LINCOLN, Neb. – With fall camp in the rear-view mirror, the Huskers are moving into game preparation this week in practice. Offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf said the next few days will be spent fine-tuning as the team begins to focus more on what they’re going to see from Fresno State in week one.
In addition to game-planning over the next two weeks, the Huskers also have to find a way to fill the void at left guard left by the season-ending injury to Jerald Foster. The injury was a tough blow to both the Lincoln native who was finally set to start and his teammates.
“Just like everyone says, the O-line is probably the closest-knit group on the team,” senior center Dylan Utter said. “Just being there for Jerald is kind of our main focus for him. It’s kind of a bad situation – he waited two years to start this year and he was going to be special on the left side with Gates. It kind of hurt us that way but Jerald was telling me ‘just keep playing.’ That’s what you have to do in the game of football.”
Offensive line coach Mike Cavanaugh mentioned three names that they are considering for the job right now. True freshman Boe Wilson got first team reps in last Saturday’s scrimmage. Senior utility lineman Corey Whitaker is working his way back after getting his knee scoped but will be in the mix when he returns to the field. And a new name Cavanaugh mentioned today is senior walk-on Sam Hahn, who the Huskers are using at multiple position much like Whitaker.
Redshirt freshman Jalin Barnett, who was getting second team reps behind Foster earlier in camp, left Saturday’s scrimmage early after spraining his ankle and is dealing with some other nicks and bruises as well, according to Cavanaugh.
If Wilson proves to be the best option, he’ll avoid redshirting this season. However, Cavanaugh hasn’t decided one way or the other on that and Hahn’s adjustment to left guard and Whitaker’s health are both significant factors.
“[Wilson] was probably the most technically-sound guy we recruited,” Cavanaugh said. “Good run blocker with technique. Same thing on pass pro. He was a well-coached guy coming out of high school … He’s a really good athlete. He’s really powerful. He’s going to be a great player. He just has a lot to learn mentally. We’re going to keep working with him and see how it goes.”
Despite the uncertainty at left guard, Cavanaugh still expressed confidence and excitement for the line he’ll be rolling out on Sept. 3.
“I’m excited for them,” Cavanaugh said. “I think David Knevel is doing a great job along with Nick Gates at tackle. Utter is smart and getting much better inside. [Tanner] Farmer is a powerful guy; still a little bit green but he’s a good athlete, a tough guy, wants to be good, all those things.”
Though Foster is a big loss in more ways than one, senior wide receiver Brandon Reilly said the team has emerged from camp relatively healthy otherwise.
“Obviously losing big Jerald was a huge loss for us – not even as a player, just as a guy to have,” Reilly said. “I don’t know if you guys know him that well, but a very outgoing, fun guy to have around. He won’t be playing with us this year. But he’ll be there with us cheering us on; that will help. Other than him, I think everyone – I think Mike Rose is coming back pretty healthy. We should be good to go.”
>> Langsdorf offered his evaluation of Saturday’s scrimmage, highlighting one area in particular in which the team needs to make significant improvement.
“Our two-minute drill needs a ton of work,” Langsdorf said. “That’s been our worst period. Way too many turnovers. We’re trying to push the ball downfield in a short amount of time and the pressure’s on to make some plays. I think we’ve had, gosh, quite a few interceptions in that period. Scrimmage-wise, I thought that’s where we’ve taken better care of the ball for the most part … I thought we hit a couple of deep balls that were nice to see from De’Mornay [Person-El], from J.D. [Spielman]. That was encouraging.”
Langsdorf expanded on his critique of the offense’s performance in two-minute situations.
“It’s really a matter of executing some plays and making sure we’re clean on the read,” Langsdorf said. “Aaron Williams made a great interception where he kind of clamped the tight end and the tight end was number one and we’ve got to get off number one and on to number two. We’ve got to do a better job of checking to the ball down to the backs in that period, getting completions. We’re not finding enough completions and getting out of bounds. We’re trying to chuck the ball down the middle of the field late and it’s not good. We have to use the whole play.”
