LINCOLN, Neb. — The Huskers took the field at Memorial Stadium for the second open scrimmage of fall camp on Saturday, and with a handful of veterans out of commission, some young players got an opportunity to step up.
The team opened the scrimmage with a two-minute drill for the first and second string units and the offenses struggled with multiple interceptions and illegal procedures, a fumbled snap and some short plays. After a few series for each unit, they moved onto a full scrimmage with more contact and variety.
“The first part of it was a two-minute drill,” Coach Mike Riley said. “It was kind of sloppy. We need a lot of work in that. We’ve done about four days, five days like that. Some of it’s been OK. That’s part of our deal where you’re in almost 100-percent passing mode and we’ve just got to keep going, get the right stuff, kind of consolidate what we’re doing. Once we got to playing football – run, pass, mixing it all in – it was a pretty good scrimmage. Those guys did pretty well.”
The highlight of the two-minute portion from the offense was a fade from Tommy Armstrong Jr. to De’Mornay Pierson-El in the corner of the end zone for a touchdown. Pierson-El made a great adjustment to haul in the pass. Pierson-El also had a few other nice plays, including a jet sweep and a catch along the sideline.
“I was really happy for De’Mornay,’ Riley said. “This is all step-by-step confidence for him. His knee’s good. It’s just getting to play. We have to be real thoughtful about making sure we get him the football in the right situations and how we get him the ball, but it was good to see him make some plays today.”
Freshman Wilson in the Mix on O-Line
With Jerald Foster on the shelf, true freshman Boe Wilson got the first reps at left guard with the No. 1 offense. Redshirt freshman Jalin Barnett, his primary competition while senior Corey Whitaker is out, started with the second unit but had to leave the field on his first drive after injuring spraining his ankle.
“Jalin went down fairly soon in this thing today, but Boe is in that mix for sure,’ Riley said about the battle at left guard. “Boe is talented and physical enough to be playing and he’s in the mix. We’re going to come out of this OK if either one of them play; they’re inexperienced but talented.”
Wilson, the 6-foot-3, 295-pound lineman from Lee’s Summit, Missouri, seemed to hold his own during the scrimmage and has made a strong case for the job, but Riley isn’t ready to call it just yet.
“The first thing we see is in one-on-one pass protection, he was good from the moment we started because he is athletic and he’s physical, he’s strong, he’s got good feet, all those ingredients to be a good player,” Riley said. “The guy’s in it a little bit faster than we expected but that’s the world that we’re in. I don’t want to jump to conclusions but he’s definitely in the mix.”
Riley said the coaches like true freshman Matt Farniok as well and they’re giving him some reps, but the plan seems to be a redshirt year unless injury strikes at tackle.
Installation on Schedule
Riley said the team is pretty much on schedule in terms of play installation. Now it is time to start preparation for week one.
“I think with the inventory that we have in, we got plenty of that,” Riley said. “I think we’ve had good practices as far as situational. We need it in some areas – I think probably third down in particular, the two-minute in particular where we need a lot of refining work this next week. But as far as establishing base kinds of runs – running the ball, receivers running the ball, quarterbacks – and then what we do in the play-action game. We’ve got enough stuff; it will just be the selection process now for the games. I feel good about that.”
Starting Punter, Captains Close to Being Named
Neither of the team’s punters – Caleb Lightbourn and Isaac Armstrong – had his best practice, but Lightbourn did land a couple of nice punts from midfield – one downed at the 9-yard line and the other at the 2-yard line. Riley said the team is close to calling a winner in that battle.
“I’m so proud of both of those kids,” Riley said. “First of all, the circumstances, and how Caleb, being new, has responded and the work Isaac has done from last spring to right now is phenomenal. They’ve done real well. We’re real close to being able to announce who is going to be the punt, but both of those kids I think can punt in the games.”
Riley also said the team will name captains within the next week.
Defense ‘Better’ at this Stage
Riley said he likes the progress he has seen from the defense throughout fall camp.
