We’re a little under a month removed from spring ball. The gut reactions have subsided and there’s been some time to digest everything seen and heard. That seemed as good a time as any to revisit the positional scores we had going into the spring.
Groups were graded on a 10-point scale in terms of their perceived strength heading into the start of organized practices. The quarterbacks and tight ends had the two highest scores. Let’s add one group to that bunch.
Pre-Spring Score: 9/10
When you start a rebuild in any sport, you need a foundational piece. Depending on the sport, you need a couple. If it’s football, you really need that piece to be at quarterback. Nebraska has that. The cross-country flight [Scott] Frost made from Florida to California to flip a Tennessee commit the night he got the Nebraska job will only continue to grow in legend as [Adrian] Martinez’s legacy grows.
Nebraska hit the jackpot with him. I think this offseason and upcoming 2019 campaign will go a long way toward determining when everyone gets that payout.
Everything we thought about Adrian Martinez is still true. He’s still special. He’s got the third-best odds from Vegas to win the Heisman. Nothing about spring ball did anything to slow the ever-building excitement about an encore to his Freshman All-American season.
But the room seems stronger, and it’s not because of Martinez.
One of the biggest takeaways from the April 13 spring game was the notion that Nebraska now had more depth at quarterback than it has had in a long time.
Noah Vedral, a third-year sophomore who’s been with Frost all three years, showed complete command of the offense when it was his time to shine. Luke McCaffrey, a freshman likely destined for a redshirt season in 2019, showed flashes. He’ still raw but had a nice ball off his back foot with pressure bearing down on him that probably should have been a touchdown if not for a great close from corner Lamar Jackson, and he can clearly be a threat with his legs. Matt Masker had the highlight touchdown of the day and Andrew Bunch adds experience
Martinez also didn’t have the turnover problems this spring that plagued him last year.
Strong group. They probably should have gotten a perfect score heading into spring, I just liked a different group just a little better. But there are zero questions surrounding the quarterback spot and a guy in Martinez who could be one of the best in college football in 2019.
Post-Spring Score: 10/10
Pre-Spring Score: 6/10 and then 8/10 after the signing of Wan’Dale Robinson
Like the quarterback position, Nebraska has talent. Unlike the quarterback position, Nebraska has things that need replacing. This score has the potential to rise as we move through the offseason and get spring football out of the way but when you lose almost two-thirds of your production, it’s hard to overlook initially.
Production-wise, Nebraska is returning only 31.7 percent of carries, 29.5 percent of yards and 25 percent of last season’s touchdowns. Devine Ozigbo was that much of a workhorse.
Nothing about the spring provided any answers as to who could be the new workhorse, who would get all those extra carries, who would pick up the slack or who would even get the first snap.
Maurice Washington didn’t play as he continues to deal with a legal case in California. It’s just as likely he misses time at the start of the regular season as it is he’s a full participant from Day 1 of fall camp. Which isn’t the best situation to be in because Washington had things he needed to work on this offseason. During his freshman year, despite the flashes, he was still a utility back. He needs size and strength and a little bit more consistency to be the kind of every-down guy Ozigbo was.
How much improvement is being made this offseason?
The trio of incoming backs — Dedrick Mills, Rahmir Johnson, Ronald Thompkins — have been in constant contact with position coach Ryan Held, they have the playbook and have hopefully been getting up to speed, but those guys are still unknowns.
It doesn’t seem as if Jaylin Bradley used that opportunity he had this spring to seize the top spot, Robinson is playing more at wide receiver than running back and redshirt freshman walk-on Brody Belt was the talk of the group in the spring.
This room feels rather shaky. The talent is still there, but so are a lot of questions.
Post-Spring Score: 5/10
Pre-Spring Score: 6/10
Pretty much the same as the running back spot. There’s a clear-cut No. 1 option, I like the talent behind that No. 1, but there are roles that need filling and I don’t know how the pieces will look together yet.
I could run through Stanley Morgan Jr.’s accolades again but most probably already know them by now. He was half of the Husker passing game last year, at least as it relates to wideouts.
JD Spielman and Wan’Dale Robinson are the two sure things at the position. Everyone else is trying to make their name known. Redshirt freshman Andre Hunt seemed like the big winner of spring ball, so we’ll see if that translate to a consistent rotation spot in the fall. Mostly though, no one outside of Spielman and Robinson did enough to lock up any spots. Darien Chase and Demariyon Houston will come in with plenty to play for, but that leaves us without a ton of confidence in the room’s options or depth.
Post-Spring Score: 5/10
Pre-Spring Score: 10/10
I like this room. And with another offseason for everyone in it to build chemistry with Martinez, build confidence within the offense and build some strength with Zach Duval, I think Beckton’s bunch has the potential to be one of Nebraska’s strongest position groups from top-to-bottom.
It has an established leader in [Jack] Stoll, matchup-problems and utility players in [Austin] Allen, [Kurt] Rafdal and [Katerian] LeGrone and a young guy with enormous potential in [Chris] Hickman.
This is the one that caught a lot of flak (shout out Jacob Padilla). How is a group whose leader only caught 21 of his 37 targets a year ago for just 245 yards and three scores the strongest on the team? Heading into spring ball, I didn’t think the top tight end was better than the top quarterback — not by a long shot — but instead thought this group, from top to bottom, had the fewest question marks of any other group the Huskers have.
