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

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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 to Watch For at the Spring Game

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On Saturday, Nebraska will conclude Spring Practice with the annual Red-White Spring Game. Of course, it’s not exactly a game, more the final practice of the season with 90,000 fans watching. So everything about the Spring Game should be taken with that particular grain of salt in mind.

Of course, the most important thing to watch for on Saturday is simply this – we get to see Nebraska football again. We haven’t seen Nebraska football since Black Friday in Iowa City, so getting this fix will help tide us all over until it’s South Alabama week.

But there are a few things to keep an eye on as you watch head coach Scott Frost run his second Spring Game at Nebraska.

Standout Freshmen

One of the most exciting parts about the Spring Game is the chance to see the early-enrollee freshman on the field and get a glimpse of the future. Wide receiver Wan’Dale Robinson, of course, is the crowning jewel of these freshmen, although injuries may limit what he’s able to accomplish on Saturday. Receiver Jaime Nance and tight end Chris Hickman could also provide a view of what’s to come for Nebraska as additional offensive weapons. And Nebraska fans could be very excited to see a glimpse of quarterback Luke McCaffrey, and if nothing else have some faith that Nebraska’s offense won’t fall off a cliff if something happens to Adrian Martinez.

A Number One in the Making?

Junior wide receiver JD Spielman is the only real certainty coming back at wide receiver for Nebraska. After that, there’s a whole bunch of questions. And Spielman, while a dangerous receiver, doesn’t necessarily have the skill set to be a true number one receiver, with the body size and type to absorb that level of completions

So who on the spring roster could make a move for that position? According to the Lincoln Journal-Star, offensive coordinator Troy Walters said that Andre Hunt has been continuing to improve. Jaron Woodyard and Mike Williams never really grabbed their opportunity last year. Jaevon McQuitty should have his first real opportunity this year after injury.  Kade Warner got plenty of playing time last year, but would need to show he’s got the skill set to step up into that expanded role.

Running Back Opportunity

One of Nebraska’s biggest question marks next year will be at running back. Maurice Washington is clearly the best returning back, but the uncertainty regarding his legal situation in California leaves his ability to contribute next season in doubt. In the fall, Nebraska should have transfer Dedrick Mills and freshmen Rahmir Johnson and Ronald Thompkins to compete for playing time.

That means this spring will be critical for sophomore running back Jaylin Bradley, along with redshirt freshman Brody Belt and senior Wyatt Mazour, to make their mark. Keep your eye on these players to see if they will be able to stake a claim for a spot on the depth chart once the running back room fills up this fall.

Offensive Line Composition

It might not be easy to get a handle on what the starting offensive lineup is looking to be, in part because the depth chart is still in flux, according to Hail Varsity. Competition for center should be one of the most fascinating, to see if Cameron Jurgens can complete his transition from tight end (!) to center. Walkons Hunter Miller and Trent Hixson look like they have real shots to earn playing time. Brendan Jaimes should be locked in at tackle, but it will be interesting to see if Matt Farniok can stick at the other tackle spot, or ultimately move inside once freshman phenom Bryce Benhart arrives this fall.

Second Season Chances

Either through injury or getting buried on the depth chart, there’s a number of players who didn’t meet their potential in their first year in Lincoln last year. 2019 provides a fresh start and, for many of them, a second chance to make their mark on the program.

Redshirt freshman Miles Jones, with his combination of speed and elusiveness, looked tailor made to play in Frost’s offense, but injuries derailed his 2018 campaign. Same for junior middle linebacker Will Honas, who was thought to be one of the keys to defensive coordinator Erik Chinander’s transition last season, but was sidelined by injury. When sophomore outside linebacker Breon Dixon transferred to Nebraska from Ole Miss, it was hard not to be excited about a player with SEC speed being added to the depth chart. Dixon was never able to find much in the way of playing time last year, though, and 2019 should give him a chance to be the answer to Nebraska’s pass rush problems.

Keep your eye on these three and whether they are able to lay a claim to playing time this fall.

GBR, baby.

Nebraska Football: Three Takeaways From Cornhuskers’ 2018 Recruiting Class (Plus a Super Six!)

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On Tuesday, Nebraska’s new head coach Scott Frost signed his first recruiting class. With 24 signees, including five junior-college transfers, Nebraska’s 2018 class was rated no. 22 nationally and no. 4 in the B1G by 247 Sports. So what did we learn from Frost’s first full class for Nebraska?

A lot accomplished in a short time

Frost had his work cut out for him when he took the job on December 02, 2017. Much of the class assembled by former head coach Mike Riley was unraveling, and by late December Nebraska’s national recruiting ranking had dipped into the nineties nationally. Mix that in with Frost and his staff coaching Central Florida in the Peach Bowl, and that left Nebraska’s recruiting in a huge hole.

But Frost and his staff dug in and made remarkable progress. A top-25 class for Nebraska in a transition year would be impressive regardless, but to achieve that goal while also coaching Central Florida to a win over Auburn is nothing short of remarkable.

