Photo Credit: John S. Peterson

Questions Answered Following Nebraska Football’s Open Practice

April 18, 2021

One practice. It’s important to beat that tired drum. It was one practice and there were a lot of guys who will play regular roles come the fall who were not in the fold on Saturday. Depth chart thoughts will have to wait, as that picture in a lot of places is still pretty hazy. (Though the guard pairings were interesting; more on that later.) But there were still things to be learned Saturday. 

I got a few questions, and I’m gonna do my best to answer them here. 

What were your thoughts on Omar (Manning)? Have we had a wide receiver like him at Nebraska recently? — Ty 

Immediate answer is no, Nebraska has not had a guy who looked like the Omar Manning I watched on Saturday. 

Those kinds of statements always come across as a sort of knock on the other talents that have been in Lincoln in years past, and I don’t mean them that way. Stanley Morgan Jr. was awesome for Nebraska, but he and Manning are different receivers. JD Spielman was also awesome for Nebraska, but he and Manning are not even comparable as receiver types. Same goes for Wan’Dale Robinson. 

Those guys were really good, all three of them. Omar Manning is also really good, but I think the distinction is that he can be incredibly beneficial to this offense in the way he’s really good. 

Manning is 6-foot-4 and he looks it. He’s sturdy and yet really quick. He attacks the ball and doesn’t wait for it to reach his body. He high-points the ball. I didn’t see him drop a catchable ball in his orbit. I did see him take two passes that should have been interceptions and turn them into big completions. 

He’s got to be on the field for Nebraska in 2021. He looked every bit the receiver we were told to expect when he signed as the top-rated JUCO wideout in the 2020 class. After a tumultuous first year in Lincoln, it was cool to see him breeze around the practice field Saturday, smiling and taking in the fan appreciation every time he touched a ball. 

Those good vibes gotta linger. He will completely change Nebraska’s offense if he’s consistently on the field in the fall. 

The interplay between him and Samori Toure is particularly intriguing. Just from the brief interactions between the two we were able to see, those two guys get along. And Toure in the slot is a real thing. He got a couple favorable matchups in 7-on-7s and was able to create some good separation. 

Picturing those two on the same side of the formation, it’s not hard to rationalize why Scott Frost is excited about this group of wideouts. 

The whole picture looked good. 

Didn’t read or see much on Zavier Betts. Was he just not targeted much? Or just nothing of particular note? — Chaz

He was out there, just limited after a little ankle/foot thing from early on in practice. He tried to turn out of his route to the boundary and his foot got caught in the turf. He still caught the ball even while off-balance and falling down. Should be fine.

Add Betts to the category of guys who just look a little different. Maybe Nebraska wants to put a little more weight on him, but Betts’ athletic ability is promising. 

It’ll be curious to see what his role is in 2021 because Nebraska very much likes Oliver Martin and Wyatt Liewer as outside receivers, too. Martin had a really sure-handed day; he got open a few times and the ball found him. It seems like he has a really good rapport with the quarterbacks, he was targeted often. 

Levi Falck is also there. Alante Brown will factor in when he’s healthy. Barron Miles Jr. is a guy to keep in mind. He looks like a player, and he had some nice reps. 

“I feel real comfortable saying that’s the best talent we’ve had in that room since I’ve been here and probably in a long time,” Frost said before Nebraska went through its first spring practice.

After getting an extended look at them, with most of the room available, I don’t think it’s as bold of a statement as I did when I first heard it. 

Everything I read and saw led me to believe (Heinrich) Haarberg is the future. Early to say but what’s your opinion on that? — David

I thought he’d have a chance to do what he’s doing before he got here. That’s not to sound uppity, but to say he was a guy who was pretty hurt by the timing of the COVID shutdown. Coaches didn’t see the Kearney Catholic prospect throw in person until he was a Nebraska football player. 

