Contrary to what the weather outside might lead you to believe, spring has sprung and that means its time for spring football.
The Huskers will hit the practice fields inside the Hawks Championship Center on Monday and begin their preparation for the 2019 season. With that in mind, we’re breaking down a few key position battles on each side of the ball to keep an eye on during spring ball. First up is the offense.
This is cheating a little bit since there are technically five positions on the offensive line, but it might be the position group that will play the biggest role in determining how good Nebraska’s offense will be next season.
Nebraska has a big freshman class of offensive linemen and none of them enrolled early, so Bryce Benhart, Matthew Anderson, Michael Lynn and Jimmy Fritzsche won’t join the fray until this summer. Benhart in particular could factor into the right tackle discussion, but for the time being, those players already on campus will get a chance to show what they can do.
Nebraska has three returning starters. Junior Brenden Jaimes will be the left tackle and has the look of an all-conference performer. Junior Boe Wilson started last season as the sixth man on the line but moved into the starting lineup when Cole Conrad went down with an injury and never left. He played right guard last season but has worked at both spots and appears to be a safe bet to start at one of the two guard spots.
Junior Matt Farniok is the third starter returning, though it seems like many are in a hurry to move him to guard. Farniok had his share of struggles at tackle last season, particularly with speed rushers, but he’s got a tackle’s frame at 6-foot-6 and 330 pounds and has beaten out all the other tackles on the roster (Christian Gaylord and Matt Sichterman) to this point.
To kick Farniok inside to guard, Nebraska would need one of Gaylord or Sichterman to make massive strides from where they were last year or for Benhart to be a stud right away. That scenario also assumes Farniok would be better at a position for which he’s practiced very little than the other guys that have been working there full-time for a while. Either way, Farniok is a safe bet for the third starting spot, either at right tackle or guard.
That leaves two spots. Other than Wilson, Nebraska has two scholarship guards in junior John Raridon (other than Wilson set to participate in spring ball, though walk-on Trent Hixson (6-foot-4, 300 pounds) should also factor into the battle. In fact, Hinson has the most experience of that group of reserve guards as he played in four games off the bench last season. Raridon played in three games while Bando did not play at all.
If Farniok stays at tackle, a battle between Hixson and Raridon could determine Nebraska’s other starting guard, and that battle begins on Monday.
Perhaps the biggest question mark is center. Iowa Western product Josh Wegener, a walk-on, might have something to say in that discussion, but he won’t arrive until June. For the time being, Nebraska has a few guys trying to earn the spot left by the departures of Tanner Farmer and Cole Conrad.
Tight end-turned-lineman Cameron Jurgens is the hot name, but he has a lot to learn before he’s ready to snap the ball and make the line calls in live action. Hunter Miller, a 6-foot-4, 325-pound walk-on out of Cross County, got plenty of buzz last preseason and appeared in two games off the bench. Finally, Will Farniok, the younger brother of Matt, enrolled in the spring last season but still redshirted. He did not play in any games, but he did travel with the team to Wisconsin and Ohio State.
Junior college lineman Desmond Bland looked like a day one start at one of the interior positions, but it is unclear if he will ever make it to Lincoln at this point.
This is a big spring coming up for Miller, Will Farniok, Jurgens, Raridon and Hixson.
Nebraska has a superstar in the slot in JD Spielman and… not much else at wide receiver. That’s a problem, and finding the solution begins this spring.
Nebraska has plenty of bodies at wideout — eight on scholarships and 10 more walk-ons with two more set to enroll on June. The question is can any of them separate themselves from the pack?
The Huskers used a revolving cast of characters at the flanker spot and the back-up receiver positions behind Spielman and Stanley Morgan Jr. last year.
Junior college transfer Mike Williams opened the season as the third starter but the Huskers didn’t get him involved very often and his blocking left something to be desired. True freshman Andre Hunt got a look but then he suffered an injury. Another junior college transfer in Jaron Woodyard served primarily as Morgan’s back-up at split-end but didn’t make his presence felt in any way.
Walk-on Kade Warner got his number called midway through the season after the coaches moved him from the slot to flanker and he gave them the best mix of blocking and receiving, but despite a few memorable plays he wasn’t exactly a dynamic threat.
Warner caught 17 passes for 85 yards and a two-point conversion. Williams had 12 catches for 122 yards. Woodyard caught one pass for 10 yards and Hunt didn’t have any catches. That’s the extent of Nebraska’s returning wide receiver production outside of Spielman’s 66 catches for 818 yards and eight touchdowns.
Nebraska needs a new split-end with Morgan off to the NFL, and Woodyard figures to get a look there along with redshirt sophomore Jaevon McQuitty. McQuitty is perhaps most similar to Morgan among Nebraska’s receivers from a physical standpoint at 6-foot and 205 pounds. Now a full year removed from his knee injury and with his redshirt freshman season spent learning, is he ready to see the field and make an impact?
Warner and Williams will continue to battle at the flanker spot and if Hunt is healthy, he should factor in somewhere as well. Jamie Nance, the speedster out of Oklahoma, has enrolled early and will get a chance to show his new coaches what he is capable of this spring.
We can’t forget about the Duck-R position either. Spielman played that role a bit last season as did a couple of others, but Scott Frost and Troy Walters didn’t use it much in their first year in Lincoln. Miles Jones was brought in to play that hybrid role but only played in one game and he caught one ball for 21 yards. He’ll be a redshirt freshman this year and highly-touted newcomer Wan’Dale Robinson is already on campus as an early enrollee.
Nebraska has plenty of options at wide receiver, but outside of Spielman none of them have proven themselves. They’ll try to change that this spring.
Tight end and quarterback are pretty settled with established starters and quality depth. That’s not the case for the running back room.
Nebraska currently has three scholarship backs on campus, and that includes Wyatt Mazour, a walk-on who earned a scholarship last season. That also includes Maurice Washington, though we’re not quite sure how Washington’s ongoing legal case will affect his presence or participation during spring ball.
If Washington does participate, it’ll give him a chance to lock down the starting gig vacated by Devine Ozigbo. Washington carried the ball 77 times for 455 yards and three touchdowns and he caught 24 passes for 221 yards and another touchdown as a true freshman.
If Washington does miss time during the spring, it will provide a big opportunity for Jaylin Bradley to get back into the mix. As a true freshman in 2017, the back out of Bellevue West showed some promise, appearing in seven games and recording 93 yards on the ground on 24 carries and 38 yards through the air on four catches. However, he faced some off-field circumstances, fell towards the bottom of the depth chart and ended up redshirting last season. Frost offered him at Central Florida, so we know the coaches saw his skill set as a fit for their offense then he was coming out of high school.
Mazour saw the field as a utility guy last season, playing some running back and some Duck-R. He ran the ball 11 times for 76 yards and a touchdown and caught one pass for 21 yards last as a junior and should get a healthy amount of reps this spring. Austin Hemphill, Connor Ruth and Brody Belt are the walk-on backs currently on campus.
With junior college back Dedrick Mills and freshmen Rahmir Johnson and Ronald Thompkins set to arrive in June, now is the time for a guy like Bradley to prove himself to the coaches.
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.