The primary focus of bowl practices is obviously to prepare to play in the game itself, but every year it also provides an opportunity for some younger players not yet in the rotation to show the coaches what they can do.
“Bowl prep has been good,” offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf said. “You get a chance to work with some of the young guys and give the veterans a little bit of a rest, and then back at it so I think guys get kind of rejuvenated a little bit and then you get to see some of the young guys in our system which is fun.”
For the redshirt freshmen, the 16 bowl practices provide an opportunity to play catch-up after spending all season on the scout team. If any of them hope to see the field next year, these few weeks are key.
“We practice with them weekly during the season, even though it’s Sunday and not necessarily off of a game plan,” Langsdorf said. “It’s kind of a lot of base stuff. Most of the guys are pretty familiar with some of the base things and then we can expand as we get into the bowl. We have more time to meet with them and kind of get them back into the swing of things, so I think it’s good for them for bowl practices but also for going into the spring that they’re able to get back into what we’re doing and as we hit spring practice it’s not day one, it’s kind of an extension of the season.”
In talking to players and coaches on both sides of the ball, a few names have emerged as potential difference-makers next season.
“The first one that comes to mind is J.D. Spielman,” defensive coordinator Mark Banker said. “I think he’s a heck of a player. I think he probably could have played for us. If he knew the scheme on offense this year he could have played for us and helped us. I think he’s a hell of a talent. “
Spielman is a 5-foot-9, 180-pound athlete from Eden Prairie, Minnesota, who is using his redshirt season to learn the finer points of playing wide receiver after playing primarily as a running back and returner in high school.
“I haven’t been able to work with him as much, but you can tell he’s a better player,” wide receivers coach Keith Williams said. “I’ve worked with him enough to where he has developed. His technique has grown since he got here, because he didn’t really play wideout at all in high school. He was starting from scratch and he’s definitely farther along in technique and just the wideout details in general; you can definitely see that. He’s starting to understand the plays to some degree, as much as you can be based on the fact that he hasn’t really been involved. I’ve seen him grow; he’s been on a steady climb.”
Langsdorf is looking forward to seeing what Spielman can do in his offense.
“I think a lot of times your best scout team players become your best players in a hurry, and our defense has thought he’s done a nice job all season,” Langsdorf said. “We’ve had him for a couple days out here and have done some things with him; he’s looked good. So I think he has a bright future.”
Nebraska’s top two quarterbacks are both graduating, meaning the starting spot for next season is up for grabs for the two quarterbacks redshirting this season – Tulane transfer Tanner Lee and freshman Patrick O’Brien.
“I think both of them are very smart,” Langsdorf said. “They are well on their way to having a really good understanding what we’re doing. They’re accurate throwers, which is really evident in our practices. We complete a lot of balls when they’re in. They throw the ball down the field nicely and are doing a nice job of checking the ball down to the backs. I’ve been really impressed with both of them in the last week of practice.”
All indications point to Lee being the guy next season, and Williams — who coached at Tulane prior to coming to Nebraska — hasn’t been surprised one bit about what he’s done on the scout team.
“I’ve coached guys that Tanner has sent to the league,” Williams said. “I was expecting that. There’s nothing that’s surprised me. He’s an animal. He’s really, really, really good. I laughed because everyone else is seeing it and it’s kind of like when you bring somebody that you say ‘hey, watch this guy,’ and they do it. I’m not surprised at all. I saw it for two years.”
Lee and Spielman were named scout team offensive players of the year.
Banker also mentioned interior offensive linemen Boe Wilson and John Raridon, and redshirt freshman defensive tackle Carlos Davis concurred.
“Being a defensive guy, going up against the scout o-line guys, the freshman guys, Raridon and Boe are going to be really good guys … When I’ve had those [bad] days, those guys were the ones who gave me those bad days because they were on their cues and I wasn’t,” Davis said. “They’re just physical and they cane get after you if you don’t come out prepared.”
On the defensive side of the ball, linebacker Pernell Jefferson and defensive end Collin Miller were named scout team MVPs – a good sign for the defense in desperate need of a pass rush.
Linebackers coach Trent Bray said he was happy to see one of the players in his position group in Jefferson recognized.
“I think it’s great, because usually in our experience if they’re good on scout team they end up being good players,” Bray said. “I think it shows a lot about the kid, showing up, because scout team is hard and working every day. I think it says a lot about him.”
Bray said the thing about Jefferson that stands out is his play-making ability.
“He’s just got a nose for the football, he’s got a knack for finding the football, which is a skill that is hard to teach,” Bray said. “You kind of have it or you don’t and he seems to have it, so that’s a good thing.”
Listed at 6-foot-3 and 235 pounds, Miller is undersized for a Big Ten defensive end, but arrived on campus with a strong pass-rushing pedigree after recording 25 tackles for loss, including 11 sacks, as a senior in high school and he’s drawn rave reviews from those that have seen him in practice in Lincoln.
Williams, whose focus was drawn primarily to the back seven as those are the players going up against his wideouts in practice, also mentioned Jefferson as well as a few others including one standout cornerback.
“[Cornerback Dicaprio] Bootle was impressive,” Williams said. “[Linebacker] Greg [Simmons] was impressive. Pernell. I kind of only pay attention to the secondary and ‘backers a little bit, but Bootle for sure. He started off slow because you know those young guys — I was the same way when I redshirted — you kind of don’t understand the importance and the sense of urgency maybe playing on the scout team. Sometimes you don’t know how hard you can go. You’ve just kind of been introduced to the technique that Stew wants them to run. He goes from fall camp to scout team and now they’re telling you to play a different technique. That’s kind of confusing. After that transition and him kind of understanding what his role would be and how to play that role on scout team, Bootle was really impressive.”
With the team wrapping up their practices in Lincoln before heading to Nashville, the scout team stars’ time to shine has come to an end. However, several players have made an impression on the coaches and are in good standing heading into the spring.
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.