During his first Monday press conference of the season, Coach Mike Riley announced which true freshmen were in line to play this season.
Linebacker Avery Roberts enrolled early and won the back-up inside linebacker spot behind Chris Weber during spring ball. Tyjon Lindsey dazzled with his speed for a banged-up wide receiver corps. Deontre Thomas earned some first-team reps at nose tackle during fall camp and is listed as the back-up. All three of these players have fairly defined roles.
The fourth player Riley highlighted? Running back Jaylin Bradley, a local product out of Bellevue West High School.
Bradley was listed as fourth on the depth chart behind listed co-starters Tre Bryant, Mikale Wilbon and Devine Ozigbo, and walk-ons Austin Rose and Wyatt Mazour also could be options in the backfield.
Because of the depth in the backfield, Riley guaranteeing that Bradley will play this season might have caught some off-guard. It wasn’t a surprise to Bradley’s high school coach Mike Huffman, though.
“Why they choose to do this I don’t have an answer but they’ve really kept me in the loop the whole time,” Huffman said.
According to Huffman, Riley called him before the start of fall camp to tell him how well Bradley had done over the summer and how he was in the mix.
“Then people started writing about him and he was mentioned during that first day of practice, which, when does that happen? Not very often,” Huffman said. “People kept writing about him so I actually went down to a practice, and sure enough he was working kick return that day and then he had a good number of plays with the top group, and I’m like ‘Wow.’ I was texting back and forth with Jaylin throughout fall. It’s a grind for true freshmen. It’s a lot different than high school is and so I was just checking in and letting him know how proud we were of him.”
Huffman said that Bradley’s package of plays on offense expanded throughout fall camp, and the coaches knew early on that he would have a chance to contribute this year.
“The guy’s a good athlete, it doesn’t take long to see that he could help us out,” running backs coach Reggie Davis said. “He’s a smooth, natural runner. He doesn’t look like he has to work hard to make the reads or make the cuts. He’s able to do it pretty naturally and make guys miss pretty effortlessly. So seeing those things made it pretty obvious and he has soft hands as well.”
Bradley still has three upperclassmen ahead of him in juniors Wilbon and Ozigbo and sophomore Bryant. His role on offense is still yet to be determined. However, the coaches want to give him a chance.
“As a freshman you gotta see what they can handle, he’s starting to pick up on the offense decently right now,” Davis said. “The mental part of it that you’re always wondering about with freshman, he’s starting to catch on, he really is. The physical attributes are there but now it’s about learning the offense. It’s a lot. It’s a lot for any guy but he’s doing well. We’ll see how he progresses and we’ll increase the more he gets comfortable with.”
This is somewhat of a new experience for Huffman as well as most of the players his program has pumped out recently — such as receivers CJ (Wyoming) and Cade (South Dakota State) Johnson, the sons of former Husker Clester Johnson — redshirted during their first years in college.
“This is our first guy that is playing as a true freshman,” Huffman said. “We’ve tried to prep him for it. We say ‘You go back to being like it was 10th grade again.’ Even Jaylin, he was rotating the first three games of his sophomore year; he didn’t start.”
Bradley stepped in when the starting running back suffered an injury or cramp, and the Thunderbirds “just never looked back,” according to Huffman. Bradley went on to be the workhorse back the rest of his career and was incredibly productive.
Now, he is going to have to bide his time again and wait for his turn. However, he won’t have to wait very long to see the field in another phase of the game. Bradley is listed as the third-string kick returner.
“We certainly feel good about the abilities of those guys. [J.D.] Spielman, Lindsey and Bradley, they all have ability,” Riley said. “They all have the ability to run in space and create something special. They all have that … We’ve been really impressed with the ability that Jaylin Bradley has shown as a runner, as a receiver and playing on special teams. He’s playing on other teams besides the return teams, too. We’re excited about him as a football player, so we feel good about putting him in.
“Those are the kinds of spots, where, in my history, guys have come in and played, way back to James Rodgers and Sammie Stroughter and Markus Wheaton and Brandin Cooks, they all played as true freshmen [at Oregon State]. They showed what their ability was. They showed what their knowledge was and they built confidence within our coaching staff of being able to play, so they played, and that’s where these guys are.”
Spielman will be the primary returner and is set on holding onto that role, and Bradley may not get a chance to return many kicks. But no matter what else happens on offense or kick returns, Bradley will get every chance to make an impact on the coverage teams for punts and kickoffs.
In fact, Bradley just had to change his number from 5 to 33 — the number Clester Johnson wore at Nebraska — so that he could play on the same unit as linebacker Dedrick Young II. The coaches have raved about Bradley’s athleticism any time they’ve been asked about him, and despite being a star on offense for his high school team, special teams are not anything new for the 6-foot, 180-pound back.
“He was our back side lone gunner,” Huffman said. “He was the one that was in charge of going down and stopping the punt return. This year we have [sophomore wide receiver] Xavier Betts there. We’re putting a stud there and Jaylin did it for three years. There were a couple games that were tight where we threw him on the kickoff team … He loves football, man. He’ll play anywhere. Shoot, he would have played defense if we had let him; we just didn’t let him.”
Bradley was one of the last players to join the class of 2017 for the Huskers, but he’ll be among the first to make an impact for the Huskers and his experience in high school should have him well-prepared to fill any role the coaches ask of him.
Jacob is in his third year with Hail Varsity covering Husker athletics. He has also written extensively for SB Nation’s Bright Side of the Sun and The Creightonian. His love of basketball can best be described as an obsession and if you need to find him, he’s probably in a gym somewhere watching, coaching or playing hoops.