Nebraska’s annual Red-White spring game is this Saturday, and it’s going to be a big day for the program.
A large group of recruits will be in town for the scrimmage, which will start at 1 p.m. and be televised by the Big Ten Network. So will Ochaun Mathis, one of the top edge rushers in the country who’s looking for a new home after transferring from TCU.
There are plenty of storylines surrounding the program. And while spring games should never be used as a way of determining how successful the team will be in the fall, they’re still a great way for young or inexperienced players to show the coaches what they can do in a game-like atmosphere.
Everyone has certain players they’ll want to watch. The easy answers for this specific team are the quarterbacks and offensive line. But we’ll shy away from those two positions for this exercise. Let’s dig a little deeper instead.
Here are five players who I’m most interested to see play on Saturday:
Nebraska’s defensive backs room is jam-packed with competition. That’s what happens when three of four veteran starters—corner Cam Taylor-Britt and safeties Deontai Williams and Marquel Dismuke—move on from the program and the position coach, Travis Fisher, brings in seven new faces in the 2022 class.
Fisher made it very clear this offseason that no one’s job is safe in the secondary, but Quinton Newsome might be the exception. In his first season as a starting corner in 2021, Newsome recorded career-highs in tackles (57), tackles for loss (2), sacks (1) and pass breakups (4). He’s the most experienced guy in the room and someone who the younger players look to for help. He’ll likely be on the field for the first defensive series against Northwestern in Ireland.
Outside of Newsome, however, there are starting spots up for grabs and plenty of options. At safety, keep an eye on DeShon Singleton, the transfer from Hutchinson (Kansas) Community College.
At 6-foot-3 and 205 pounds, Singleton came to Lincoln with a Big Ten-ready frame. He doesn’t just have great size, either. The Louisiana native can move, which makes him a very intriguing athlete in the back end of Nebraska’s defense.
“He’s big, and I can’t coach that. He can run, and I can’t coach that either,” Fisher said of Singleton on Feb. 28. “But the best thing about him is he’s smart, and he’s very coachable. He’s humble. He’s humble like a freshman who wants to play real bad.”
Singleton once thought he had a future in basketball. Late in his prep career he shifted his focus to football, but had little recruiting attention. He chose to go the junior-college route and signed with Hutchinson as a full academic qualifier out of St. Helena College and Career Academy in Greensburg, Louisiana.
It only took a few games for Singleton to crack the lineup as a starting safety at Hutchinson. He racked up 21 tackles and two interceptions in his first and only season with the Blue Dragons.
There are obvious adjustments for players making the jump from JUCO to the Big Ten. Singleton is confident in his physical abilities, but if he finds his way to the Huskers’ defensive backfield, it’ll be because he gets the playbook down.
“As far as learning the playbook, I came a long way,” Singleton said last Monday. “Everything is starting to become second nature now, and I’m starting to play fast. So really, right now I’m trying to work on perfecting that so I can play as fast as I can.”
I’ll be watching Singleton closely. On his film, he was a sure tackler and could cover down the field. Will he show that on Saturday?
Let’s stick with the DBs, shall we?
There might not be a hotter spring name right now than Tommi Hill, the transfer from Arizona State.
At 6 feet and 205 pounds, Hill has the length and strength to matchup with Big Ten receivers and provide run support on the edges. During his true freshman season in Tempe, Hill played in 11 games and made nine tackles in what mostly amounted to backup duty. But this spring, he’s caught the attention of his head coach.
“He’s been a bright spot,” Scott Frost said of Hill last Monday. “He’s got a lot to learn yet and consistency. But there’s really no doubt of his playmaking ability. I love the energy and passion he brings to the game as well.”
Hill is a confident guy. That much was easy to see during his first appearance in front of local media last Monday. The biggest adjustment for him, he said, was learning the playbook—just like Singleton. Everything else? That’s accounted for.
“Athletically, I’m already there. Nothing to talk about with that,” Hill said.
Having confidence is a must for a corner like Hill, who’s trying to earn a starting job in his first season on campus. He isn’t afraid of the competition, either. He wants to cover the best receivers the Huskers have to offer. That includes LSU transfer Trey Palmer, whose speed has been the talk of spring ball from coaches and players.
“With me and Trey, it’s just a dog against a dog,” Hill said. “He wins, I win. Sometimes he wins the whole thing, sometimes I win the whole thing.”
Does Hill believe Palmer is the fastest player on the team?
“No,” he said. “I am.”
There likely won’t be a footrace between the two on Saturday, but keep an eye on Hill’s coverage and tackling.
When it comes down to it, football is entertainment. And Palmer is entertaining. That much was certain last Monday when he chatted with the media for the first time since transferring in from LSU.
