Earlier this week, my colleague Greg Smith highlighted three guys who were underrated recruits that could use a big winter and spring period. His list had two juniors and a redshirt freshman. As winter conditioning moves along, the snow around us all starts to melt away and the clock ticks closer to the start of spring ball, potential starts to stick. You know, the sun comes out and we get a little more optimistic about everything.
I’m sort of in the same place. And so I want to use Greg’s three-guy list as a jumping off point to offer up five more names. The catch is these guys will all be freshmen or redshirt freshmen who could use spring ball as a springboard into the two-deep. Not necessarily unheralded guys, but the Ty Robinsons and Turner Corcorans and Thomas Fidones of the roster are off the table.
WR Will Nixon: A 5-foot-11 receiver out of Waco, Texas, Nixon was a guy Nebraska coaches spoke highly of before he was on campus, after he was on campus, after he went down with an injury in the summer, and after his first year in the program had concluded.
The football IQ is high. The ability to pick up a playbook is what you hope for. He can play multiple wideout positions for Nebraska, maybe go into the backfield a bit (something he did in high school) or factor into the return game.
“It was disappointing when we lost him very early on in the summer, because he showed great promise,” offensive coordinator Matt Lubick said late last year. “He was a guy that we definitely thought would have contributed this year, but to his credit, battling through his knee injury, he’s doing everything he possibly can. Ahead of schedule. Shows up for every meeting. Knows the position from being able to explain it inside and out without even repping it. I could not be more impressed with his progress and what he’s done.”
Nixon’s dad coaches on Matt Rhule’s Carolina Panthers staff in the NFL, brought over from Baylor by Rhule. Scott Frost said when Nixon signed he thought that pedigree, just being from a football family and being a coach’s son, would help Nixon get comfortable in the playbook.
While you might not want him to overwork things in the spring, there is absolutely nothing set in stone at receiver heading into the new year, so everything is up for grabs. Nixon could snag a rotation spot.
OLB Blaise Gunnerson: The first of two guys on this list who I’m as high on as anyone you’ll hear from. “Blaise has the measurables that you look for,” said outside linebacker coach Mike Dawson last spring. “If you were going to draw up or write up, ‘What does an NFL outside linebacker look like?’ he kind of checks off all those boxes.”
His first year on campus was largely about rehabbing and getting healthy. Injuries marred his last two years of high school, but he’s 6-foot-6, huge, athletic, and playing a position where Nebraska needs someone to pop.
That might not be Gunnerson yet, but the way the group rotated in and out in 2020 forecasts maybe a pass-rushing role for the Iowa native if he can make some moves in the spring.
Pheldarius Payne (one of Greg’s guys) had a strong close to last season working with Caleb Tannor as situational pass-rushers. Garrett Nelson also made strides late, and JoJo Domann is going to use his extra year of eligibility granted by the NCAA to return; best believe he’s not going to spend it on the bench, he’s too good for that.
Still, Gunnerson might be able to force his nose into the conversation for playing time. He’s plenty talented enough to do it.
P Daniel Cerni: Forget about the Aussie punter? Don’t. Will Przystup averaged more yards per punt last year than Isaac Armstrong did in 2019 and was pretty good at pinning opponents inside their own 20 when presented with the chance, but Nebraska also gave up 12 yards a return on punts. Only 21 teams gave up a higher average.
Cerni’s big selling point was his ability to hang punts up in the air and give his gunners time to beat their guys downfield. Opponents returned a little over a third of NU’s punts last season, compared to just 19% of its punts in 2019.
Health-permitting, Cerni figures to be the odds-on favorite to win the punting job. Maybe his leg is big enough that Nebraska feels like he can handle kickoffs, too; Nebraska was below-average there last season and maybe a new set of eyes wants to go in a different direction. That’s what spring is for.
DL Nash Hutmacher: A mountain of a young man, Hutmacher is. With Keem Green the only loss from last year’s group, finding snaps for the Polar Bear might be tough, but he’s no doubt intriguing as a second-year option in d-line coach Tony Tuioti’s room.
Ben Stille is back for another year, Casey Rogers will have a spot, Damion Daniels will have a similar spot on the interior of the defensive line, Ty Robinson should be better, Jordon Riley should be firmly in the picture, Colton Feist—now on scholarship—and Tate Wildeman might be in there too, but Hutmacher’s physical profile just makes him a hard guy to completely count out of things.
“Nash came in big and strong, I think the big thing was just to get him more athletic and he’s really progressed with that,” said Robinson last season. “He’s beating guys one-on-one in our pass-rush every day, beating the centers pretty well. He’s able to move his hips pretty well now, so I see a bright future for him here.”
Everyone knows Hutmacher is a gym rat. He’ll be a Zach Duval favorite. What can the weight room work translate into? Tuioti likes to cross-train guys, so could Hutmacher kick outside for a few snaps? That would certainly help his prospects of getting on the field. But even then, Green saw about eight snaps a game in his five appearances backing up Daniels. Daniels only played about 22 a game.
Could the 6-foot-5 South Dakota native force himself into Tuioti’s rotation early?
RB Sevion Morrison: I’m a card-carrying member of the Sevion Morrison hype club at this point. He’s big, he’s fast, he’s physical, the people who know him say he runs like Adrian Peterson, he says he modeled his style after Adrian Peterson, and Nebraska needs a running back.
A litany of setbacks kept him off the field in 2020. If those things are in the rearview mirror, Morrison should firmly be in the conversation at running back.
That’s even with Nebraska bringing in Markese Stepp. No one in assistant coach Ryan Held’s room has experience at the college level as an every-down back. Nebraska, with the exception of Devine Ozigbo’s closing stretch in 2018, hasn’t relied on an every-down back.
The safe bet is that this will be a group that will, at least early on, operate with a number of guys seeing the field. Spring ball could reinforce that belief, or of course change it if one of these guys (still think Held has recruited the spot really well) proves deserving of a featured role.
I’d bet on Morrison being one of the top two guys by the time the season draws near.
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.