LINCOLN, Neb. — The Huskers wrapped up their final padded practice in Lincoln of the 2016 season on Thursday. They will have one more practice on Friday before leaving for Nashville. For seniors like Sam Cotton, that reality is bittersweet.
“Today was the last full padded practice here, and that was kind of a bittersweet moment because it’s kind of nice not having to put those pads on anymore after four months of a grueling season,” Cotton said. “We’ve had quite a bit of practice here going into the bowl, which I think I’m pretty grateful for because I’m not promised any more snaps after this, and so to get all the football out of me now if I have to is a lot of fun.”
Coach Mike Riley described what the team did during Thursday’s practice, as well as how he approached this season’s bowl practices as a whole.
“What we’ve tried to do with bowl practice, and I’ve tweaked it every year that we’ve done it a little bit, but I do know you have to have a combination of preparation for the team, kind of the knowledge of what they’re doing and practicing against what they do defensively, offensively, all that stuff with scout teams, but I think you have to stay sharp with playing in practice with speed,” Riley said. “So we have basically rotated every day between Tennessee and playing fast, ones against ones.
“Today was exclusively interaction, ones against ones. We did a two-minute drill, ones against ones. We did a red zone skelly ones against ones. We did first and 10 team, they did 16 full-speed plays — not tackling but everything else — ones against ones. And then we did third down team; I think we did 14 third down plays ones against ones. We try to run the calls that we’re going to use in the game but we do it against the Huskers so the guys can just play football. I think you need a combination of scout team stuff and speed to stay sharp. Frankly, what I do know, I don’t know if it’s age or what, I kind of hold my breath with all of these interaction practices, make sure we get through OK physically, and we have or we did today, so that’s good.
“I’ve been impressed with how our team has handled it. We’ve practiced a lot. We’ve practiced just about every available day. We did give them the weekend off — graduation day and the day after that — and we’re going to give them Christmas Eve and Christmas that we travel. Then we’ll get right back to — we have a regular countdown in Nashville. It’s just like day four, day three, day two, day one and then fun day right after that; that’s just our normal schedule, just like we had Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday and game day.”
Riley confirmed that senior safety Nathan Gerry and junior cornerback Boaz Joseph have both been ruled ineligible to participate in the bowl game.
As for injuries, Riley still hasn’t completely ruled out senior quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr., but it sounds more and more likely with each passing day that Ryker Fyfe will start at quarterback against Tennessee.
“Tommy has not practiced,” Riley said. “He has run a little bit. We will continue to monitor it, but we are going forward as if Ryker is starting the game. Right now, the trainer is doubtful that our quarterback will make it to 100 percent by the time we get to the game. What that means as to what he might be able to do in the game is still undetermined, but that says a lot, right? Ryker’s been practicing, he looks good, I’m excited about his preparation and Zack Darlington is backing him up.”
At running back, Riley had both bad news and good news to share.
“Tre Bryant had a hamstring pull in the last week,” Riley said. “It is to the point where he might be doubtful in the game. On the other side of it, Terrell Newby, who has been hurt, is on his way trending upward and has practiced for the last two days limited and today just about through the whole time pretty well. That part feels good. I’m hoping still that Tre, but the time we get to Nashville, will be able to do more.”
Riley said that if Newby is back close to 100 percent he will get his normal amount of work as the starter, but both Devine Ozigbo and Mikale Wilbon will get a chance to play as well.
“My guess is and our hope is that Terrell will be back and starting,” Riley said. “Then Devine and Mikale Wilbon are both getting a lot of work right now. How we figure that rotation, I’m not sure. But they’ll probably all play.”
Both of Nebraska’s right tackles have dealt with injuries at various points this season, but Riley said both David Knevel and Cole Conrad have been practicing.
“Cole Conrad has been practicing,” Riley said. “As a matter of fact, Cole Conrad and David Knevel have been alternating at tackle and we’ll make a determination about that later, but that’s been a good thing.”
Riley reiterated that Jordan Westerkamp will not be able to play in the bowl game and said that fellow senior wide receiver Alonzo Moore has been in and out of practice with an ankle injury.