It’s fair to observe that some of Frost’s recruiting ability was drafting off his 13-0 season at Central Florida and the national attention he received from his work in Orlando. Going forward, his accomplishments at UCF will mean far less than what he is – or is not – able to do at Nebraska.

Of course, it’s also fair to observe that next year Frost and his staff won’t be recruiting for one team while preparing another team to compete in a bowl game. So this year will likely be an outlier in terms of the surrounding circumstances – but it’s hard not to come away being impressed with the recruiting haul Frost and his staff were able to bring back to Lincoln.

Success in recruiting hotbeds

In this year’s class, Nebraska got eight (!) recruits from Florida, three from California, two from Georgia, and two from Texas. Those are good places to make inroads, and it appears that Frost’s ties in the Sunshine State from his time at UCF are paying initial dividends.

Additionally, Nebraska is competing at a recruiting level against the level of competition it needs to be. One of the recruits Nebraska just missed on, Javonte Jean-Baptiste, looks like he was going to pick Nebraska over Ohio State were it not for a snowstorm that delayed his decision.

Obviously, Nebraska needs to win those battles at some point. But given how quickly Frost had to get his class up to speed, even being in the running at this point for a talent like that is an encouraging sign.

Recruiting at a championship level

Frost’s return to Nebraska has certainly re-energized the fanbase with visions of returning to old glories. Heck, even the Spring Game is now sold out, demonstrating how desperately hungry the fanbase is for a taste of success.

But Frost’s return also brings out the recruiting skeptics. You know, the ones who believe that all it takes is good coaching and determination to win big in modern college football.

That’s understandable, after Nebraska fans have felt burned by two coaches (Riley and Bill Callahan) who focused heavily on recruiting and did not deliver results on the field.

It’s at this point that I will remind you – again – that there’s no escaping the importance of recruiting. Jason Kirk from SB Nation produced one of the best explanations of why recruiting matters, regardless of the romanticism surrounding all the try-hards in college football. The TL;DR is that if a school doesn’t recruit at an elite level, it’s very difficult to win at an elite level. Here’s what Stuart Mandel had to say on Fox Sports (back when they did more than just video) about the link between recruiting and winning.

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.

So, sure, you can win with a bunch of two- and three-stars, a lot of coaching, and a lot of pride. But you are far, far more likely to have sustained success if you can recruit at least within the top twenty nationwide.

Nebraska finished it’s 2018 class rated no. 22 nationally, and that’s with a short window and the additional responsibility of Peach Bowl coaching for UCF. If Frost can keep Nebraska at that level of recruiting, then the talent level should be present for Nebraska to compete for conference (and ultimately national) titles.

More importantly, let’s take a look at how Nebraska’s 2018 class stacks up to the rest of the B1G. Nebraska’s B1G West division-mates are listed in italics.

School National Recruiting Rank
Ohio State 2
Penn State 5
Michigan 21
Nebraska 22
Maryland 28
Michigan State 32
Minnesota 37
Iowa 40
Wisconsin 44
Indiana 48
Purdue 49
Illinois 54
Rutgers 57
Northwestern 59

As you can see, Nebraska has significantly out-recruited the rest of the B1G West. If that trend continues, that should give Nebraska a significant talent advantage over all of its divisional rivals.

Of course, talent advantages alone aren’t enough to win games. Nebraska has out-recruited Iowa for years, and has lost its last two games to the Hawkeyes by an aggregate score of 96-24.

Scheme matters. Coaching matters. Development matters. All of those things have been in short supply in Lincoln over the last few years.

But recruiting matters, too. With his first class, Frost has demonstrated he can recruit at Nebraska to the level that he would need to give the fans what they ache for – conference titles and national relevance.

2018 Super Six

(6) Jaron Woodyard (WR). Frost’s offense is built on speed, and no one in this class – and maybe on this roster – has the kind of speed Woodyard possesses. His ability to take the top off defenses changes how Nebraska can attack on offense.

(5) Cam’Ron Jones (S). Not only is he likely the best of a talented group of defensive backs, but Jones could very well get offensive Wildcat-like packages designed to get him on the field.

(4) Will Honas (ILB). Plug-and-play ready to be in the middle of the defense. It’ll be an upset if he’s not a starter when Nebraska plays Akron in September.

(3) Maurice Washington (IB). Nebraska hasn’t had a true home-run threat in the backfield since Ameer Abdullah. In Washington, that streak may have ended. Given the nature of the position, Washington has a great chance to see significant playing time as a freshman.

(2) Caleb Tannor (DE). Yeah, Washington is the flashy guy and he really could be a lot of fun to watch. But Nebraska desperately needs to find a pass rush, and that’s Tannor’s specialty. He and Martinez were the two had-to-get positions in this class.

(1) Adrian Martinez (QB). Sure, it’s the obvious choice. But the fact remains that Frost’s high-speed attack really needs a dual-threat quarterback, and Martinez has been Frost’s choice since he arrived in Lincoln. Don’t be shocked if he sees the field in 2018.

GBR, baby.