“I just do what I do,” Palmer said when asked what he wants to show on Saturday. “It ain’t no show—it’s a clinic.”
Palmer talked the talk on Monday. Can he back it up? He’s confident he can. Just like he’s confident that all the work that’s been put in with the quarterbacks and receivers will pay off Saturday and in the fall.
“It’s paying off a lot. Ya’ll gonna see April 9,” Palmer said with a smile.
Palmer doesn’t need an incredible spring game performance. He’s a veteran of the game—this is his fourth season of college football—and showed what he can do with the ball in his hands in what’s widely regarded as the best conference in the sport, the SEC. His position coach, Mickey Joseph, has Palmer’s back and knows that he’s going to be an important piece to an offense that will be coordinated by Mark Whipple, who threw the ball 38.9 times per game last year at Pittsburgh.
But spring games are meant to be fun. You can count on there being a few shot plays down the field to the 6-1, 190-pound Palmer, who has the speed to blow the top off defenses. A big play or two from Palmer on Saturday would be nice to see. It’s not necessary, but it’d still be good for a fan base that would love to see the talk backed up with production.
If Palmer can have similar success to another now-former Husker who transferred in, Samori Touré, that’d obviously be considered a success. Touré caught 46 passes for 898 yards and five touchdowns last season. He had five games of 100 yards receiving, a school record.
Does Palmer have the talent to do what Touré did last year, and maybe more? His coaches and teammates believe so, and his film doesn’t lie, either. But will he? That’s another story, one that depends on others, like who’s throwing the ball and the offensive line protecting him.
Nebraska’s first-year running backs coach, Bryan Applewhite, has options to work with this spring, and they each bring something unique to the table.
Rahmir Johnson is the veteran of the group. He’s one of, if not the fastest player in the room and is a good receiver out of the backfield. Anthony Grant, a transfer from New Mexico Military Institute, appears to do a little bit of everything. He has the size you want for a Big Ten back at 5-10, 210 pounds. As for the speed, Applewhite saw that on film and is seeing it in practice.
“He has on film what you’re looking for: he was tough, he did not shy away from contact, he had a burst to get away from people, he had a very good tendency to run behind his pads, he was explosive on film, you could see that,” Applewhite said on Feb. 28.
But Jaquez Yant is the one the fan base—and coaches—would love to see put everything together in 2022. Not many backs Yant’s size—he’s down to around 230 pounds after being listed at 245 last season—have the feet and moves he does. Yant’s issues last season have been well documented. He found himself in the doghouse after not doing what was expected off the field. When he did get on the field, he couldn’t stay on it for longer than a few snaps because he needed a breather.
But things have changed.
Yant stayed in Lincoln over spring break and worked on his conditioning instead of going home to Florida. He’s eating more healthier food and less Raising Cane’s. He’s understanding the importance of blocking and picking up blitzes, which is vital to a back who wants to be on the field on third down.
“He actually has done a good job of trying to work to get himself in playing shape, but they all have because that’s the standard,” Applewhite said.
It’d be wise not to count out Gabe Ervin Jr.—the first true freshman running back to start a season opener at Nebraska in the modern era—but he’s not 100% healthy yet after suffering a season-ending knee injury at Oklahoma. And what about true freshman Ajay Allen, who will arrive this summer? Applewhite had Allen verbally committed to TCU while he was coaching there, then convinced him to flip to the Huskers on signing day.
There are options at running back, and Applewhite has said he wants to find three guys who can be depended on. Yant will be in that conversation, and he has the tools to be the one to emerge as the top back if he continues to improve both on the field and off.
The defensive line is something to keep an eye on Saturday. It will be interesting to see how that unit does against the run and the offensive linemen they’ll be going against.
Ty Robinson and Casey Rogers will be heavily relied on this fall along the interior. Robinson continues to improve while Rogers is sitting out the spring as he rehabs an injury. But behind those two, there’s a lot of unknown, and that’s not a great feeling in the game of football where depth along the d-line is crucial to being a good defense.
That’s why Nash Hutmacher is such an important part of this. At 325 pounds, Hutmacher has the size and strength to be a productive nose tackle in the Big Ten. He learned from a pretty good one last year in Damion Daniels. But Daniels is gone, and Hutmacher will get an opportunity to show what he can do as a tool to stop the run and eat blocks so the linebackers behind him can clean up.
Will Hutmacher stand his ground against a double team Saturday? Will he control an offensive lineman, shed a block and disrupt the play in the backfield? What will Hutmacher’s conditioning look like?
If Nebraska’s defense wants to replicate what it did last season, Hutmacher will need to be a key part of the interior d-line.