Spring ball is in the books for Nebraska with Saturday’s Red-White Spring Game offering a look at where the program stands after 15 practices.
Derek Peterson offered his gut reactions in his column, and I’m using my own to lay out some key questions that still need answers as the Huskers move into the next phase of the offseason.
What kind of quarterback play is Nebraska going to get?
We’ll start with the positive: Adrian Martinez looked quick, am I right?
Got curious about how Martinez’ speed compared, so I watched some 2018 #Huskers. Same QB T-Wrap/Dart RPO w/ RB travel motion.
2021 Spring Game 2018 NU vs CU pic.twitter.com/1yQSMlvuFN
— GBR_Sec601Row1 (@GBR_Sec601Row1) May 2, 2021
Even without the ability to break tackles he picked up 49 yards on nine carries in his half of work. He already appears to have built up some nice chemistry with Samori Toure with a 27-yard catch on the transfer’s first target of the game (and three receptions for 47 yards in total).
Unfortunately, there were still a couple of plays that gave me pause. The backwards throwaway out of bounds is one; even on a windy day that’s a mistake that just can’t happen, especially when Martinez knows he can’t get hit. It’s the kind of boneheaded play that has prevented Martinez from finding the consistency Nebraska needs of him.
The other that stood out to me was the missed touchdown throw to Omar Manning in the back of the end zone where he fired a rocket just out of Manning’s reach. Led by Martinez, the Red team’s second and third drives stalled out in the end zone and they had to settle for field goals. Nebraska has struggled mightily in the red zone the last few years, and a lot of that is on a lack of execution between quarterback and receiver.
Cutting down on catastrophic mistakes and executing better in the red zone are the two areas in which Martinez needs to make the biggest strides, and we won’t know if he’s done that until the bullets start flying for real in the fall.
Regardless, there’s no question Martinez is the starter. The depth chart behind him is a different story. Both Logan Smothers and Heinrich Haarberg showed some flashes but failed to to put together a great performance in the spring game.
Smothers completed eight of his 14 passes for 76 yards, but he did hook up with Brody Belt on a nice throw for a touchdown. Smothers has a full year’s head start on Haarberg in the program to familiarize himself with the offense, and the coaches like him on the recruiting trail for a reason.
Haarberg struggled with accuracy, only completing nine of his 23 passes for 121 yards and an interception. However, he also stepped up late, finding Wyatt Liewer on back-to-back plays, first for a 40-yard gain and then for a 25-yard game-winning touchdown. In Liewer’s words, “the kid’s got a cannon.”
That competition is clearly going to extend into the fall. Both have talent; who will be able to consistently show the coaches what they want to see?
How does Nebraska generate a pass rush?
Nebraska returns most of its contributors on defense, and with that much experience the Blackshirts should be pretty salty this season. In order for Erik Chinander’s crew to take the step forward he’s hoping for, however, Nebraska needs to find a way to put more pressure on opposing quarterbacks.
The Huskers were ninth in the Big Ten in sacks in 2020 with 1.63 per game (13.0 total). Can they climb into the top half of the conference in 2021?
On Saturday, Caleb Tannor recorded two tackles for loss including a sack. Is he ready to live up to the potential that had him labeled as a 4-star recruit coming out of high school? Will the production match the effort for Garrett Nelson? Does Nebraska use JoJo Domann in coverage less and send him after the quarterback more (I’d personally like to see that route)? Will Pheldarius Payne get a little more burn?
Will Honas and Luke Reimer (two inside linebackers) combined for 5.0 sacks (Honas led the team with 3.0). Outside ‘backers Tannor, Nelson and Payne combined for just 4.5. In 2019, Nebraska’s top three sack producers were defensive linemen while outside linebackers totaled just 5.0 combined (2.5 apiece for Domann and Tannor). In 2018, Luke Gifford recorded 5.5 sacks himself.
Nebraska needs more out of that outside linebacker position. Veterans will likely get the first shot at providing that, but they better take advantage because some of the young guys looking to work their way up the depth chart show some real promise. I thought Blaise Gunnerson had a really good day on Saturday (three tackles including a sack) and fellow second-year freshman Jimari Butler recorded a sack and a quarterback hurry as well.
Who carries the ball come the fall?
This question was never going to have an answer this spring with USC transfer Markese Stepp unable to even participate, but I’m not sure I know any more about the position now than I did before the spring game.
On Saturday, I thought every tailback that touched the ball showed something.
Marvin Scott III carried the ball 11 times for 75 yards and a touchdown, and he showed off some newfound big-play ability with a 39-yard trot that featured a spin move and a couple of broken tackles.
Fellow second-year back Sevion Morrison ran it eight times for 38 yards and caught one pass for 12 yards.
Ronald Thompkins picked up 32 yards on four carries including a 13-yard gain.
True freshman Gabe Ervin Jr. led everyone with 12 carries and turned them into 57 yards.
Even walk-ons Jaquez Yant, Isaiah Harris, Trevin Luben, Cooper Jewett and Beau Psencik made some big plays.
Like Stepp, Rahmir Johnson was in street clothes on Staurday, and he has as much experience as anyone in that room.
I probably feel a bit better about the position after Saturday’s game, but I don’t feel that picture is any clearer. I could see any combination of those backs (including Stepp and Johnson) forming the rotation once the season arrives. Ryan Held still has a lot of things to sort out.
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.