However, Langsdorf did say the offense has improved in normal scrimmage situations, particularly in the area of ball security.
“I think we’ve been pretty good there,” Langsdorf said. “We’re creating a little more chaos in the two-minute. It goes a little quicker. You’ve got to think faster and react quicker and we haven’t done that. In our scrimmages or in our team periods it has been pretty good. I don’t think we’ve thrown nearly the amount of interceptions that we have in the past. We’ve been a lot cleaner that way. We’ve had good execution in the run game. We have to carry over some of those high-tempo periods into our scrimmages and make some plays.”
>> The graduation of Imani Cross opened up plenty of opportunities in short-yardage situations, and sophomore running back Devine Ozigbo is planning to fill the void. Listed at 5-foot-11 and 230 pounds, Ozigbo is one of the biggest backs on the team and is certainly capable of running with power. However, Ozigbo doesn’t want to be limited to just that role.
“I don’t want to be just one kind of back,” Ozigbo said. “They don’t want to play one kind of back every single play and I’m trying to play as much as I can. You have to be able to do everything if you want to be an every-down back.”
“I think I’m a balanced type back,” Ozigbo continued. “I’m big, but I think I can run pretty well, I have pretty nice feet – that’s something I’ve worked on. I can also do the big boy stuff, I can also catch the ball. I think an all-around back is the guy I try to be and describe myself as to other people.”
>> The situation following wide receivers coach Keith Williams’ arrest was resolved last Friday when Coach Mike Riley and athletic director Shawn Eichorst announced Williams’ punishment, but it has still been a difficult time for his position group according to Pierson-El.
“At first, it was kind of heavy,” Pierson-El said. “Everybody was thinking a lot more and then we leaned on each other just to continue to get through practices. Our teammates helped us out. We just fought through and just pushed. Everybody could hear him coaching in our heads, so we would just try to do the little things that he would remind us to do and just take it one day at a time, one play at a time and just do the best we can.”
Graduate assistant Hardie Buck has been coaching the wide receivers in Williams’ absence, but the Huskers also added former Oregon State wide receiver James Rodgers, the twin brother of NFL running back Jacquizz Rodgers, to the staff.
“He’s been a great resource, just reassurance and just another different voice that’s coaching,” Pierson-El said. “You can never be coached too much. He certainly helps with punt returning and catching and just mentally attacking the day and mentally being ready because he’s been through a knee injury also. He talks to me a lot about some of the things he did and just where I’m at.”
Pierson-El made some highlight-reel plays in Saturday’s scrimmage including an impressive touchdown catch during the two-minute drill.
“It’s motivation,” Pierson-El said about his success in the scrimmage. “There’s more to come. Continue to work for it, continue to work on my craft, watch film, watch my release, attacking the ball. Just do the little things right to be able to make those moments spark more.”
>> True freshman J.D. Spielman has been making a strong push in camp to play right away and avoid a redshirt season despite the depth in talent at wide receiver.
“He runs well,” Langsdorf said. “He’s a guy that can stretch the field. He’s a good route runner out there at that flanker positions, which usually has a lot of space. It needs speed because you’ve usually got some ground to carry down the field or to get onto the defender. He’s a good fly-sweeper. He’s strong with the ball. He’ll block. There’s a lot of things that he’s shown us that he’s willing to do and it has looked pretty good. He’s definitely in the conversation.”
Pierson-El is familiar with Spielman’s situation as he made an immediate impact in 2014, first on special teams as a punt returner and then translating his success to offense as the season played out.
“He’s coming in, he’s a ball of energy,” Pierson-El said. “He’s making plays. Sometimes he’ll line up wrong, sometimes he’ll run the wrong route, but he’s making that at a 100 miles per hour and that’s what you want. Everything will start to slow down now that we’re out of camp. I think he’s in a transition phase right now to where everything will start clicking. He’s right on track.”