Spring football starts in two weeks. On Monday, March 4, to be exact. Nebraska has questions that need answering and positions that need settling and players who merit watching. In the run-up to spring practice getting underway, we’re going through everything. Over the next two weeks, we’re looking at five freshmen, five sophomores, five juniors and five seniors worth watching in spring ball. So get ready for that.
Freshmen went Tuesday, so now it’s time for the sophomores, in no particular order.
Wide receiver Jaevon McQuitty
Through two years in Lincoln, McQuitty has zero career catches. For a former 4-star wideout in the 2016 class, that’s not what you hope for.
A knee injury cost him his true freshman season and exhausted his redshirt. In 2018, he saw the field in five games but never saw a target. In a lot of ways, this feels like a make-or-break campaign for the Columbia, Missouri, native.
Without Stanley Morgan Jr., Nebraska loses 111 targets, 70 catches, 1,004 yards and seven touchdowns from a season ago. Junior J.D. Spielman is the heir apparent for the No. 1 option designation in the passing game, but simply sliding into Morgan’s top spot doesn’t mean he’s filling the same role.
Spielman is a 5-foot-9 speedster who picks you apart underneath and finds the holes in your zone. Morgan was a 6-foot-1 deep threat you could throw the ball up for. Spielman is great at what he does (if he stays as long as Morgan, Morgan’s records will be his easily) and I’m not so sure you want to try and make him do anything different.
Which leaves that role of big-bodied, red zone target still up for grabs. Because behind Spielman, Nebraska has a bunch of receivers that are all very similar in that they’re all not very big. McQuitty, at 6-foot, 205 pounds, is as big a target the Huskers have. When he was brought to Lincoln, McQuitty looked like the guy who would step up for Morgan after he left.
Well, now is that time.
Nebraska has a 6-foot-1 Darien Chase coming in the summer, a 6-foot-1, 210-pound Kade Warner deserving of more playing time, a pair of returning guys who both played more in their first seasons in Lincoln last year than McQuitty in Jaron Woodyard and Mike Williams and an early-enrollee freshman deep threat in Jamie Nance.
It’s quite possible if McQuitty can’t distance himself from the pack this spring, it won’t happen at all. He’s fully healthy and looking at potentially two open starting receiver spots.
Running back Jaylin Bradley
In 2017, Bradley was a hot commodity. As a freshman, Nebraska turned to the Bellevue West product when Tre Bryant was lost to injury and Mikale Wilbon and Devine Ozigbo were banged up. He showed flashes of someone who could become an every-down back. That appeared to be the goal of the previous staff’s.
Bradley finished the year with 131 yards from scrimmage on 28 touches (a 4.7 yards per play average). That was 93 rushing yards on 24 carries (3.9 yards per carry) and four catches for 38 yards (9.5 per reception). A healthy number for a freshman running back.
Bradley bulked way up in the offseason (since arriving on campus in 2017, he has added 30 pounds of media guide weight), but was buried by the new staff. Replacements were brought it in and struggles away from the field put him on a proverbial milk carton throughout a large part of the season. Early on, Bradley wasn’t suiting up for games on Saturdays, but rather with a group of players in the stands.
What hasn’t changed is the fact Bradley was recruited by Frost and Co. at Central Florida. He was a talent that was viewed as a schematic fit by the coaches and a player who was extremely excited about the incoming staff when the hiring was announced. There’s speed there, and at 6-foot, 210 pounds (before any 2019 media guide updating), he’s a battering ram of a running back.
It feels as if Bradley is in his own form of a make-or-break season in 2019 as well. Position coach Ryan Held has shown he’ll bring in new talent every year; no job is safe and returning players will have to continue to earn their keep. If Bradley’s work doesn’t put him in the conversation for carries this offseason, doing so in the future just becomes harder and harder.
So what can he do in the spring? Before Dedrick Mills and Rahmir Johnson and Ronald Thompkins arrive on campus in the fall. Can he show this season is going to be different? Depending on what’s going on with Maurice Washington, there could even be first-team reps available at some point this spring.
