able to create mismatches and allow the tight end to (finally) become a vital cog in Nebraska’s offensive engine.

No. 5: Brendan Jaimes (OT)

As with just about any offensive lineman, Jaimes will probably need a redshirt season to get himself physically able to handle life in the B1G. But he has the frame (six-foot-five, 250 pounds) and the skill set to be Nebraska’s left tackle from 2019 going forward.

No. 4: Guy Thomas (DE/OLB)

There’s a reason Nebraska fans were holding their collective breath on Signing Day to see if Thomas was still “N.” There’s nothing more valuable on defense than a natural pass rusher, something Nebraska has been without since Randy Gregory. Thomas probably isn’t a Gregory-level player, but he’s the closest thing in this class to a player that can heat up opposing quarterbacks. He’ll likely slide to an outside linebacker in Diaco’s 3-4 scheme, which should make him more dangerous as a pass rusher.

No. 3: Tyjon Lindsey (WR)

There’s a reason Urban Meyer wanted this kid to play in the Shoe. Lindsey is a game-changing playmaker with speed and moves and hands to score on offense and on special teams. Given his size (five-foot-nine, 161 pounds), he would be expected to at least start out in the slot. But given his talent, don’t be surprised if he ends up being able to play as an outside receiver. With Nebraska transitioning to a more quarterback-accurate offense, a player like Lindsey has the chance to make an immediate impact.

No. 2: Keyshawn Johnson Jr. (WR)

It’s unfortunate that Johnson’s talent is going to be lost in the shuffle a little, given his famous father and the expectations that brings. I expect Johnson to be an impressive contributor on the field, a bit in the Jordan Westerkamp mode in terms of the type of receiver he is.

But Johnson’s impact on Nebraska, both this year and going forward, is the buzz his commitment and continued recruiting has given NU. The “Calibraska” movement doesn’t happen without Johnson’s energetic commitment, and Nebraska’s recruiting momentum likely doesn’t take hold without that Calibraska movement.

So regardless of what his on-field contributions will be – and, again, I think Johnson is going to surprise with how well he plays – in a sense he’s already done his job for Nebraska.

No. 1: Damion Daniels (DT)

Daniels might not be the best player in the 2017 class. But he might be the most important. With Nebraska migrating to a 3-4 defense under Diaco, it is going to need a big run-stuffer to play the nose tackle, one that eventually will have the size to play “two-gap” on both sides of the center.

Daniels is six-foot-three and 315 pounds as a high school senior. He’s got the frame to be that true nose tackle in the future – with an outside shot of the future being 2017 if he has a good spring.

Sleeper: Ben Miles (FB)

Yeah, it was cool to see the Mad Hatter don a Nebraska lid on ESPN. But Les Miles’ boy can play. He’s an effective lead blocker, and a good enough athlete to be deployed as an H-back or even out of the slot as a receiver. He’ll play on special teams, and has a shot to be a four-year contributor.

Remember Andy Janovich’s senior campaign in 2015, and all the what-might-have-beens (such as those raised by a smart and particularly handsome analyst) if he would have been given a more featured role in Nebraska’s offense? Well, with Miles we might get to answer some of those questions.