The quarterback competition is in full swing and both contenders looked very sharp – and most importantly – accurate through the first few weeks of spring ball. In a lot of the open field seven-on-seven and 11-on-11 plus the passing drills, the ball barely hit the ground. To be fair, we did see a lot of check-downs and safe throws during those segments, but at the same time making those plays at an efficient rate would still be an upgrade over what the Huskers have had recently. However, the coaches did throw a bit of a curve ball at the quarterbacks on the last day of practice before the break, moving the 11-on-11 drill to the red zone. The quarterbacks took more chances and tried to fit the ball into smaller windows, and the defensive backs and linebackers got their hands on a lot more passes than they had previously when the media was allowed to watch practice. However, Mike Riley said he expected them to fare much better the next time they did that drill.
I still think Tanner Lee will be the guy, but the coaches are going to continue letting them compete throughout the spring, and probably into the fall as well.
The quarterback competition has received most of the attention, but the running back battle was something that I was looking forward to tracking heading into the spring. The Huskers seemingly have three legitimate options that all bring a different style to the table in Tre Bryant, Devine Ozigbo and Mikale Wilbon. Mike Riley did have something interesting to say in that they already have a good feel for the competition.
“We do, but we’re not going to announce anything about it; there’s no need to because we want them all to think competition and performance and production and let them keep playing,” Riley said.
Whether one player emerges or the Huskers move forward with a by-committee approach, I think Nebraska has enough talent at the position to field a quality run game to balance out the offense.
The wide receiver position looks pretty straight-forward at this point. The coaches feel comfortable with their top three of Stanley Morgan Jr., De’Mornay Pierson-El and Bryan Reimers. Wide receivers coach Keith Williams’ son Keyan is looking strong in the slot after his redshirt while he competes against redshirt freshman dynamo J.D. Spielman. Cozad native Connor Young is the leader among walk-ons who will have a chance to see the field come the start of the season. Unfortunately for the freshmen who enrolled early, injury and illness have prevented both Jaevon McQuitty and Keyshawn Johnson Jr. from participating in any sort of contact drills. Johnson was cleared to return shortly before break, so he’ll have a chance to make some progress in the second half of the spring.
As expected, Tyler Hoppes took control of the No. 1 tight end spot. He did not see much action last season but was the de facto fourth string tight end after the three seniors who saw the vast majority of the playing time. He’s much more of a receiver than a blocker. According to the coaches, Matt Snyder – who struggled with injuries his first two years on campus – has risen up to the No. 2 spot while Connor Ketter is out with an injury. The coaches are looking to see improvement in the blocking department from all of the tight ends.
The four guys who were pegged as starters heading into last season – Nick Gates, Jerald Foster, Tanner Farmer and David Knevel – are getting the first string reps once again. So far, redshirt sophomore Michael Decker is in the lead as the Huskers look to replace Dylan Utter at center, but redshirt freshman John Raridon is right there with him. Cole Conrad has been working as the second string left tackle behind Gates while redshirt freshman Matt Farniok gets snaps behind Knevel on the right side, but Conrad is likely considered a swing tackle. Boe Wilson is battling Farmer at right guard, but so far Farmer is still getting first string snaps.
Little has changed along the defensive line since spring ball began. Mick Stoltenberg continues to man the middle of the line at nose tackle with Carlos Davis and Freedom Akinmoladun flanking him on either side. If the Huskers are set on Stoltenberg remaining at nose tackle, then I think that is likely the group you’ll see starting in the fall. DaiShon Neal, Khalil Davis and Peyton Newell looks to be the second string line at this point.
One of the deepest positions on the team might be inside linebacker. Chris Weber and Dedrick Young are virtual locks to start and both seem to fit the 3-4 very well. Behind them is a stable of young, intriguing options including Greg Simmons, Mohamed Barry, Avery Roberts and Pernell Jefferson. Colin Miller has not been able to participate in spring practice, but Mike Riley said they have him pegged to play inside as well, although with his ability as a pass-rusher I could easily see him moving outside at some point once he’s healthy.
The picture is a little blurrier on the outside. Marcus Newby is getting the first string snaps on one side, but he’s still trying to make the mental transition to the new defense. If he can grasp the scheme, he should be a very productive layer for Bob Diaco. Luke Gifford offers a different look at the position at 6-foot-4, and he has put on a significant amount of muscle over the offseason to better fit this defense. However, Gifford broke his hand and has been practicing with a club over it. The other outside linebacker spot is probably the biggest question on the defense. Alex Davis and Sedrick King are both still trying to figure out their new position after playing defensive end last year, and that position battle is another one that will likely extend into the fall.
Chris Jones is locked in as the top field side cornerback, but some changes have been made elsewhere. Joshua Kalu has been moved to free safety next to Aaron Williams after playing cornerback last year, and Lamar Jackson has moved up to first string boundary corner. Eric Lee is getting looks behind him, an Avery Anderson has been moved back to cornerback on the boundary side. Anderson played corner during his redshirt year but worked at safety as a freshman. JoJo Domann, Antonio Reed and Tony Butler are all making their case for playing time at safety, but the coaches decided that Lamar Jackson is one of the team’s best 11 defenders and they believe Kalu’s versatility will allow them to get Jackson on the field.
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.