“Alonzo Moore has had an ankle and it has been a little bit of a roller coaster with Alonzo,” Riley said. “He has been out and then back in and was out today and really what I think, I told him today ‘Let’s try to be healthy on Monday down in Nashville,’ so we may not even work him tomorrow.”
Riley said all of the players they will be without is a tough blow, but he has faith in the team’s depth at all of the affected positions.
“The one blessing we have there is we have pretty good depth at receiver. Brandon Reilly is smart and talented and I think he’ll go in the slot and he’ll make some plays for us and that will be a good thing. Everything that Tommy has done for us and the variety of things that he does, that will really be missed. But I’ve really been impressed both with Ryker’s play against Maryland and with his practicing here, so I’m kind of excited for his opportunity and whet he can do with our team. I think he’s gained just a tremendous amount of confidence. What, this is our 11th practice? He was outstanding today. I’m excited for him and for us in that regard. It’s a tough thing; Nate’s been in that spot in the secondary for a long time so that’s a tough one, but I am excited about Antonio Reed and his opportunity there. When I look at this secondary as it’s put together in this game and all these guys will be back, I think we’ll all like that look, so I’m excited for this group to play together and I’m looking forward to it.”
Riley said they got wind that Gerry would be ruled ineligible early in the week and had it confirmed on Wednesday. They’ve been preparing to play without him and have been getting Reed more reps in practice in order to prepare for the bowl game.
“We started making a move where [Reed] got a lot of repetitions back a few days ago … where at least he was subbing in and getting a lot of work so at least we could get that picture,” Riley said. “It was at a point in there early one where I talked to everybody involved in it where if this was going to be the case, we had to get this move going. They’ve had plenty of work. I think Antonio is a really good football player. I think he was slowed down by injury early and he wasn’t in great shape. I think he has gotten to the point where he’s in the best shape this season and I think he’s tough and I think he’s got as good of an awareness about playing and making plays as anybody. I’m excited about him and for him and I think he’ll do well for our team.”
As for the quarterback situation, Riley said Fyfe has been able to take snaps under center the last couple of practices. Previously, the broken bone in his left wrist had limited him to take snaps out of the shotgun.
“I check with him just about every day and he has felt more comfortable every day,” Riley said. “It still is a little factor; I guess I would say that he still feels it. But he can do it and I think by the time we get to the game I don’t think it will be a factor overall.”
Riley elaborated on what he’s seen from Fyfe in games and in practices and described when the senior from Grand Island is at his best.
“Quick, confident decisions; balls coming out,” Riley said. “When you are a certain style of quarterback, you are as you play, then you have to learn to play within that style as quickly as you can. He’s a good runner; I think people misjudge that a little bit. He’s a good runner, but his forte I think is seeing it, making a quick decision and he’s got a great quick release. When he does more of that and you just see it happening quickly; he was playing against our own defense today and making plays. I was impressed. The other thing that you like to see is completions, accuracy. He’s putting the ball pretty much on the money; I thought he had a great day today.”
Riley said the Huskers will likely spend a lot of the bowl game in their nickel and dime defenses in order to deal with Tennessee’s offense.
“This is a really versatile quarterback,” Riley said. “He’s a good player in a lot of ways and how they utilize him best is spreading it out, so you’re going to be in nickel or dime or whatever you do sub-wise in order to play against them.”
Junior linebacker Chris Weber compared Tennessee’s offense to that of Ohio State and Maryland.
“Just on offense they’ve got a lot of speed,” Weber said. “Their quarterback kind of makes the whole show go, so we have to be able to kind of limit what he can do. They’re a good team; they’re a good SEC team.”
Cotton said he’s looking forward to the entire experience of being down in Nashville with his teammates.
“I’m excited about Nashville,” Cotton said. “Nashville’s a great city. Bowl games are a great time to bond with the team and spend some good time together. We spend nearly every hour of every day with each other anyway but to be able to do it in a fun city like Nashville, that’s a lot of fun. The obviously to be able to compete against a good team in Tennessee right in their backyard, that will be a lot of fun too.”
Jacob is in his third year with Hail Varsity covering Husker athletics. He has also written extensively for SB Nation’s Bright Side of the Sun and The Creightonian. His love of basketball can best be described as an obsession and if you need to find him, he’s probably in a gym somewhere watching, coaching or playing hoops.