As is the norm in the sport of football, quarterbacks get talked about—quite heavily.
They’re speculated about, too. It makes sense because the quarterback is the most important player on the team. Good quarterback play can mean wins. It’s harder to hide bad quarterback play.
At a place like Nebraska, though, where the Huskers are the only major football show in the state, the spotlight is brighter. That’s why almost 55,000 fans found themselves inside Memorial Stadium to watch a practice on Saturday. They wanted to see about the ever popular transfer from Texas who seems to be leading the pack in Nebraska’s QB1 race.
Casey Thompson hasn’t been named the starting quarterback, but he sure looked like the leader in the clubhouse during the annual Red-White Spring Game. Whether it means anything or not, it was the 6-foot-1, 200-pound Thompson who flanked head coach Scott Frost during the Tunnel Walk. It was Thompson who led the offense for the first two series before becoming a spectator. It was Thompson who completed an 11-yard pass to tight end Nate Boerkircher on his first pass of his life inside Memorial Stadium.
Thompson wasn’t nervous. As a fifth-year quarterback who’s thrown five touchdowns in the Red River Rivalry and four in an Alamo Bowl, he’s learned how to control those butterflies in his stomach. Playing on big stages like those helps in that department.
“It was cool to see the stadium full of people and the turf underneath my feet and to look around and feel like it was a real game,” Thompson said. “But it was also a good day for me and for all of us to get used to being able to lock in and have laser-like focus. And honestly, when you step out on the field and the game starts, you tune out the rest of the noise, so it felt like another practice to me.”
Thompson attempted just four passes, completing three for 31 yards. The limited action was by design, and rightly so. The last thing anyone wanted was for an injury to occur, especially at quarterback. Nebraska was bit by the injury bug this offseason, so why even risk it with someone like Thompson?
Knowing that, what Thompson wanted to achieve Saturday was simple.
“It was about going out and running the offense, and really just getting out of the game healthy was the main thing we’re trying to accomplish today,” he said. “I wanted to complete every pass, I was close. But that was kind of the goal, to come out today, run the offense and get out of the game healthy.”
The lack of playing time didn’t bother Thompson. The scrimmage was the last of 15 practices this spring. He had plenty of reps during those, as did other scholarship quarterbacks like Logan Smothers and Heinrich Haarberg. Saturday was actually just the third practice of the spring where Chubba Purdy, a Florida State transfer, was a full participant. He had been dealing with a foot issue for much of the spring.
“I’ve gotten a lot of throws throughout spring ball. I’ve thrown 200 to 300 pass attempts during spring,” Thompson said. “So really, just try to get out there and like I said, just throw a few passes with the first-team offense and then get out of the game healthy.”
While the watered-down, very basic offense that Thompson operated on Saturday won’t resemble what will attack Northwestern’s defense in Dublin, Ireland, on Aug. 27, Thompson is confident there’s progress being made.
“I feel like we’re at a good spot as a team, as an offense. Throughout spring with the ones, I know for sure, I can’t really speak on the other quarterbacks, but I think we had 20-something, 30-something touchdowns, I had four or five interceptions throughout spring,” Thompson said. “I feel like I did a good job of taking care of the ball. As spring ball progressed, we’ve had some of our best practices the last few weeks. Routes on air have improved every day. One-on-ones, we’ve done a really good job with one-on-ones at the wide receiver position. We’ve had a lot of young guys step up at tight end with some older guys being out.”
Frost said that, generally speaking, offenses are behind defenses when both are installing new things in the spring. Quarterbacks, he added, are usually the ones dealing with the most. That can be hard on them.
But Thompson has been around and seen some things in college football. He spent four seasons at Texas and played for multiple offensive coordinators and head coaches. The offense that new Nebraska OC Mark Whipple is installing will be his fourth system he’s had to learn. Last year Thompson played in Steve Sarkisian’s offense in Austin. Before that, he played in the spread attacks of Mike Yurcich and Tom Herman.
Thompson is comfortable with change.
“There’s pieces of two systems that those guys are learning, not just him,” Frost said of Thompson. “And that’s why, at times, we’ve looked like a million bucks, and other times looked a little lost. But I’ve seen good progress from that position, from multiple guys, and we have to make up a lot more ground in the summer.”
When Thompson first got to Lincoln in January, he couldn’t workout with teammates until he was cleared to play. Once that happened, he was impressed with what he saw from the skill positions.
“The first thing I noticed was how athletic and strong the guys overall on the team were,” Thompson said. “And then on offense, we have really athletic receivers, tight ends and running backs.”
Thompson remembers one instance where tight end Thomas Fidone II and receiver Oliver Martin showed off their hops by touching one of the ceilings in the weight room. Fidone will miss an undetermined amount of time with an injury he suffered this spring while Martin, fully healed from a knee injury from last year, is expected to be a key member of the wideout rotation.
“Seeing those guys explode and move well was exciting,” Thompson said. “And then as we got into spring ball and running routes and practice, I’ve been impressed with their ability to be humble and retain information and want to learn. We have a long ways to go, but I’ve seen improvement so far, not only from the wide receiver corps but from the tight end room and the running backs as well.”
Yes, Thompson didn’t see much action Saturday. He didn’t need to, though. Thompson’s time will come, and it’ll be here before you know it.