A heavily-anticipated stretch of spring football is almost upon us as the new-look Huskers are scheduled to start the first of 15 practices on Monday.
It will mark the first time the program will get a real chance to break in a coaching staff that has five new faces, including offensive coordinator Mark Whipple, receivers coach Mickey Joseph, running backs coach Bryan Applewhite, offensive line coach Donovan Raiola and special teams coach Bill Busch, who’s been in Lincoln since 2020, but didn’t have an on-field coaching role.
As the team begins a schedule that includes 14 practices plus the annual Red-White Spring Game on April 9, there’s no shortage of intrigue. There are things we know heading into spring, and we detailed three of them here. But there’s also plenty we don’t know. Questions are almost everywhere you look on the roster. Here are the three of the biggest.
Who’s going to play center?
The loss of Cam Jurgens hurts. The uber-athletic Beatrice native made 31 starts at the position and 18 straight before declaring for the NFL draft in December. Jurgens’ departure, plus it being Donovan Raiola’s first season as a Power Five offensive line coach, creates uncertainty along a position group that will be a crucial factor to how successful the Frost-Whipple offense is in its first year with, potentially, a new quarterback.
While there might not be an answer right now to who’s being to be starting with the No. 1 offense when it takes the field against Northwestern in Dublin, Ireland, on Aug. 27, there’s time to figure that out. It’s what the spring is for. One name thrown around was Turner Corcoran, who played in every game last year with 11 starts at tackle, nine of which came on the left and two on the right.
While the 6-foot-6 Corcoran may be a long shot to play center, Frost spoke on National Signing Day on Feb. 2 about the Kansas native’s athletic ability, which could allow him to play different positions along the line. However, Frost and Raiola won’t get to see Corcoran in action as he, as well as o-line mate Teddy Prochazka, won’t take part in spring practices as they heal from offseason injuries.
“Turner’s a guy I think is probably capable of playing all five positions if we needed him to. He did a great job at left tackle, looked great at right tackle when we moved him over when Teddy played,” Frost said. “Teddy and Turner are both going to miss spring with injuries. They’re around and learning and able to do some things, but again, that’s going to help some other guys get reps and, Turner in particular, probably going to have to figure out where he fits the best.”
Several players could step into the center role and grow into it beginning with the spring. Nouredin Nouili, Ethan Piper and Trent Hixson could be options.
Nouili, a Norris High School graduate and former true freshman starter at Colorado State in 2019, was one of the bright spots on the o-line in 2021. The former walk-on started the final seven games at left guard and earned himself a scholarship prior to the Ohio State contest. Piper showed promise in seven starts at left guard in 2020 as a second-year player, but the Norfolk Catholic product struggled for the most part last season, ultimately getting benched after three starts. Maybe a change of position—and Raiola’s coaching—would do Piper well. The same could be said for Hixson, the Omaha Skutt product and another former walk-on who earned a scholarship in 2019 while starting every game at left guard. Hixson has provided depth since then and is capable of chipping in at center or guard.
Elsewhere along the o-line, Raiola will have two transfers to work with in Hunter Anthony of Oklahoma State and Kevin Williams Jr. of Northern Colorado. With Corcoran and Prochazka out for the spring, that creates an opportunity for Anthony to get reps at tackle, where starter Bryce Benhart returns. Williams could factor into the competition at both tackle and guard, too.
One young player to keep an eye on is Henry Lutovsky, a former three-star recruit in the 2021 class who held a Georgia offer coming out of high school. The Iowa native has since grown to 6-6 and 330 pounds and will compete for playing time at one of the guard spots.
The quarterback situation
On National Signing Day, Frost pushed back against any narrative that might suggest Texas transfer Casey Thompson was brought to Lincoln to be the starting quarterback. The coach said the former Longhorn who threw 30 touchdowns in four seasons in Austin won’t simply be handed the job.
“That’s not my narrative. There’s a lot of narratives around that aren’t really based in fact,” Frost said. “He’s (Thompson) gonna have every opportunity to start, and he knows that. The other guys are gonna get their opportunities too. And we got a long time to work with him and a spring ball and a fall camp to figure it all out.”
Let the best man win.
Thompson, of course, wasn’t the only quarterback who transferred to Nebraska this offseason. There were two, with the other being Chubba Purdy of Florida State. Thompson and Purdy—as well as the lone recruit at the position in the 2022 class, Richard Torres—join a quarterback room that already had returning players Logan Smothers and Heinrich Haarberg.
