Nebraska football’s wide receiver depth has taken a temporary hit during the early weeks of preseason camp.
The Huskers opened a portion of practice to media on Tuesday, with multiple pass-catchers not participating in the open period. Marcus Washington, who recently returned from injury, was in a yellow jersey with others, spending most of the sessions on a stationary bike or stretching. Zavier Betts and Malachi Coleman weren’t seen, and head coach Matt Rhule confirmed during media availability later that they did not practice.
Thankfully for the team, none are dealing with long-term setbacks, according to Rhule. The head coach said Washington had an awkward landing yesterday, but should be set to return in the next few days. Beyond the receivers, offensive lineman Nouredin Nouili was in a green jersey during practice, only doing some individual drills. Position coach Donovan Raiola confirmed that he’ll be back fully soon as well. Rhule did give an update on one recent major injury, as linebacker Maverick Noonan is out for the year after a “freak” knee injury.
The head coach got those updates out of the way early in his availability, an intentional choice.
“I don’t want to talk too much about the guys not practicing, because there’s a lot of guys who are practicing,” Rhule said. “I love the guys who aren’t, just there’s guys out there busting their tails right now.”
That statement came in the midst of a longer answer from Rhule on special teams. The head coach and the rest of the staff values that area of the game, and wants key players to be involved. A significant portion of the open practice session was spent working on punts and kickoffs, with the head coach close by. The punt protection unit did well in letting Brian Buschini get off just about every punt cleanly.
Players with starting experience could be seen all over the field, including running back Rahmir Johnson and defensive back Malcolm Hartzog as gunners. Kick and punt returners included wide receivers Billy Kemp IV and Isaiah Garcia-Castaneda.
“Good teams, their starters play special teams,” Rhule said. “… It’s not like a consolation prize, it’s big. You’re representing the Huskers. I think our attention to detail on special teams, I think the amount of reps we get, I think the way Ed [Foley], just to have a special teams coach, that’s all he does, that signifies for us our commitment to it. I expect all of our players to contribute on special teams in some way.”
Other highlights from the open session of practice include the Huskers working from the I formation with two tight ends. Fullbacks Barret Liebentritt and Braden Klover received praise from coaches for their blocking during the drills. Raiola was active and energetic during most drills including the offensive line, and said Tuesday that his unit is improving.
“We’re just focused on this process we’re going through, and working hard to earn the right to play,” he said.
The offensive line is a unit many may have a close eye on in the upcoming season due to last year’s struggles under Raiola, the only assistant retained in the offseason. Rhule has emphasized his own desire to have a great line on both sides of the ball, and wants the offensive line to be leaders in the locker room as well. The head coach believes that Raiola is the one who can get the unit to reach those goals.
“Donovan’s a lion, the standard is the standard for him. He has his players back to the nth degree,” Rhule said. “I think most of our young people these days are dying from the disease of low expectations. We make excuses for young people, young people will rise to meet expectations if you hold them to that. No one on our staff does it better than Donny… He’s kind of the o-line coach I’ve been waiting for.”