Photo Credit: John Peterson

Nelson and a Yant-Grant Combo Provide Positive Vibes at Huskers’ Spring Game

April 09, 2022

Spring games are best experienced as vignettes rather than as full-length features. It’s not fair to expect a relatively complete, self-contained story. That’s what we get weekly in the fall.

In the spring, we get moments. Here are a few that caught my eye Saturday and spurred a few thoughts about Nebraska football in 2022.

Garrett Nelson might be Nebraska’s best player in 2022. I thought that was possible before today, but Nelson’s two sacks in the first half only bolstered his case. The outside linebacker’s growth over three seasons has been steady and consistent.

As a true freshman, it was clear Nelson had a souped-up motor and endless supply of effort but the mental adjustment to major college football was still in progress. That piece came along as a sophomore, and Nelson started to make a few more plays during the bizarre season that was 2020. Another year later, he showed additional gains. His TFLs per game nearly doubled in 2021. In terms of guys who pop, Nelson pops.

And it’s clear he takes his leadership role seriously, too, even though Nelson’s default setting might lean more towards life of the party.

During a sideline interview in the second half, Nelson was asked what he wants Nebraska fans to know about him.

“My favorite food is watermelon,” he said.

And then, “If we’re going to be serious, for the Husker faithful, as a leader and older guy I just want to have this team exemplify the people of this state and how hard they work . . . I want this team to represent that, and I want to lead that.”

It’s hard to be good in the Big Ten if you’re average on the offensive line. It would be silly to say anything on Saturday told us if the Huskers’ o-line will or won’t be better than average in 2022, but after some attention-grabbing praise for that group this spring, I thought maybe there would be some hints of promise in this scrimmage.

Maybe there will be on a re-watch, but I come out of Saturday with the same offseason mantra I entered with: “It’s hard to be good in this league if you’re average on the offensive line.” I think the fate of this team might ride on it.

We can all agree that Nebraska needs to be good in 2022, right?

Grant and Yant are an intriguing combo. Both are powerful, behind-the-pads-type runners but nimble enough to flash some big-play potential. It was tough to assess the run game on Saturday without tackling in the first half, but Anthony Grant’s 60-yard touchdown run wasn’t. Tackle or touch, the jump cut he made to open space for himself was impressive.

Jaquez Yant is still mostly known for his size at this point—and his efforts to keep it in check—but his 64-yard run against Northwestern last year was the longest by a Husker running back in 2021 . . . by a lot.

You still wouldn’t expect a Yant and Grant combo—which does have a nice ring to it—to produce a ton of home runs in the run game, but is that such a bad thing in the Big Ten? Having a pair of punishing backs?

In 2021, the average Big Ten rush gained 4.76 yards (sacks removed) and 12.5% of all rushes were what I’d define as explosive (10-plus yards). In the other four power conferences, the average rush gained 5.27 yards and 15.8% of those were explosive. That means running the ball in the Big Ten was about 10% harder than in other power conferences and about 20% less likely to result in a big gain, and those aren’t one-year quirks. It’s almost always that way.

We all love long runs, but if Yant and Grant are capable of being consistent grind-it-out guys, it’s not the worst thing in Nebraska’s conference. Rahmir Johnson, who also had a pretty nice day, will have something to say about that as will Gabe Ervin Jr. when he returns, but it wouldn’t take a lot to convince me that big and bold isn’t the way to go in the backfield.

And if their last names rhyming isn’t enough, there’s more symmetry. Grant spent two seasons at Florida State before transferring and Yant is from Tallahassee. There’s just a lot about this that adds up.

The color-coded quarterbacks offered a pretty clear indication of where things stand in that competition and it wasn’t surprising. Casey Thomposon, Logan Smothers and Chubba Purdy were in green no-contact jerseys, the rest in red and that group handled all of the second half.

There wasn’t a lot to separate the top three contenders performance-wise. Thompson only attempted four passes, completing three, but it seems clear from how he’s talked about, and how he carries himself, that if Nebraska played a real game tomorrow he’d be the guy. Smothers had the most pass attempts, and lowest completion percentage, but he seemed most at peace in the pocket which is something likely to be important under new offensive coordinator Mark Whipple.

Purdy, perhaps, showed the most promise. The Florida State transfer had been limited in practice until recently, but showed some good touch and accuracy on a few throws. I don’t think there’s much mystery at quarterback going into the offseason, but for now we can enter that stretch thinking the Huskers have something that’s pretty rare in today’s game—multiple options if needed.

Only 140 days until we get to do this for real in Ireland.

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