He didn’t get to go to camps and show up other throwers with more publicity. I’d imagine the recruiting services looked at a local Nebraska kid with a Nebraska alum for a father who was committed to Nebraska before his senior season of high school ball and thought, “Why bother?” Most of the time on Fridays, it was just myself and the Kearney Hub watching him. 

Now he’s in Lincoln and people are starting to see first-hand the kind of natural ability he has. He’s a prototypical quarterback by size with a clean stroke and nice anticipation. 

He missed some on Saturday and looked a freshman. He just needs to master the playbook. I firmly believe Haarberg can absolutely be a starting quarterback for Nebraska during his time here. 

Any sign of Henry Lutovsky? — Steven

Oh yeah. It was hard to miss the freshman because he doesn’t look like a freshman. The former 3-star lineman from Iowa is impressive in-person. He and fellow early-arriving 2021 o-lineman Teddy Prochazka both. It might be a bit before either sees the field, but those two in particular sort of served as the real-world validation for the on-paper narrative that Nebraska has added size. 

Sometimes you get guys with listed measurables who don’t really look the part, and sometimes you get guys who are just imposing in person in ways you weren’t expecting. Nebraska’s offensive line fits the latter description almost across the board. 

You can really clearly see the profiles Nebraska wants at tackle and guard when they’re all working together. Prochazka and Jimmy Fritzsche and Bryce Benhart and Turner Corcoran are all lean with huge, stout bases. The interior linemen like Lutovsky and Ethan Piper are just huge. 

That group projects as another deep one, and it looked as though a couple of guard pairings has emerged. Piper worked at left guard with Matt Sichterman at right guard, and Brant Banks worked at right guard with Broc Bando on the left. 

It’s hard to say which group is the first group—it’s still very early—but it’s interesting that in a group where we thought all but one position was locked up, that might not be the case. Banks in particular worked all over the line. Nebraska really likes him.

Is Nebraska gonna make a bowl game? — Matt

It should. Will it? I don’t know. Crazy s*** has happened in Lincoln in the last four or five seasons. But it should. 

And not just because this is Scott Frost’s fourth year and if he doesn’t make a bowl game in year four then blah blah blah, but because this looks like a decent football team. 

On the offensive line, as just discussed, there appears to be size and depth. Strength coach Zach Duval has done well here. 

At wide receiver, there is real talent. 

At linebacker, there is real talent and depth. Third-year outside linebacker Garrett Nelson is just everywhere all the time. Northern Iowa transfer Chris Kolarevic is probably going to be a fan favorite this season at inside ‘backer. Third-year linebacker Luke Reimer is already a fan favorite, you hope he takes another step. 

At defensive back, nothing I saw from the next five up—safeties Myles Farmer and Noa Pola-Gates, and corners Braxton Clark, Nadab Joseph, and Quinton Newsome—gave me any reason to dial back my optimism for the secondary in 2021. 

Health is obviously important. JoJo Domann has to be available even if Javin Wright and Isaac Gifford look good operating his nickel position. The skill talent has to be available, and the running back room is operating at like 20% capacity right now. 

The quarterback spot is important. Breaking news, right? Nothing ground-breaking from Adrian Martinez on Saturday. He missed some throws. But they know what needs to be done this upcoming season, and only the Illini defense on Saturday, Aug. 28, can really show us if that job is going to get done. 

I’m thinking your question, Matt, was in jest, but it’s fine to talk about expectations at this point. I didn’t walk out of practice feeling like this was an eight-win team or a seven-win team or a 9-win team or whatever. I tend to fall right about where FPI fell—6-6, a team with potential but real questions that we’ll just have to wait to get answers to. 

But I did leave with a little more optimism about the talent and depth at a few spots, and with a little more clarity on how Nebraska is attacking things in practice. Special teams is absolutely an emphasis; Mike Dawson is taking ownership, and Frost was right up in the thick of it rather than being a helicopter head coach. The quarterbacks run through ball-security work with the running backs. 

Just based on the way this team looks, the expectation should be bowl game. No excuses. 

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