Husker fans got their first taste of this year’s Nebraska football team on Saturday. The team opened Memorial Stadium up to a crowd of about 3,200 fans for the entirety of a practice. Media was also allowed to attend. Greg Smith and I were there for Hail Varsity; here are some of our takeaways from the day.
>> Some housekeeping to get out of the way early on: Nebraska was without a number of skill guys on the day, some we were previously aware of and others not.
At running back, Markese Stepp was obviously still sidelined. He’s expected to miss the entire spring. But third-year back Rahmir Johnson and second-year back Sevion Morrison missed practice again after sitting out the last practice media was allowed to briefly observe. Gabe Ervin Jr., a first-year back Nebraska has been high on throughout the start of spring, was also sidelined.
At wideout, Chris Hickman was out on the field with the team but not dressed to practice. Interestingly, he spent most of the day with the tight ends. Hickman has played both tight end and receiver, but offensive coordinator Matt Lubick said at the beginning of spring Hickman was beginning the period as a wideout.
More notably, second-year receiver Alante Brown had his left arm in a pretty high-tech immobilizer. Brown had been having a nice spring, so it’s unclear what exactly happened and when.
Tamon Lynum, a second-year defensive back, was also out.
As was kicker Connor Culp. That’s a situation worth monitoring closely, as the former LSU transfer stabilized Nebraska’s kicking game in his first year in Lincoln and earned the Big Ten’s Kicker of the Year award.
>> The top takeaway has to be Omar Manning. The former junior college wideout looked in a league of his own on the field Saturday.
He’s physically imposing, impressively fluid, and doesn’t drop anything.
Someone rifled a pass at him early on when he was half-paying attention and he caught it one-handed up by his right ear. He wasn’t running a route or even involved in a drill, he was waiting his turn behind the action in the mass of bodies and somehow a ball was flying in his airspace; he snagged it like it was nothing.
Heinrich Haarberg threw him deep on a post route and Manning caught it through traffic while falling to the ground, maintaining possession the whole way through. Logan Smothers threw a shot up for him that Manning came down with despite being closely covered. He caught a touchdown from Matt Masker. He took a short-route ball away from the 6-foot-4 Braxton Clark.
He’s got that kind of crispness, almost a violence, in his route-running that you see from high-level receivers.
We joked midway through that Nebraska would never show us a practice in which Manning was participating again. Midway through the day you could just feel the anticipation in the lower bowl any time he stepped up to run a 7-on-7 drill or catch a pass. The young man just looks exceptional.
His first year in Lincoln was a bumpy ride, only playing a handful of snaps in one game. And this sort of gets back to what head coach Scott Frost always says on the subject: if he’s available, he’s a special kind of talent. He was available Saturday, and he looked special.
>> Beyond Manning though, the whole lot of wide receivers has its fair share of intrigue.
Zavier Betts, the second-year man from Bellevue West has that same kind of vibe as Manning, the feeling that he’s just a different kind of athlete than what Nebraska’s had at the position in recent years. He got his foot caught by the turf monster on a hitch route early, appearing to tweak something. He was a little easy with it after that moment, but it didn’t seem anything to be worried about.
Samori Toure looked about what I expected—a steady guy in the slot that will be a matchup problem for other defenses.
A few walk-ons made some nice plays, including redshirt freshman Lincoln native Austin Jablonski and first-year guy Barron Miles Jr. On Miles, he might not have the easiest path to playing time this season, but he absolutely looks a player that belongs at this level. Keep him in mind.
Oliver Martin validated the praise he’s been getting so far this spring with an all-around strong day. Levi Falck and Wyatt Liewer got lots of run with the top unit, and so did second-year guy Will Nixon. A coach’s son, Nixon is viewed highly by the Husker coaching staff. He’s got a lot of versatility.
They just have a lot of options in that room for a lot of different looks. Frost said prior to the start of spring practice he thought it was the deepest and most talented group of wideouts he’s had at Nebraska. Nothing through the first three weeks has changed that line of thinking. The group is still very firmly in the “show me” state of things, but I can sort of see where Frost is coming from.
>> Less than ideal throwing conditions on the day, and it was a so-so day for Adrian Martinez and Logan Smothers throwing the ball, I thought. Martinez clearly has command of the offense, and he does look a step quicker.
There were just some balls that hung up in the air too long, just a few misses. Nothing to get worked up over, but nothing really to fawn over.
Haarberg pairs a strong arm with nice anticipation. He threw into a couple windows that weren’t really windows until the ball was halfway to its intended target. I think he’ll close the gap for that backup spot.
>> One of those balls that hung up in the air was picked off, easily the top highlight of the day.
Good lord, Javin Wright. pic.twitter.com/NuXpbwysvc
— Derek Peterson (@DrPeteyHV) April 17, 2021
That’s Javin Wright going up with one hand and coming down with it. Wright is a third-year safety from Arizona. He made one appearance as a freshman in 2019 and then missed all of 2020 with an injury.
Wright has some stuff to his game. He looks a natural fit in the nickel spot JoJo Domann currently occupies. At 6-foot-3, he’s big enough to play as an outside ‘backer and he’s still quick enough to cover. Clearly there’s a good deal of athleticism there.
With Domann once again out, Wright and second-year safety Isaac Gifford were the two guys filling his nickel spot in the defense. Both look capable of holding roles on the defense this upcoming season.
>> Because of all the injuries, limited-availability guys and caution taken with the super-seniors, it’s hard to get a real gauge for where guys are at on the depth chart. A few positions did offer up a little more clarity than we previously had, though.
It looks as though Quinton Newsome might have his nose out in front in the battle for Dicaprio Bootle’s old corner spot. Newsome played heavily with Cam Taylor-Britt, Deontai Williams, and Marquel Dismuke, the trio heavily favored to start in the secondary.
Clark and Nadab Joseph were the next corners up, typically working with Myles Farmer and Noa Pola-Gates as their safety help behind.
Then on the offensive line, things got a little more interesting. Heading into spring ball, it looked like Nebraska had four of the five spots settled. If we’re going to read a lot into what we saw Saturday, it might be more accurate to say Nebraska has three of the five spots settled.
Bryce Benhart at right tackle, Cam Jurgens at center, and Turner Corcoran at left tackle, that was a grouping that never changed. Those guys signal the top unit.
Two different guard pairings worked with them. Early on in practice, it was Brant Banks (right guard) and Broc Bando (left guard) taking the first-team reps. Later, it was Matt Sichterman (right guard) and Ethan Piper (left guard).
Piper held the left guard spot all last season. Trent Hixson had it the year before him, but Hixson worked exclusively as Jurgens’ backup at center on Saturday.
>> Some odds and ends:
- Cam Taylor-Britt and Will Nixon were two guys returning kicks. This might be a spot Alante Brown factors into when healthy. Oliver Martin worked in the role as well.
- Inside linebacker Will Honas was out there some, but not extensively. Chris Kolarevic got some good run in Honas’ absence.
- Garrett Nelson is a joy to watch with his effort and intensity.
- Nebraska has its quarterbacks run through the chute with the running backs, holding the ball high and tight and getting whacked after they’re through. I’m not sure if that’s something they’ve always done, but I certainly noticed it Saturday.
- Pola-Gates had a really nice stick during the Nebraska drill at the start of practice.