For the first start of his career in the season finale against Iowa, Smothers played well for three quarters before freshman mistakes and a fourth quarter team-wide collapse doomed the Huskers against their rivals. Smothers’ running and athletic ability isn’t in question—it’s his passing. Can he consistently hit throws that Whipple and Frost want him to hit? That’s what the spring will help determine.
Haarberg and Torres are long shots to see the field in 2022 as both continue to grow and develop. Torres will be coming off a torn ACL from his senior season in high school.
The good news for all the quarterbacks is they’ll be working with a clean slate and a fresh set of eyes from Whipple, a veteran of 40-plus years who has said he’s not a fan of trying to stick a square peg in a round hole, so to speak. In other words, he’s going to build an offense around what his quarterback and best players do well.
“I don’t need yes men,” Whipple said in December. “I need you to tell me the truth—what do you like and don’t. I’ve got enough stuff, Scott’s got enough stuff.”
The quarterback competition will be interesting to watch unfold, and so too will be the timeline when Frost and Whipple decide to name a starter. There are certain pros and cons of naming a starter in the spring. Let’s go through some:
— The pecking order is set and the rest of the team knows who will be leading it on Saturdays. There wouldn’t be any second-guessing or drama within the program, at least to start to the season.
— Once Frost and Whipple know who the starter will be, they can start building the offense around that specific player’s skillset while also coming up with a plan for the backup. “In this day and age, it seems like guys get hurt more,” Whipple said. “The game is much faster, so you have to get more than one guy ready in the way you prepare. And that’s from the top of the NFL and that’s what we’ll do here.”
— If a starter is named publicly in the spring, there’s the risk of losing depth at the position as others may choose to transfer. To be fair, though, that will always be a risk. It’s just the way life is in the portal era, and keeping players from leaving is going to be hard to stop regardless. Kids simply want to play and will go where playing time is available.
— If the starter is named in the spring, Nebraska would be giving Northwestern head coach Pat Fitzgerald and his defensive coordinator Jim O’Neil a big ole heads up months in advance of the season-opener. Coaches are known to go to great lengths keeping injuries a secret—the same goes for naming a starting quarterback. Why help out your future opponents? Make them watch the film of multiple guys, whether that’s Thompson, Smothers, Purdy or Haarberg.
What will the defensive backfield look like?
The Huskers lost three of the four starters in the traditional backfield in corner Cam Taylor-Britt and safeties Deontai Williams and Marquel Dismuke. The nickel linebacker, JoJo Domann, is also gone.
What will the defensive backfield look like?
After what can be considered a strong first season as a starter, Quinton Newsome has positioned himself well for 2022 and should be a favorite to lock down one corner spot, whether that’s to the boundary or to the field. But what about opposite Newsome? There are some interesting new options to look at beginning with the 6-1, 200-pound Omar Brown, the FCS Freshman of the Year in 2019. But don’t forget about Arizona State transfer Tommi Hill, another sturdy corner at 6 feet, 205 pounds, and junior-college product Javier Morton, a 6-2, 185-pounder who once was committed to Alabama.
There are others who have been in the program that will be fighting for reps, too. Braxton Clark will be entering his fifth year in Lincoln, and the 6-4, 200-pounder is hoping he can turn his previous spot duties into a full-time starting role. Tamon Lynum and former Ohio State transfer Tyreke Johnson will want to factor into the discussion as well.
At safety, Myles Farmer filled in for the injured Williams and started the final four games. He played well and may be like Newsome—a player who knows Erik Chinander’s defense, has experience playing in it and positioned himself for a starting spot.
Marques Buford Jr. grinded on special teams as a gunner last year and has been cross-training at both safety and corner. Noa Pola-Gates will be entering his fourth year on campus and has yet to be a factor outside of special teams. DeShon Singleton could get a strong look—the Hutchinson (Kan.) Community College product has a Big Ten safety body at 6-3, 205 pounds and his film showed a willingness to stick his nose in scrums looking for a tackle.
If Chinander chooses to use a nickel as much as he did when Domann was around, Isaac Gifford was someone who played well in that role against Wisconsin and Iowa. A healthy Javin Wright would be an option there as well—the Arizona native as grown to 6-4 and 210 pounds since arriving on campus in 2019.