Coaches caution not to overreact to a spring game. Husker head coach Scott Frost reiterated Saturday afternoon it’s one of 15 practices that comprise the whole period. But when there’s a little bit more energy in the building, and the stakes are a little bit higher, and the hitting can be done with a bit more frequency, you can see who’s up to the task.
It felt like, on the whole, the Husker running backs had a strong showing in the 21-20 White victory of Red in the 2021 Husker spring game.
“I thought that was a bright spot today, seeing those guys run hard,” Frost said of the backs after. “That’s kind of hard to tell sometimes. We’re not live very much, completely tackling to ground very much in spring practice. Just can’t afford to be and the rules don’t let us be, so it’s kind of hard to tell with running backs, but watching them in the second half and seeing some tackles broken and guys running through contact, I thought that was a real positive today.”
Jaquez Yant, a second-year freshman back, ran a couple of would-be tacklers over on a second-half drive that found the end zone. He finished with nine carries for 63 yards and a touchdown.
“He’s still got some growing up to do, but he’s a physical presence,” Frost said. “Glad he was able to showcase that a little today.”
Marvin Scott III had a breakaway run in the second half. He looked a step quicker than he did as a true freshman a season ago. Scott had 75 yards and a score on 11 carries, though his touchdown did come when the team was playing two-hand touch in the first half.
Still, Scott spent a good deal of time working on his quickness and athleticism this spring. He likened his approach to that of former Husker running back Devine Ozigbo, a big guy trying to show he could also run away from folks.
Gabe Ervin Jr., an early-enrollee freshman, had 12 carries for 57 yards. The speed of the college game was an adjustment for him early on, as tends to be the case, but Ervin felt he made good on the opportunities he was afforded this spring.
“Gabe’s impressed me for a youngster who should still be in high school,” Frost said. “His approach to it, his maturity coming in and learning and competing. He’s got a bright future. He’s been hampered, he had a rolled ankle so he missed a few practices, was really going well at the start of spring, and then missed a few but finished strong. That competition at that position is going to continue through the summer and fall.”
Sevion Morrison had eight carries for 38 yards, the first opportunity Husker fans have had to see the second-year back since his arrival. “I think you could see the flashes of it today,” Frost said. “We keep seeing that.” But after missing his entire first year with various things, Morrison has been hampered this spring by a rolled ankle.
Same thing happened to Ervin.
Markese Stepp, a USC transfer tailback many expect to secure the starting job in the fall, didn’t play this spring.
Rahmir Johnson, a third-year Husker with probably the most in-game experience of any of the non-Stepp backs, didn’t play at all this spring and didn’t play in Saturday’s scrimmage.
Ronald Thompkins, a classmate of Johnson’s, had four carries for 32 yards to cap a quiet spring.
Walk-on Isaiah Harris had some nice second-half runs, piling up 52 yards and a touchdown on five carries. Several other made plays as well.
For both sides, Nebraska ran the football 86 times Saturday. As a coach, Frost has leaned run in almost every season he’s called plays. Nebraska is expected to rely on the run this fall despite how much it professes to be an explosive, vertical passing game reborn.
Mostly, NU just has too much talent in the ground department not to make it an integral part of its offense.
Scott displayed good vision and instincts a few times Saturday. Yant lived up to the billing he’d received from coaches throughout the spring—a player who will run over whoever is in front of him.
Conceivably, Husker quarterback Adrian Martinez could spend his fall handing the ball off to any number of seven different running backs.
“And I’m confident in each of those seven guys,” Martinez said. “I know they’ll get the job done and I know Coach (Ryan) Held will get them right.”
Held, the running backs coach, wants consistency. He wants guys to keep on the right track during the summer. Ervin talked of a need to stay in shape. Several need to be in better shape.
“We need those guys to grow up fast because they’re going to have to play big-time football coming up real soon,” Frost said.
Nebraska seems to have the right personnel, though.
Frost seemingly has a lot of confidence in the offensive line. (Fifth-year junior Matt Sichterman started at right guard Saturday, for what it’s worth. He and Ethan Piper were the guards.)
“We’ve made more of an effort to be more physical, to finish plays better,” Frost said. “We’ve really improved in that area this spring on both sides. Thought the (No. 1) defense did a great job of that. As simple as we were, I thought we ran the ball pretty well. I’ve seen big improvement out of the depth, effort, and physicality out of both sides of the line.”
There was one day this spring, he said, where the defense whooped up on the offense, but outside of that, the head coach thought his offense gave just as much as it got from what’s a very strong defense.
Martinez said the Husker defense requires a certain standard to be met, otherwise you’re going to get embarrassed. Starting center Cam Jurgens hit on the same note.
“You can draw up a play however you want, but if you don’t have that energy and that passion to get it done, it’s not going to happen,” Jurgens said. “We’re not worried about our next play. We’re worried about finishing through the whistle, and that helped us a lot.”
The defense felt the same.
“It’s gotten a lot better,” said corner Cam Taylor-Britt. “We’re downhill, straight pounding the football, man. We can see the offensive linemen are taking pride in it, they’re blocking, just giving Adrian more time or just driving guys and getting to the second level and opening up a hole or a gap for the running back to get through. It’s looking a lot better.”
While some were entering into Saturday hoping to be impressed by the aerial attack, perhaps it was the ground game offering reason for confidence that should be the takeaway.
Nebraska certainly has options at running back.
And it has a line that might prefer grounding and pounding a defense rather than throwing over the top of it.
“We love to run the damn ball here and we’ve got a great class of backs,” said second-year left tackle Turner Corcoran. “Our running backs are phenomenal and with this offensive line, we can do some damage in the run game.”
Corcoran, by the way, walked into his postgame interview sporting a hat with a very straightforward message.
“Run the damn ball.”