Photo Credit: John S. Peterson

Padding the Stats: Players of Interest for Nebraska’s Spring Game

April 19, 2023

Saturday’s Red-White Spring Game will mark the end of Matt Rhule’s first spring in Lincoln, which seems to have flown by.

I won’t be able to watch the game live because of other obligations, but I’m looking forward to watching it back when I get the chance. The Spring Game isn’t always terribly educational as schemes are often bland and established starters usually don’t play a ton of snaps, but it will still be a good opportunity to see the guys we’ve been hearing about for the last four weeks with our own eyes in a game-like setting.

Here are five guys I’m interested to see based on what we heard this spring from the coaches and players themselves.

QB Heinrich Haarberg

Jeff Sims is the newcomer here and the presumed contender for the starting job alongside Casey Thompson (pending the latter’s health), and I could easily go with him here. But I’m intrigued by the pride of Kearney, Nebraska, based on his background and the progress he’s seemingly made.

Nebraska beat out other Power 5 schools for the Kearney Catholic product in the class of 2021, and he spent that first season redshirting. Last year, under new offensive coordinator Mark Whipple, Haarberg seemed to fall through the cracks. He was never really in the conversation when it came to the quarterbacks, to the point where freshman walk-on Jarrett Synek jumped above him on the depth chart.

However, with a new group of coaches evaluating him and a new offensive system, Haarberg appears to have found new life in the Nebraska program. There was speculation about a position change early on in the spring, but he’s locked in at quarterback right now and has drawn plenty of praise from his new coaches.

“Big, physical, athletic,” offensive coordinator Marcus Satterfeld said on Tuesday, describing Haarberg. “He’s not just a runner, he can throw the football as well, so he allows you to be multiple in a lot of things we’re doing offensively. Really pleased with his development thus far through 12 practices.”

I’m looking forward to seeing how those traits translate to the field under this staff. Haarberg probably won’t end up being the opening-day starter come the fall, but a good showing on Saturday in front of the fans could bolster his case to be closer to the top of the depth chart than the bottom during his sophomore season.

RB Gabe Ervin Jr.

We’ve seen what Anthony Grant, Rahmir Johnson and Ajay Allen can all do. However, I’m no sure we know what Nebraska has in Gabe Ervin Jr.

The Georgia native impressed the previous coaching staff enough as a true freshman to earn a couple of starts early in the season. He logged 12 carries for just 33 yards in the season-opener at Illinois then followed that up with six carries for 17 yards against FCS Fordham in week two.

Ervin settled in and had a bit of a breakout game against Buffalo in week three, running the ball 10 times for 56 yards and two scores. However, that proved to be the highlight of his season as he ran the ball nine times for just 18 yards before exiting with a season-ending injury against Oklahoma.

Ervin rehabbed over the offseason, but I’m not sure that we ever saw him 100% healthy and feeling confident last season. With Anthony Grant earning the starting job out of the gates, Ervin logged just two carries for 1 yard in the first three games. He ran the ball seven times for a career-high 60 yards against Oklahoma, but turned six carries into just 21 yards the following week. He did not play in the next four games because of injury then logged just five carries for 12 yards in Nebraska’s last three games.

Ervin is more than a year removed from that first injury and has continued to put in work with the strength and conditioning staff. He’s also drawn plenty of praise from Rhule for his physical running style.

Listed at 6-foot and 215 pounds, he stands out in the running back room where he’s an inch taller and 15 pounds heavier than the next biggest back in Grant (fullback Trevor Ruth excluded). He brings something. Little different than everybody else, and I’m excited to see what that looks like on the field in this new offense.

WR Zavier Betts

Veterans Marcus Washington, Billy Kemp IV and Joshua Fleeks have all played plenty of football throughout their careers (even if the latter two haven’t yet done so in a Husker jersey). We can probably pencil in all three for significant roles come the fall.

I think the biggest wildcard in that room might be Zavier Betts. After flashing the immense physical talent that made him a 4-star recruit coming out of Bellevue West during his first two seasons, Betts left the team prior to last season. After taking over, however, Rhule and his staff met with Betts and welcomed the dynamic athlete back to the team, where he’s shown up multiple times in the media released from practice and has been working at returner in addition to wideout.

If Betts is in good standing (both academically and with the coaching staff), he has a chance to really help this team come the fall. His blend of size (6-foot-2, 200 pounds) and athleticism makes him a downfield target in addition to a guy who can do damage on jet sweeps and similar plays (as we saw during his first stint with the program).

I’m hoping we get to see a huge gain of one sort or another from Betts on Saturday.

LB MJ Sherman

The transfer from Georgia is right near the top of players I’ve enjoyed listening to this spring, and he just so happens to play at one of the more wide open positions on the team in the jack linebacker spot.

Nebraska lost all three of its primary edge rushers last season in Garrett Nelson, Ochaun Mathis and Caleb Tannor, so the snaps are certainly there for the taking, and Sherman was frank about the opportunity to see the field being the factor that drew him to Lincoln after entering the transfer portal.

Nebraska has been in desperate need of a dynamic pass rusher since… Randy Gregory? Could Sherman be that guy? Listed at 6-foot-3 and 250 pounds, Sherman played in every game during Georgia’s back-to-back national championship seasons, though he saw most of his action on special teams with a few defensive snaps here and there. At Nebraska, the former 4-star recruit should have every opportunity to earn a starting job.

I’m excited to see what Tony White’s defense looks like in general and specifically how the defensive staff uses that jack position. Jimari Butler and Maverick Noonan both intrigue me as well, but I gave the nod to the most experienced member of the trio.

DL AJ Rollins

I’ll stick with he defensive front for my final pick as well. AJ Rollins, the pride of Omaha Creighton Prep, was one of a handful of players who experimented at different positions during the spring. In fact, he was one of the few players to don a gray jersey, signifying the ability to play on either side of the ball at any given time.

However, that didn’t last long as the former tight end went from a gray jersey to a red one, signifying a potential permanent move to defensive line.

In high school, Rollins played on both sides of the ball, showing significant potential even if he wasn’t particularly prolific from a statistical standpoint. He spent his first two seasons at Nebraska building up his body and sharpening his skills, playing in two games during his redshirt year and five games last season, though he did not record a catch.

The new staff decided to try him out on defense and it appears to have stuck as Rhule raved about what he had shown at that position early in spring ball. Like I said above, Nebraska needs pass rushers, and if Rollins can provide that he could earn his way onto the field come the fall.

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