I still think that. In fact, I have no questions about position coach Sean Beckton’s room. Hickman is nursing a high school injury, so he wasn’t expected to play in spring ball. But the guys who did made real progress. Stoll could legitimately be one of the top pass-catchers this season. LeGrone made, according to Beckton, as much growth as anyone. During the spring game, Nebraska used two-tight end formations early and often.
Tight end is going to be a serious position of strength in the fall.
Post-Spring Score: 10/10
Pre-Spring Score: 4/10
There are entirely too many question marks with the group. Four of the five positions could very well be up for grabs this offseason and most of the options are unproven. There’s room for this to rise, but this is a group to monitor closely.
Let’s run through the five spots on the line:
- Left tackle is unquestionably Brenden Jaimes’ job.
- Left guard seems to have become walk-on Trent Hixson’s to lose.
- Center seems to be Cameron Jurgens’ to lose.
- Right guard is once again Boe Wilson’s job, after filling in last year when Tanner Farmer slid over to center.
- Left tackle is Matt Farniok’s spot and he’s not moving inside to guard.
So we have the line. It feels safe to assume this is going to be the starting line against South Alabama. Bryce Benhart coming in and displacing Farniok at tackle seems the only way Farniok moves inside to guard, which is for some reason something several in the media desperately want.
Farniok has also emerged as a vocal leader with not just the offensive linemen but with the entire team. So points there.
Everything on the line hinges on Jurgens’ development. After going through spring ball seemingly completely healthy, Nebraska would like for him to be the guy. There are undoubtedly going to be some growing pains there, still, but this group appears a little more stable than it was heading in.
Post-Spring Score: 5/10
Pre-Spring Score: 5/10
Losing [Mick] Stoltenberg will be tough from an off-the-field perspective; that will be an under-the-radar thing this room will have to work through. If [Ben] Stille is going to make that jump, it’s going to have to be this year, because outside of him, I don’t know who the playmaker is of this bunch.
Before spring ball started, I wrote that outside of Oklahoma State grad transfer Darrion Daniels, Nebraska would largely be working with what it already had on the line, and what it didn’t have was that one guy who could wreck an offensive gameplan.
Think AJ Epenesa at Iowa. The upper-level teams in the Big Ten have household names on their defensive lines. Nebraska doesn’t. Eight of the top 10 Big Ten defenders in terms of tackles for loss last season were defensive linemen. Nebraska didn’t have a guy from its line in the top-30. Linebackers in this scheme get to make the splash plays, but the Huskers still need movement and havoc-creation from their front three.
I wondered where that would come from. I don’t anymore. Darrion Daniels looks like a Day 1 starter and the kind of defensive tackle who could be a game-changer for this defense. Playing with his brother Damion has both motivated Darrion and put Damion in the best position possible. Line coach Tony Tuioti affectionately calls the younger Daniels brother “Snacks,” and says he doesn’t want to run him more than five or six plays without getting him a rest. Darrion allows Damion to go all out for those five or six reps, get a breather and it won’t cost the defense.
Between the Daniels brothers, the Davis brothers, Deontre Thomas and Ben Stille, Nebraska has the makings of a strength-by-comittee defensive line.
Post-Spring Score: 8/10
Pre-Spring Score: 6.5/10
The room has the defense's best player. Outside of that, it’s a mixed bag — talent, depth issues, youth.
This is still right on the money.
Mohamed Barry is the heart and soul of the defense. He’s likely going to be a team captain and he’s one of the best players in the entire locker room. Collin Miller looked ready to step in as the No. 2 inside linebacker, but behind him there isn’t a ton of proven depth. Will Honas is still recovering from ACL surgery and now freshman Nick Henrich is on the shelf for most of the remainder of the offseason. Joey Johnson is a walk-on name to watch but that feels like more of a wait-and-see situation rather than a reliable piece of depth at the moment.
At outside backer, Tyrin Ferguson and JoJo Domann and Alex Davis all seem like capable players, but each of them has baggage. Ferguson and Domann have to prove they can stay healthy and Davis has to prove he can be the guy once the season starts. Replacing Luke Gifford won’t be easy.
Post-Spring Score: 6.5/10
Pre-Spring Score: 7/10
The lack of an established star caps the current score, but this is looking like a group with a high ceiling. We went from serious worry to confidence in less than a year's time. [Travis] Fisher has done really well.
I still don’t know if there’s a “star” of the group, per se, but there are some really good football players in position coach Travis Fisher’s room. To name a few: senior Lamar Jackson (turned a corner), junior Dicaprio Bootle (became a leader), sophomore Cam Taylor (also became a leader), junior Deontai Williams (continued to be a playmaker) and junior Marquel Dismuke (continued to hit the teeth off people).
Taylor started playing a little safety in the spring simply because the coaching staff wanted to get him and his energy on the football field.
And there’s potential behind the established guys, with the difference between the young guys here and the young guys elsewhere being they don’t have to play significant roles right away and won’t be relied on to do so.
I’ll say it again, Fisher has done a really good job remaking the Husker secondary. They appear on the rise.
Post-Spring Score: 8/10
Derek is a newbie on the Hail Varsity staff covering Husker athletics. In college, he was best known as ‘that guy from Twitter.’ He has covered a Sugar Bowl, a tennis national championship and almost everything in between (except an NCAA men’s basketball tournament game… *tears*). In his spare time, he can be found arguing with literally anyone about sports.