Spring Game Thoughts & Observations
Hail Varsity writers Grant Muessel, Erin Sorensen and Brandon Vogel share their thoughts on Saturday’s spring game:
HEAD GAMES: I think this staff is really playing into the psychology bit of this team. Josh Mitchell said in the spring that coaches Beck and Papuchis told him to be a trash-talker, specifically to Tommy Armstrong. I don’t know if that’s a drill in mental toughness, but it’s happening with Alex Lewis and Randy Gregory. The two have gotten into it during scrimmages before and after an initial tongue-lashing from defensive line coach Rick Kaczenski, the coaches seem to make more of an effort to temper his, uh, temper, rather than stopping it completely. I think the same thing for Josh Banderas and Michael Rose, who are batting for the top spot at middle linebacker. Rose’s insertion into the defense last season was the best indicator of that defense getting better. Yet I’d say Banderas took the majority of snaps with the top linebackers this spring, even after moving back from outside linebacker at the start of spring ball.
QB HYPE: I don’t think I’ll be contributing any more to the Johnny Stanton hype, but he did a good job of trying to sway me today. His best plays are short and hot routes, but he needs improvement when he gets past his first read and improv situations. Those are huge part of Tim Becks’s offense, and also happen to be where I was most impressed with Ryker Fyfe today. He appeared the most confident and looked the best throwing the ball. He was patient and went through his progression with good pocket awareness. The job is Tommy’s to lose, and Stanton is probably more physically gifted, but Fyfe looks like your backup going into the fall.
DOWNHILL BATTLE: I continue to love watching Zaire Anderson play in positions where he gets to play downhill, attacking football. He’s 3 inches and 35 pounds from being the stuff of nightmares for Big Ten quarterbacks, but he still looks good and fast in blitz packages. I hope the defensive staff gives the Blackshirts the chance to blitz plenty this season.
TURNER’S TIME: I think it may be time to face the music that Jamal Turner just might not be the Ryan Broyles-type playmaker we thought he could be, even with all that speed. Turner’s been at wideout basically his whole career, and can’t seem to get past the two-deep in the receiving corps. He’s capable of making plays, like the 25-yard touchdown he had Saturday, but I don’t think he’s going to blow anyone away this fall.
RISING STARS: Brandon Reilly will be this year’s Sam Burtch, and then some. He pulled in four catches for 92 yards, including a 51-yard bomb. He’s not a spring game apparition either; he’s been showing it all spring. Zach Stovall is a name to watch among the forgottens as well, but he’ll have a lot of work to do with how stacked Nebraska is at safety. Also remember the names Jack Gangwish (defensive end) and Lane Hovey (receiver) when fall rolls around.
THE BO SHOW: Cat in the tunnel walk. Cheerleaders calling plays. Former players punting, kicking and passing. We’re part of the Bo Pelini PR project. It may feel a bit contrived, but there’s no reason to be bitter about it. It’s mildly entertaining, and I don’t see anything remotely wrong with that.
KICKED OUT: I sincerely believe that Nebraska’s 2014 starting kicker hasn’t even enrolled in classes yet. That’d be Drew Brown, the incoming freshman kid brother of former Husker Kris Brown. Mauro Bondi didn’t make a good case today, shanking a 18-yarder wide left.
KICKER U?: I know it’s not a position many think about that often (and honestly, we haven’t had to in recent years at Nebraska), but the kickers really shocked me. When Mauro Bondi missed an 18-yard field goal, for instance, I didn’t know what to think at that point. I overhead someone say, “It would be too bad if Nebraska lost a game due to a missed field goal.” That’s a scary thought to me for a place often deemed “Kicker U.”
THE HULK IS MVP: Tommy Armstrong declared Imani Cross the spring game MVP. In doing so, people wanted to know if Cross is okay being called a power back, or The Hulk. Cross said he’s happy to be called anything positive but gave an
extra smile when called The Hulk. After his 100-yard performance, I think he deserves it, too.
PROVED ME WRONG: I wanted to see more power from Imani Cross in the spring game. In the first couple series, I even noted that I wasn’t that impressed. I wanted him to run harder and put more speed behind each step. Apparently it
just took a little warming up. By the second quarter, Cross was not only powering through the defense but doing so with force. Needless to say, he proved me wrong quicker than I expected.
MIA – TIGHT ENDS: Where were the tight ends at? This was something that was missing heavily in 2013 and it mostly got blamed on Taylor Martinez being out. Tommy Armstrong was new and learning, so it was easy to believe. But it was promised that Armstrong would work more with the tight ends in spring practice to get more familiar with the group. Yet, he continued to heavily target Kenny Bell. So where are the tight ends? Will they reappear before fall? I sure hope so, because if not, it’s going to be a long fall for the passing offense.
EASY NOW: Some of the first impressions from Nebraska’s spring game noticeable online — minus the cat stuff of course — were some feelings of discontent about the defense. Maybe the scoring system had something to do with this, but hold on now. In the first quarter the defense — primarily first-teamers I think, though that was somewhat tough to gauge as well — forced three consecutive three-and-outs and eight total. (Teams typically get about 14 offensive possessions in a game.) The defense also had three interceptions and six sacks. That’s basically without Randy Gregory and totally without Corey Cooper, the Huskers’ leading tackler last season. Defense is still going to be the strength of this team.
HOME RUN HITTERS: From an offensive perspective, Saturday showed a welcome return of the long ball. Nebraska had six plays go for 20 yards or more. That’s one aspect of the offense that was sorely missing in 2013. The Huskers ranked 65th nationally last season in plays of 20-plus yards after ranking seventh in 2012. It fits with what I think is Nebraska’s best plan of attack in 2014. Be conservative on offense, protect what should be a very good defense to a degree, play the field position game more than in the past and, if Nebraska can hit some big plays like it did Saturday, you shouldn’t notice a huge difference. Other than that Nebraska will seem much more efficient overall.
TAKING SNAPS: The quarterback competition might be closer than I expected. Tommy Armstrong is still the leader, yes, but Ryker Fyfe looked as good as I thought he would on Saturday and Johnny Stanton was slightly better than I expected. This being a spring game, however, that might mean absolutely nothing. Let’s put it this way: I don’t think it’s inconceivable that one of the backups narrows the gap over the summer.
HAT TIP: A few small moments that made an impression: defensive back Byerson Cockrell making a good tackle early on in run support; Cockrell breaking up a pass early as well; defensive end Greg McMullen dropping into the flat in pass coverage and nearly breaking up a pass; Terrell Newby looking a little quicker and more in control; Terrell Newby missing one big read and going for no-gain; wide receiver Brandon Reilly’s spin move.