LINCOLN, Neb. — With the season-opener drawing near, the Nebraska football team is picking up the intensity of fall camp with three two-a-days this week starting with Monday. On Saturday, the Huskers had a lively scrimmage in memorial Stadium, but offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf said they didn’t get the same energy from the team in the morning session Monday.
“We were a little slow today coming off of that scrimmage,” Langsdorf said. “Probably just a little tired, but they’ve got to fight through it. We worked on a couple of concepts today that were pretty good, but we probably weren’t as feisty as we’ve been energy level-wise. This will be a big week for us to sort of fine-tune our stuff. We’ve got a lot of installation in, so we’re not putting in a lot of new things. We’re just working on some situations.”
Classes begin next week, so Coach Mike Riley and his staff are packing as much into this week as possible as the Huskers start looking ahead to week one against Fresno State.
“That’s what Coach has been harping on is how big of a week this is,” senior center Dylan Utter said. “We have nine practices this week and knocked out one already. In the first practice we kind of go against our defense. In the second one we’re kind of game-planning for that first game, so kind of getting a base knowledge for what we’re going to see coming. Fresno State is going to be big for us.”
Wide receivers coach Keith Williams was absent from practice over the weekend, but senior quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr. said Riley’s message was to treat Monday like any other day.
“It was just like a normal day for us,” Armstrong said. “We’ve got things going on but we’re focusing on fall camp right now. We’ve got to let things play themselves out. Things happen, we’ve just got to make sure we stay on the right path.”
In Williams’ absence, graduate assistant Hardie Buck took the lead on coaching the receivers.
“He’s really a good technician,” Langsdorf said about Buck. “He worked closely all last year with Keith [Williams], and there’s a lot of knowledge there. He’s helpful with the young guys, has been coaching those guys. He’ll get some experience and he’s a smart, knowledgeable guy who will do a good job for us right now.”
>> Riley issued an update on freshman linebacker Greg Simmons, who was stretchered off the field Saturday after a scary collision. Simmons was immobilized and taken to the hospital as a precaution after mentioning neck pain following the collision.
“By the time dinner was just about over, he was back,” Riley said. “It’s going to be a while, he’s got a real sore neck, so it’ll be a while before he participates again, but he is OK.”
>> Langsdorf offered his evaluation of Saturday’s scrimmage.
“I thought we ran the ball OK at times,” Langsdorf said. “We were a little inconsistent. I thought we hit some good ones, then we’d get stuffed a few, then we’d hit a couple, so we were just inconsistent there. I liked that we didn’t have any interceptions, but we also missed some throws that we need to hit. We had open throws [where] the protection was good, the receiver was open and we missed it . . . We had a couple of those with the group, not just one guy. It was kind of the whole quarterback group, so that’s got to get better.
“Overall, I thought it was clean. Procedurally we were pretty good. We didn’t have a lot of explosive plays, which we need to create. We had a couple of big runs, but I think we only had one pass that was a big one. I thought for being the first one it wasn’t sloppy. I thought it was pretty well played overall.”
>> One of the highlights of the scrimmage was a 25-yard touchdown run by Armstrong, who gave credit to his teammates for getting him into the end zone.
“I do what I can,” Armstrong said. “It’s different packages just to get those running backs some space. It helped them a lot. You’ve got to give praise to those receivers. Without Brandon [Reilly] cracking Nate [Gerry] it wouldn’t have ever happened. It just shows how talented those guys are. They get in there, get inside and make crack blocks and things like and they open up holes for me and the running backs.”
>> Running backs coach Reggie Davis also gave his thoughts on the three backs who are splitting first-team touches – senior Terrell Newby and sophomores Devine Ozigbo and Mikale Wilbon.
On Newby: “I felt like Terrell got in there and he pretty much picked up where he left off. I also saw him trying to assert himself a little bit more on the physical side of things, which was good to see. But seeing him being able to make good decisions and run quickly and catch the ball well, all those things were what I expected out of him.”
On Ozigbo: “Devine, he came in, he did some things for us. We had some short-yardage situations, we wanted to see him run behind his pads and be able to pick up those tough yards, and it’s going to be hard to replace Imani when it comes to that because he was great at it. But we’ve got to find somebody to get those tough yards, and so he was able to do that once or twice in the scrimmage, so that was really good to see. So things like that were things that were positive, so we said, ‘OK, we’re at least moving in the right direction.’”
On Wilbon: “Mikale did a good job. They all got a chance to run behind the No. 1 O-Line, and Mikale even got a chance to even do some short-yardage stuff and see what he could do in that situation. But Mikale is a very fast, quick guy, so he was able to squirt through some holes and show us that he still has the ability to do that as well. So that was good also.”
>> Andy Janovich emerged as a significant weapon for the Huskers as a senior last season, but his departure for the NFL left a big gap in the lineup. One of the players who is hoping to fill that void is junior Luke McNitt, who has transitioned from tight end to more of an H-back/fullback hybrid role and is competing with senior Graham Nabity – another H-back type – and junior Harrison Jordan – more of a true fullback.
“I definitely saw it as a huge opportunity with Andy leaving and then nobody else with experience – there are a couple other guys there,” McNitt said. “Definitely to see the opportunity he got last year was fun, to be able to come to that position right away.”
McNitt was a bit of a mystery for Davis heading into the spring, but he positioned himself well in the battle with his performance and hasn’t skipped a beat this fall.
“When we came out of spring, we had a pretty good idea of how he performed in spring, that he had a strong chance of being the guy, so when he came back in fall camp and picked up where he left off, it was pretty clear … I hadn’t been watching him a whole lot [before spring ball], so I found out he was tougher than I thought he was,” Davis said. “I knew he was a good athlete . . . played quarterback in high school, and I’d seen him run some routes and catch the ball, so I knew he could do that part of it. The physical part of it I didn’t know how well he would make that transition. And he did a good job with it, so that was surprising, a pleasant surprise to me.”
That toughness on the field and in the weight room is something McNitt prides himself on, as he is one of the team’s most energetic weight-lifters.
“I take a lot of pride in that,” McNitt said. “I think it started back in high school. The coaches back there really instilled that work ethic into us at Kearney. I definitely like to show up every day, motivate other guys and get other people going.”
McNitt said his diverse background as far as playing multiple positions has helped him in his new role as a full-back.
“I definitely think spending time at [H-back] helped me,” McNitt said. “[H-back] and [fullback] are very similar, just coming from a different position on the field. I definitely think learning from Tavita [Thompson] all last year and this year learning from Coach Davis and Coach [John] Weiss, I think just blending all of that together has helped me a lot.”
McNitt’s diverse skill-set has helped him stand out to Davis through the spring and into the fall.
“He’s pretty well-rounded,” Davis said. “I mean, he does all of it well for us. When you watch him out there, he’s getting better at being able to get movement on guys as a run blocker, but he never had any problem striking and there’s never been any fear in him. There’s some technique things that we’ve been able to make him a little bit better there, but he’s an excellent pass protector and he catches the ball really well, excellent athlete, so he’s what we need.”
McNitt is hoping to follow in Janovich’s footsteps, as the now NFL fullback started out as merely a blocker early in the season but proved to be a weapon as a ball-carrier and pass-catcher as well.
“It’s about the same as last year at this time,” McNitt said about the role of the fullback. “We’re just putting in the base packages and everything. But once they saw what Andy could do last year, they started slowly adding more and more, so I’m kind of hoping throughout the season I can show them what I can do and we can slowly start adding more as well.”