Nebraska should have played a (practice) football game in front 70,000-plus fans at Memorial Stadium on Saturday. Instead, the Huskers had to broadcast a virtual game thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The simulated game ended up being pretty cool, but it’s still a poor substitute for the real thing. Saturday’s simulation celebrated stars of the past while the real Spring Game creates new ones — at least for a day.
Jack Hoffman is the greatest example of this with Bo Pelini’s cat a strong number two, but every year players rise up and make a name for themselves. Last year, Jaylin Bradley and Brody Belt led their teams in rushing, Wyatt Liewer and Kade Warner both had 50-plus-yard receptions and Reid Karel and Quayshon Alexander tied for the game-high in tackles.
The team’s star players rarely see enough playing time to have a big day statistically, which opens the door for lesser-known and younger players to put on a show. Who might those players have been had Nebraska gotten to hold the spring game as planned? Here are my best guesses.
Nebraska wasn’t exactly slated to have a deep running back group this spring with Dedrick Mills, Rahmir Johnson and Ronald Thompkins the only scholarship backs on campus. Even if Thompkins is fully healthy, I doubt the coaches would risk playing him much if at all, and as the expected starter I doubt Mills would have played too much either.
Coming off a redshirt year that showed both promise and plenty of areas that needed improvement, I think Saturday could have been a breakout day for Johnson. I’m guessing he would have been the No. 2 back on the Red Team and thus would have gotten to run behind the better offensive line. With a full winter conditioning period and spring under his belt, I think we would have seen a couple of big runs from Johnson.
Brody Belt likely would have gotten plenty of run once again, but I think walk-on redshirt freshman Zach Weinmaster might have led all backs in rushing if it wasn’t Johnson. He put up crazy numbers at Loveland High School in Colorado and impressed running backs coach Ryan Held with his work in practice last season, even seeing the field as a kick returner in a couple of games.
As for wide receivers, Wan’Dale Robinson doesn’t have anything to prove and certainly doesn’t need any extra mileage on his legs. Omar Manning, Zavier Betts, Marcus Fleming and Will Nixon are all summer enrollees. That leaves Jamie Nance, Demariyon Houston, Chris Hickman and Alante Brown as the other scholarship wideouts eligible for the game.
Of that group, I like Nance as a guy who might have broken out. After catching two passes for 13 yards in his first spring game as an early enrollee, a full year of strength and conditioning should have served him well and I think the’s got the speed and agility to get open and make plays. Among the walk-ons, I think Christian Banker could have had himself a big day and caught four or five balls as a possession receiver. He was a terrific player at Omaha Skutt and has put three years of work in including plenty of extra time on the jugs machine after practice.
Adrian Martinez’s participation would have depended largely on how healthy he was coming off an offseason surgery and the spring practices, but regardless I think Luke McCaffrey would have put up the biggest numbers among the quarterbacks. McCaffrey struggled mightily in his first spring game last season as an early enrollee, but he was terrific in the limited playing time he got during the season. McCaffrey probably would have suited up for the Red team and played more snaps than either Martinez or Noah Vedral. I think the coaches would have opened up the playbook a bit more and given him the chance to make a few throws he didn’t during the regular season in addition to whatever work he would have done with his legs.
Defensively, I think we would have seen a lot of redshirt freshmen make their mark, starting with Nick Henrich if he was healthy. The standout inside linebacker struggled with injuries throughout spring ball and the regular season last year, but I think he’d have been eager to make up for lost time and would have shown why he was such a highly-regarded recruit.
Among the walk-ons, I’ll say Simon Otte, the outside linebacker from York, would have been all over the field and made his presence felt. He’s undersized but as tough as anyone on the team. Luke Reimer is another liebacker whose name we likely would have heard quite often on Saturday as the walk-on from lincoln North Star is one of the better pure athletes in Barret Ruud’s room.
In the secondary, I think we would have seen Noa Pola-Gates fly around and make some plays. I’m going to call my shot and say Quinton Newsome would have recorded an interception as well, especially if he got to play on the Red team.
What say you? Who do you think was poised to etch their names into Spring Game lore had Nebraska been able to complete spring ball and hold the scrimmage?
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.