As the saying goes, the most popular guy on the team is the backup quarterback. Nebraska has two seemingly sharing that honor, and just as they went back and forth against each other on the field Saturday, they were a major talking point after the game’s finale.
Logan Smothers, a second-year freshman, and Heinrich Haarberg, a first-year early enrollee, give head coach Scott Frost a lot to think about. One, of course, has to be the primary backup in the event Nebraska is without Adrian Martinez.
But with both, Frost has to decide this offseason if he’s comfortable enough with what he has to spend the Huskers’ two open scholarships elsewhere. Martinez, the team’s starter, has picked up injuries in all three of his seasons in Lincoln. Does Frost feel the need to dip into the transfer portal and add an insurance quarterback with experience?
“Right now our plan isn’t to use (an open scholarship) for a quarterback, no,” Frost said with his closing comment.
Haarberg and Smothers both had their ups and downs.
Smothers, the older of the two, only saw one series in the first half despite he and Haarberg sharing QB responsibilities on the White team. Haarberg took the reins from then on, only giving up one second-half series to walk-on Matt Masker.
When the tackling transitioned from tag-off to live, to-the-ground at the start of the second half and Martinez saw his day end, Smothers moved to the Red team and Nebraska got a better look at the pair of youngsters going against each other.
Smothers went 8-for-14 on the day, though he only threw one pass (an incompletion) for White, and picked up 76 yards and a score.
With 9:49 to play in the fourth and the ball spotted at the 27 yard line, Smothers took control of the offense and marched down the field to give Red a 20-14 lead on a 23-yard touchdown toss to walk-on wideout Brody Belt.
On the drive, Smothers threw 5-for-8 with completions to Belt three straight times to start things off (1 yard, 18 yards, and then 4 yards) and then to third-year wideout Jamie Nance for 15 yards.
Haarberg threw an interception on the White team’s ensuing drive, but he got the ball back with one final chance with 1:06 to play and led a march.
He missed his first throw before connecting with wideout Austin Jablonski for six yards and then wideout Will Nixon for 10 on third-and-4. A string of unfortunate plays had Haarberg facing third-and-21 from his own 25 with 16 seconds to play.
Haarberg picked up 10 on a scramble to get it to fourth-and-11. Nebraska called timeout with seven seconds to play.
Then he threw deep to Wyatt Liewer for 40 yards. One second went back on the clock and Haarberg was given one final shot from the Red’s 25 yard line. He fired deep left to Liewer again for the game-winning score, pushing White ahead 21-20. A walk-off touchdown.
The Kearney native finished the day 9-for-23 for 121 yards, an interception, and a score.
Both quarterbacks had their moments. Both had their misses.
Nebraska was vanilla on offense, understandably so. And the evaluation piece of it is always hard when the quarterbacks are two-hand touch.
Martinez was 12-for-20 in the first half. He threw for 127 yards and did throw an interception. “(He) had to make a play with a few seconds left in the half, I would have done the same thing,” Frost said. No faulting there.
“I thought he played well,” Frost continued. “He’s had a really good spring. Has enough talent to make every play you want a quarterback to make. He’s done a good job eliminating mistakes this spring. If he can get through games and just be who he is and not have the three or four bad plays that hurt you, he has a chance to accomplish whatever he wants to. We’re going to keep working with him hard and I’m really excited about where he is right now.”
The worry is that Nebraska is an injury away from disaster. With one of the toughest schedules in the country, a freshman quarterback being thrown to the fire in Frost’s fourth year in charge—with very real expectations on him—is not exactly a spot the staff wants to find itself in come the fall.
Then again, Frost can’t exactly coach with a fear of his quarterback going down.
For what it’s worth, Frost doesn’t seem expressively concerned about the room.
“Haarberg has a huge arm, and he’s a really good athlete, and he’s a big kid, and he’s smart,” Frost said. “It’s just a matter of catching him up on Xs and Os and knowing what to do and being efficient. That’s where Logan excels. Logan is really smart, knows the offense, processes well. Those two are going to continue to improve and I’ve got a lot of confidence in them.”
The spring game, at quarterback but not exclusively, won’t swing the evaluation. It’s one of 15 practices. The environment was different, with over 36,000 fans returning to the stands, but Frost wants to take a holistic approach.
“I know how they’ve been doing all spring. I’m pleased with where those guys are,” Frost said. “They both have some growth left in front of them but they both had really good springs.”
Martinez says Masker has helped in that regard, getting the guys comfortable in the offense.
Of Haarberg, Martinez is complimentary. “Heinrich is very talented,” the fourth-year California native said. “I think he has a great arm, and he’s learning the offense just like I did when I was first here as an early-enrollee and that can be hard. But he’s handled it really well.”
Of Smothers, Martinez is honest. “Logan, I think he’s really come a long way this spring, kind of coming into his own and finding his voice and finding his arm,” he said.
“I can’t give you any answers because I don’t know,” he said of the race for No. 2. “I think they’re both doing a really good job and Verdu is on those guys to meet the standard we need to be at.”
Going against a defense as strong as Nebraska’s helps.
“There’s a certain standard you have to play to in order to have a good day,” Martinez said. “You can’t just go out there and say ‘Ah, we’re gonna lean on these guys, and we’re just gonna throw the ball over here.’ Those guys are coming, and they’re coming with energy, and if you don’t match it you’re in for a really bad day.”
So, with spring ball now done and dusted, is one quarterback ahead of the other in the competition to see who can be Martinez’s primary understudy?
“No,” Frost says. “Not right now. We’ve got a long time to go.”