Photo Credit: John S. Peterson

3 Thoughts on What We Saw at Nebraska’s Spring Game

April 09, 2022

Nebraska held its annual Red-White spring game on Saturday. The program has been hit with injuries this spring, so without enough healthy bodies to easily make two separate teams, the coaching staff simply pitted the offense against the defense.

Below are observations from the scrimmage, followed by three thoughts.

Observations

>> As the recruits started trickling on to Tom Osborne Field, the quarterbacks were out throwing routes to the receivers as offensive coordinator Mark Whipple looked on. Whether it means anything or not, Casey Thompson, a transfer from Texas, was the first in every drill the group did. That includes under-center handoff drills, where his center was Trent Hixson and his running back was Jaquez Yant. Thompson’s passes had zip, and for the most part, were accurate, especially out-routes to the sideline.

One of Thompson’s passes, to LSU transfer receiver Trey Palmer, was off the mark. Thompson turned to Palmer, patted himself on the chest, as if to say, “My bad.”

There was a group of four Husker commits who were on the field before everyone else watching the quarterbacks and receivers work, including 2022 class signees Emmett Johnson, a running back, and receivers Decoldest Crawford and Janiran Bonner. Also among them, Nebraska’s 2023 class quarterback, William “Pop” Watson, a 6-foot, 180-pound dual-threat.

>> Marques Buford Jr., a strong candidate to start at safety this season, took his helmet off after a drill and was leaping and bounding for about 15 yards to the back of the end zone. Why? To hug a small group of people that were watching in the back of the end zone. Buford obviously knew the group and was very excited to see them.

>> As the team made its way to the gates for the Tunnel Walk, head coach Scott Frost was flanked by two players, Thompson and corner Quinton Newsome, who figures to be the leader of the Huskers’ defensive backs room.

>> Offensive lineman Ethan Piper was unavailable during the game. He had a sling around his left arm.

Here’s the offense vs. defense scoring system that the team used:

Without further ado, here are three thoughts from Saturday’s Red-White spring game:

Was it a good pass rush, or protection problems?

Outside linebacker Garrett Nelson lived in the backfield and had his way with tackle Brant Banks on multiple occasions. Outside ‘backer Caleb Tannor swung around tackle Bryce Benhart like he was shot out of a cannon. Outside ‘backer Jimari Butler easily got past lineman Ezra Miller for what would’ve been a sack in a real football game.

But that’s the point—it wasn’t a real football game, which makes it hard to make any judgements on anyone. Was Saturday a display of good pass rush, or poor protection from an offensive line that struggled against it last season and is down two potential starters in Turner Corcoran and Teddy Prochazka?

Maybe there was a little of both.

Last season was Nelson’s best as a Husker—he had career-highs in tackles (57), tackles for loss (11.5) and sacks (5). The Scottsbluff native has steadily improved each year he’s been in Lincoln. On Saturday, the 6-foot-3, 245-pounder looked like a wrecking ball off the edge and was credited with two sacks. He’s the heartbeat of the defense—and maybe the team—and looked the part.

Tannor will never be as big as Nelson. But what the 6-3, 225-pound Tannor has more of than Nelson is speed, and especially burst. He showed that on Saturday. Butler, who had one sack and six tackles, is an intriguing—but young and inexperienced—outside ‘backer at 6-5, 245 pounds who figures to get more opportunities this season after Pheldarius Payne transferred to Virginia Tech.

Generating sacks has been a problem for the Huskers recently. Last season they only had 20, which ranked 12th in the Big Ten and 101st in the country. Saturday’s scrimmage made one wonder what Nelson, Tannor and possibly Butler could do next season. Throw a guy like Blaise Gunnerson in there as well.

Not surprising, but we didn’t learn much about the quarterbacks

There’s never much to be taken from spring games, especially these days. Coaches don’t want opposing coaches watching, which is understandable.

With that in mind, it’s not surprising that we didn’t learn much about the quarterbacks on Saturday. Thompson attempted only four passes, completing three for 31 yards. Logan Smothers, who started last season’s season finale against Iowa, went 5-of-14 for 46 yards. Chubba Purdy, the transfer from Florida State, was 5-of-10 for 63 yards, and had maybe the best throw of the day, a 27-yard completion to tight end AJ Rollins, who made a great grab and held on to the ball after safety Myles Farmer swiped at it late. Smothers had a throw that was right on the money, too, but it fell incomplete as the receiver and defensive back fought for it.

Let Yant loose 

Each time Jaquez Yant got a carry, it looked like he wanted to run over everyone in the stadium: teammates, coaches, fans—everyone. But he couldn’t, because it’s a spring game and that’s not allowed, at least not when he was in the game. When he was touched, the whistles blew.

Yant finished with 11 carries for 29 yards and his longest run was just 5 yards. It would be interesting to see what those numbers looked like if it wasn’t two-hand touch.

Being a physical runner will be allowed, however, when Nebraska plays Northwestern in Dublin, Ireland, on Aug. 27. Yant looked good and was moving well. His unique blend of power and moves was easy to see Saturday.

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