“We needed a lot of development and a lot of coaching and teaching and growth at that defensive tackle position, and that group, right now, is a pretty good picture with Mick [Stoltenberg], Kevin Maurice and the Davis twins [Khalil and Carlos] and then Logan Rath, Peyton Newell are up in there,” Riley said. “John [Parrella]’s doing a great job of coaching them and I think that they’ve grown and I think that they’ll play solidly. Overall defensively, I think we’re better. I think in the long run, our linebackers are so much deeper. I think a number of guys can play. Right off the bat, if we have to pick a travel squad we have way more linebackers on the practice squad than we did a year ago.”
Stoltenberg has been taking reps with the top unit at defensive tackle and hasn’t shown much rust after seeing his season end last year before the bowl game with a torn ACL.
“I’m extra proud of Mick,” Riley said. “Really proud of him. I can remember vividly when he got hurt during bowl practice, how it happened, then watching it through the months, his hard work and dedication to coming back, it was like he never wavered. I’m really proud of him. He is really, really finding his niche.”
Handful of Freshmen Poised to Play
Riley pointed out a few true freshmen that he anticipates will contribute on special teams first, and then potentially on defense as well down the road.
“I’m really pleased with some young guys’ possibility of playing for us some place,” Riley said. “Lamar Jackson, Tony Butler, JoJo Domann. It’s going to be a big discussion about [Dicaprio] Bootle. He’s done some good things and if we really needed him, but we might have enough depth where we don’t. He’s done real well. [Marquel] Dismuke… that’s a good freshman class and there’s going to be a number of guys that are making a move in there.”
Riley said he likes the freshmen at linebacker – Quayshon Alexander and Pernell Jefferson – but with the team’s depth at that position, they will likely redshirt this year.
Riley also talked about the true freshmen on offense, particularly wide receivers Derrion Grim and J.D. Spielman.
“We’re force-feeding J.D. Spielman because we think he’s a really good football player and he can play in the return game,” Riley said. “I think in our prototype from years past, he’s a perfect flanker … We had a long discussion yesterday and this morning about J.D. He might be hard not to activate … he can probably do a lot of things for us and he’s just a ball-player. I don’t even think he knows where he is. He just comes out here and plays hard and he’s got some ability. We probably would like to redshirt him but I think he might do too many things. It’s such a long season, we might as well have him ready.”
Grim, who enrolled early and participated in spring ball, is fighting to play immediately as well.
“We’re talking about it,” Riley said. “And I know what we’re talking about is two freshmen that we don’t redshirt at receiver. If we do it that way, we better have a really good plan about making sure that they play enough. But they’re in our conversation. We’ll have to decide probably by Tuesday.”
Top Receivers Sit Out
The freshmen as well as some upperclassmen saw more opportunities on Saturday with a few seniors – Jordan Westerkamp and Brandon Reilly – not suiting up.
“This is like a season,” Riley said. “We’re down a little bit. Reilly didn’t play, Westerkamp didn’t play, so some of those guys got a few more turns. [Pierson-El] was one of them and so was J.D. and so was Grim. I really like what [Bryan] Reimers was doing. He’ll play this year and he’ll catch some balls for us. I think he’ll be one of those guys that will elevate the more he gets to play, the older he gets.”
Though he wasn’t able to play, that doesn’t mean Westerkamp didn’t participate in the scrimmage. He was often spotted in the huddle between plays, coaching up the offense.
“I love this team,” Riley said. “Those older guys are always helping those young guys out, so that was pretty typical. I think a football player doesn’t like just sitting there watching. That was probably his way to stay involved.”
>>Defensive ends Freedom Akinmoladun and Alex Davis both applied some nice pressure throughout the scrimmage. At one point, Akinmoladun burst through the left side of the line and drew a holding penalty, and later on, Davis chased the quarterback from the right end spot all the way to the opposite sideline and forced an incomplete pass. Davis has made a jump recently and is in the competition for playing time on the second unit.
>>After tearing it up last Saturday, true freshman running back Tre Bryant found life much more difficult this week. He was stonewalled at the line of scrimmage on almost every carry and linebacker Luke Gifford chased him down from behind and knocked the wind out of him on the tackle. Bryant did show his ability as a receiver out of the backfield, however, catching a ball in the flat, turning it up field while staying in bounds along the sideline and sprinting his way into the end zone for a touchdown.
>>Walk-on Austin Rose got plenty of carries as the fifth running back and made the most of them, racking up yardage with some punishing runs. The 6-foot-1, 225-pound back runs with a lot of power and is tough to take down.