One last practice.
Nebraska’s annual Red-White spring game is this Saturday at 1 p.m. and will serve as the team’s 15th and final practice of the spring. The scrimmage will be televised by the Big Ten Network and will be the conference’s second spring game of day as Jeff Brohm’s Purdue Boilermakers will get theirs kicked off Saturday at 11 a.m., also shown on BTN.
This version of the Huskers’ spring has been one of the more intriguing of recent years. There are storylines galore as head coach Scott Frost enters his fifth season at the helm of the program, and he’ll be doing it on the hot seat with a restructured contract and reduced buyout along with an almost completely new offensive staff.
Under Frost, Nebraska hasn’t qualified for a bowl game and is just 15-29 in the past four seasons. Improvement needs to be shown in 2022, and while the spring game is never a good way to determine how successful a team will be during the season, there are still aspects of the day that would be nice to see, even if we don’t know the exact format yet.
Plus, it’s live football. What’s not to like about that?
Here are five things I want to see at Nebraska’s spring game.
Get out of it healthy
Spring games are supposed to be fun and a celebration of sorts after all the offseason work that was put in to winter conditioning and spring practices. The last thing anyone wants is an injury.
The Huskers are already the walking wounded right now. Multiple projected starters won’t be participating Saturday—and haven’t been all spring—as they continue rehabbing from injuries.
The hardest-hit position group is tight end, where the veteran leader of the pack, Travis Vokolek, is doing everything but contact as he looks to get a shoulder closer to 100% for the fall. The severity of Thomas Fidone II’s injury has yet to be officially confirmed by Frost, but it’s safe to say he’ll likely miss substantial time for the second season of his young career. Chris Hickman and Chancellor Brewington have also missed time this spring.
On the offensive line, both Turner Corcoran and Teddy Prochazka have been limited to a coach-player role this spring while they continue to get their bodies healthy. At receiver, Isaiah Garcia-Castaneda, a transfer from New Mexico State, has been nicked up and missed time. On the defensive line, Casey Rogers, who figures to play a key role in the trenches this season, has been limited this spring, as has starting middle linebacker Luke Reimer, who’s working his way back from offseason hip surgery.
Limited mistakes from the quarterbacks
Saturday will be the first live look fans get of Casey Thompson, the transfer quarterback from Texas who’s a strong candidate to be the starting quarterback when the Huskers play Northwestern in Ireland on August 27.
Thompson hasn’t won the job yet, at least not publicly, but by all accounts the Oklahoma native seems like the favorite to be QB1. Logan Smothers, who started his first college game in last season’s finale against Iowa, isn’t running away from the competition. He’s staying and fighting for it. As is Heinrich Haarberg and Chubba Purdy, the Florida State transfer who suffered a minor injury early this spring and has recently been working his way back to being a full participant at practice.
“The timetable is whenever it’s clear to us and to everybody. I think there’s a lot of guys doing some good things, but we’re nowhere near ready to make an announcement yet,” Frost said of the quarterback race.
It’s unfair to expect Nebraska’s just-installed offense—a product of what Frost likes combined with what first-year offensive coordinator Mark Whipple wants to do—to look like a polished product on Saturday. What fans see likely won’t resemble what’s going to be run in Dublin in August—that’s become commonplace with spring games.
Frost does have something specific he wants to see from his quarterbacks, however: consistency.
“We’re doing some really good things at times,” Frost said. “In this league, you’re not going to score a lot unless you can be consistent and sustain some drives and create some big plays along the way. And if you get opportunities for big plays you have to be consistent and keep moving the chains, and I think that’s really important in the Big Ten.”
Thompson is a career 63% (185-of-290) passer while Smothers completed 69% (23-of-33) of his attempts last season.
The offensive line’s progress
While first-year offensive line coach Donovan Raiola won’t have Corcoran or Prochazka on Saturday, he will have one thing: An opportunity to see how his o-line performs in a game-like atmosphere.
Nebraska needs to snap a streak of five straight losing seasons. That’s only going to happen if the o-line shows improvement and is better than last year’s unit. On paper, that sounds unlikely, especially after the loss of two starters—center Cam Jurgens and right guard Matt Sichterman—and the fact that Corcoran and Prochazka have been limited to mental reps this spring.
Saturday will be a great opportunity for the o-line to show progress.
There will be vanilla play calls on both offense and defense. When standard runs are called—think inside or outside zone—how well will the o-line block them? When the quarterbacks drop back for a pass, what’s the protection look like? While the defense won’t be allowed to touch the quarterbacks, those passing plays can still be used to gauge how the o-line holds up against the rush.
Depth on the defensive line
There are things we know and don’t know about Nebraska’s defense.
What we do know is Ty Robinson and Rogers will be heavily relied upon this fall. That makes sense when you consider who isn’t in the Husker d-line room anymore: Ben Stille, Damion Daniels and Deontre Thomas.
While Jordon Riley’s departure wasn’t considered headline news when he announced he was transferring to Oregon in late January, the 6-foot-6, 310-pounder was still going to be a key guy in the rotation. The loss of Riley may hurt more than it initially seemed.
New faces in the defensive backfield
No one’s job is safe in Nebraska’s defensive backfield, Travis Fisher made that very clear this offseason.
“That’s the kind of world we live in. Nobody wants to work for it, everybody wants that thing handed to them,” Fisher said on Feb. 28. “That’s the total opposite of what I’m going to give them this spring, is something handed to them.”
Fisher will need to find replacements for three veteran starters from last year in corner Cam Taylor-Britt and safeties Deontai Williams and Marquel Dismuke. Quinton Newsome returns and is coming off a strong first season as a starting corner where he recorded a career-high 57 tackles, two tackles for loss, one sack and four pass breakups.
Newsome seems like he’s going to smoothly step into Taylor-Britt’s role from last year as the Huskers’ top corner. Fisher liked what he saw from the Georgia native this offseason.
“I just think Quinton is doing a great job. And if he continues to do a great job and have a great mind set, because it’s easy sometimes to look back and don’t see no one on your tail, but the right kind of player doesn’t ever look back to see how far someone is behind,” Fisher said on Feb. 28. “The right kind of player is just, every day just look forward. And I think if Quinton can continue to do that, Quinton will be the next guy who plays Sunday football here.”
The corner position opposite of Newsome will be one to watch. Tommi Hill, a transfer from Arizona State, has had his name mentioned multiple times from coaches and players as someone who has impressed this spring. At 6 feet and 205 pounds, Hill could provide a physical presence on the outside, just like Taylor-Britt did.
Myles Farmer played well at safety and started the final four games last year after Williams went down with what turned out to be a season-ending injury at Minnesota. Like Newsome, Farmer had a career-high number of tackles with 30 while hauling in one interception.
While Farmer has experience on his side, the Atlanta, Georgia, native will need to fight to keep his starting safety job this spring and fall.
Fisher added seven new faces to his DB room after last season. One of them, DeShon Singleton, a transfer from Hutchinson (Kansas) Community College, has a Big Ten-ready frame and would make for a versatile option next to Farmer depending on how quickly he learns the playbook.
But don’t forget about Marques Buford Jr., too. While he’s listed at just 5-11, 190 pounds, he plays much bigger than that. He did well on special teams last year as a true freshman. Now in his second year with the program, he’s gunning for a starting spot on defense.
“His size, you wouldn’t think a guy like that would be so physical. But he isn’t scared of nobody. He’s fearless,” Fisher said of Buford on Feb. 28. “His speed as well at the safety spot, to be able to fly down and make tackles, make them look easy. And then also, he can play corner. So, he’s kind of like my hidden gem.”