Outside linebacker Breon Dixon
There could be a lot of copy-pasting going on here but I would never do that to you guys.
Dixon had hype transferring in from Ole Miss and Nebraska fought for immediate eligibility and won. Looked like he was going to be a serious player at the outside linebacker spot, right?
Well, he didn’t make his debut until the Ohio State game, played the final four games to maintain his redshirt eligibility and played very few snaps away from special teams.
Nebraska has two kinds of outside linebacker types on the roster: big, long athletes like Caleb Tannor, or converted defensive backs like Dixon and JoJo Domann.
If Domann, a safety until this last season, can come down and earn immediate playing time, there’s nothing schematically that would inhibit Dixon from doing the same.
This offseason will be about earning the coaches’ trust and learning the playbook. Luke Gifford (the leader of the group last year) graduated, Tyrin Ferguson and Alex Davis will do so after the 2019 season, and there are several freshmen with a lot still left to prove.
Tannor is the odds-on favorite to win Gifford’s old spot, but Nebraska rotated often at that outside linebacker position and there’s a role to be had there for Dixon with a strong offseason.
Cornerback Cam Taylor
How ready is the former quarterback? I thought he had taken one of the starting cornerback spots after last spring just based on how often he was talked about and how glowing that talk was. Turned out that wasn’t the case, but Taylor still managed snaps at a spot where there weren’t many to be had.
It was interesting that when the Huskers benched starter Lamar Jackson, it was for Eric Lee Jr. and not Taylor, but maybe that’s reading too much into things. Taylor was playing the position for the first time in his football career and Nebraska was trying to win football games. Risks were being managed a good deal midway through last season.
With expectations even higher this year, though, is there room for risks now? Is throwing Taylor to the fire even a risk at this point? With both starters back for 2019 and no reason to think they will be going anywhere, is Taylor’s development going to be impacted?
He had 12 tackles and three pass break-ups in 11 appearances last season. Where do those numbers go this season with pretty much everyone back?
Spring should tell us a lot.
Defensive lineman Deontre Thomas
The Mustang, Oklahoma, native played right away as a freshman, but played inside. In 2018, he kicked out to defensive end, really transformed his body, and looked like a rotation piece.
Thomas played in each of the first four games, tallied four solo tackles (one of which was for a loss), then broke a bone in his hand and sat the rest of the year. He probably could have played, coaches said, but with a club over his hand and a redshirt still available, Nebraska wanted to save the year.
Probably a good sign for how they feel about him.
He prefers defensive end. Thomas told me as such before the season. There was excitement from both parties about his potential at the spot. There should still be plenty of excitement.
What I wrote Tuesday about redshirt freshman Tate Wildeman:
While there are names everyone already knows on the line, I don’t think Nebraska is at a point where spots are or should be locked up; it doesn’t feel like experimental mode still, but not too far removed from that phase.
Thomas isn’t quite a proven name yet. But he’s not a guy who has been passed over. He has plenty to play for this spring.
- Outside linebacker Caleb Tannor: The 6-foot-2 Georgia product doesn’t make the list of five simply because I think he’s in line to start. The question of development with him is simply, “How far along is he?”
- Defensive lineman Damian Jackson: There are snaps available. Can the former Navy SEAL break through? He’s spent the last two seasons learning the position and this staff is fond of his work ethic and leadership. This could be the year he earns more than garbage time reps.
- Offensive lineman Hunter Miller: Maybe one of the more come-out-of-nowhere offseason guys last year, Miller became the No. 3 center on the depth chart and it’s quite possible he enters spring ball with the No. 1 option his to win.
Derek is a newbie on the Hail Varsity staff covering Husker athletics. In college, he was best known as ‘that guy from Twitter.’ He has covered a Sugar Bowl, a tennis national championship and almost everything in between (except an NCAA men’s basketball tournament game… *tears*). In his spare time, he can be found arguing with literally anyone about sports.