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Photo Credit: John Peterson

Defense Dominates in Nebraska Closed-Door Scrimmage Saturday

August 12, 2023

Artificial crowd noise could be heard from the north concourse of Memorial Stadium. Nebraska held its first full-tackle scrimmage of the fall on Saturday and, in the final few plays, they turned the volume up.

The offense hit a long touchdown at the end, head coach Matt Rhule recapped. Then linebacker Luke Reimer made a red zone interception. The single-digit-jersey-earner’s pick capped a defense-led scrimmage in the head coach’s eyes. He called it a day dominated by the defense.

“I thought the defense was lights out,” Rhule recapped. “A lot of passion, energy, they’re significantly further ahead than the offense, based on today. A lot of work to do on offense, a lot of work to do in the kicking game. But I thought the defense was ahead.”

The head coach said the defense’s speed and fight to create turnovers stands out. Nebraska hasn’t finished with positive turnovers since Mike Riley’s second season in Lincoln. Coaches continue making ball security on offense and creating turnovers on defense major priorities. Rhule was not surprised by the defense’s consistency on Saturday, saying they’ve played strong all fall. He especially likes the depth developing on defense and what it does for this team’s prospects.

“We’re deep on defense,” Rhule said. “Which bodes well because we’re not a defense that plays 11 guys. The goal is to play 17 to 25 guys depending on who is above the line. We’re trying to throw waves of people. They’re talented on defense and they’re playing with energy and aggressiveness, which I like.”

Offensively, Rhule didn’t like seeing procedural penalties for the first time. Those issues didn’t arise in the spring but did so on Saturday with a play clock and getting in and out of the huddle. Rhule said the offense performed better throughout the scrimmage and hopes those issues are rectified.

“As the scrimmage went on they got better,” Rhule said. “They have a guy in Jeff that they respect and listen to. Coaches are trying to find next play, guys sprinting on and off the field, maybe the play clock is a little fast but better now than in the first game. I love days like today, I love chaos, I love making guys respond to adversity.”

Rhule challenged the offense to take a step forward after Saturday. He likewise challenged the defense to not be overshadowed by offensive improvement in the next week. When discussing special teams, Rhule said they missed field goal opportunities. He felt good about the connections, punts and and kickoffs, but the Huskers missed too many field goals for his liking. “Just, obviously, we’re going to be in the types of games where field goals are going to matter and that was not at the level of percentage that we want it to be at today,” Rhule said. The head coach isn’t sure of the Huskers’ return team, although Billy Kemp is an established returner who has shown improvement and freshman Ethan Nation is a current standout.

The head coach also outlined the team’s current situation at receiver. Marcus Washington and Isaiah Garcia-Castaneda did not practice on Saturday and Zavier Betts has left the program. Rhule was hoping Washington could practice Saturday but he hadn’t fully recovered from his injury earlier in the week. He’s hoping for more from veteran receiver Joshua Fleeks plus walk-on receivers Ty Hahn and Alex Bullock. Rhule also downplayed the potential of Thomas Fidone moving to wide receiver, saying Janiran Bonner could play more at receiver if needed but Fidone is a pure tight end.

This opens opportunity for Nebraska’s freshmen receivers. On talent alone, Jaidyn Doss and Malachi Coleman could play, Rhule said. But the head coach said it takes more than talent to make the leap from high school to college. For one, it takes confidence. He pointed to Kemp’s confidence at the position, although the receiver has played multiple collegiate seasons. While fast and explosive, Rhule wants to see the young receivers play with confidence. That’s why the team practices the way it does, he said.

“I think the future of our receiving core is really elite,” Rhule said. “It’s just those young guys, it’s really hard to play as a freshman. Everyone wants to until it’s on them. They have some growth to make but they’ll help us.”

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