Last offseason, Nebraska got a bit creative with its recruiting tactics to add talent to the roster. Nouredin Nouili transferred to Nebraska as a walk-on despite starting seven games at guard for Colorado State, landing Isaac Gifford as a blueshirt was a big win for the Huskers’ local recruiting efforts and a couple of former Hawkeye scholarship players in Ezra Miller and Oliver Martin transferred to Nebraska as walk-ons as well.
Heading into the 2021-22 season, all four of those players appear poised to compete for playing time in one role or another. Coaches and players mentioned all of them during the spring football kickoff press conference on Monday.
Martin saw the field on offense late last season after receiving a waiver to play from the NCAA. The former 4-star recruit enrolled at Michigan out of high school, transferred back home to Iowa then transferred again to Nebraska before last season, accepting a walk-on spot.
“First of all, we were very fortunate to get Oliver,” offensive coordinator and wide receivers coach Matt Lubick said. “He didn’t really get fall camp last year because we didn’t know if he was going to be eligible. I think he got declared eligible midway through the season and we threw him into the line of fire and he did a good job and ended up starting the last couple games for us. But it was hard for him because he never really understood the base of the offense and the language. It wasn’t his fault, it was just the situation he was in.”
Martin played in five games with four starts, catching five passes for 63 yards. He was a 4-star recruit coming out of high school, and Coach Scott Frost said he posted a program-best 40-inch vertical during their performance index testing period.
“He’s always had great athletic ability, we knew that,” Lubick continued. “I actually recruited him out of high school when I was at Oregon. But now he’s taken it a step further because he understands the offense, he nows what routes to run, he knows who to block. He had all these great skills, but when he was thinking he was playing a little bit slow. It does that to everybody. But now that he’s playing with some confidence, knows what he’s doing, you can actually see his athletic ability come through. It’s been impressive.”
In order for Martin to catch passes downfield, the Huskers will need the offensive line to hold up and protect Adrian Martinez.
Nebraska lost two starters from last year’s offensive line in left tackle Brenden Jaimes and right guard Matt Farniok, but true freshman Turner Corcoran stepped into Jaimes’ place during Nebraska’s season-ending game at Rutgers and performed admirably. Together with Cam Jurgens, Bryce Benhart and Ethan Piper, Nebraska seems to have a solid core of linemen to build around. That still leaves a gaping hole at right guard, however, and Frost mentioned a handful of candidates for that spot and others, including both walk-on transfers.
“We’ve got some other talent that played some in that game [at Rutgers] and are going to compete for time at those spot and at the guard spot as well,” Frost said. “Expect to see [Trent] Hixson and Ezra Miller and Brant Banks and Nouri [Nouili], and a bunch of other guys, [Broc] Bando, compete for time, compete with each other for the right guard spot and also with the guys that played last year for time at those spots.”
Miller, a 6-foot-6, 325-pound guard, was a 4-star prospect coming out of Ridge View High School in Holstein, Iowa. He spent his freshman year at Iowa, though he did not play a game. Miller left the program in mid-January because of mental health issues he was struggling with, but later re-discovered the desire to play football and entered the transfer portal, which is how he ended up in Lincoln.
Nouili graduated from Norris High School as an exchange student from Germany and chose Colorado State over South Dakota, Northern Iowa and North Dakota State. He played in eight games and became the first true freshman to start on the offensive line for the Rams since 1996, but in December of 2019 he announced he was transferring to Nebraska. He received a waiver to play last season, but did not see the field.
Hixson is the most experienced of the group of names Frost rattled off, and Nebraska has Banks playing tackle. But Hixson, Miller, Nouili and Bando should create a pretty competitive battle for the starting right guard position and both back-up guard spots.
Gifford’s name also came up on Monday alongside Javin Wright’s as candidates to train behind JoJo Domann as a hybrid nickel linebacker in addition to playing safety.
“We’re trying to get guys ready to play wherever they can help us,” defensive coordinator Erik Chinander said. “We just need to get all the best guys on the field, plus I think you guys had it well-documented that JoJo played a lot of reps last year for us. I don’t know, in a 12-game season, how many guys can play every single rep of every single game, as well as Deontai [Williams] and Marquel [Dismuke]. So being able to get some guys that can rotate in there and get those guys a few breaks throughout a long regular season, Big Ten plus nonconference, I think it’s going to be important to develop that depth.
Gifford, the younger brother of former Husker Luke Gifford, initially committed to Nebraska as a blueshirt, which delayed his scholarship until the beginning of the fall. However, the Huskers got him eligible to play immediately (he normally wouldn’t have been according to blueshirt rules) and he played in every game, mostly on special teams where he made four tackles on kickoff coverage. He also saw a few snaps here and there on defense. At 6-foot-1 and 205 pounds, Gifford is no stranger to the weight room and has the kind of frame to grow into that Domann role. He played both safety and linebacker at Lincoln Southeast.
“They’re both great athletes,” Domann himself said about his understudies. “Javin Wight has an awesome build, an awesome mindset, always looking to get better. Isaac’s just a natural athlete who’s got football instincts and that has learned a couple things from his brother and his family. Just having the opportunity to help them process the game quicker, help them hopefully see what I see so that their learning curve can be a little faster so that when they hit the field, they don’t have to make as many mistakes as I did and they can just jump straight into making big-time plays and making an impact out there. Both of those guys are going to see the field this year. I’m really excited for their future.”
The Nebraska coaches turned over every rock in search of creative ways to add talent to the roster over the last year year-and-a-half, and it appears to be paying off already as many of those special roster additions are already pushing for playing time and helping create some real depth for the 2021-22 season.