Spring break has come and gone for Nebraska’s football program, which means the players have returned to Lincoln and are gearing up for their first practice of the week on Tuesday.
Hail Varsity will have much more on Tuesday as three assistants—special teams coordinator Bill Busch, inside linebackers coach Barrett Ruud and receivers coach Mickey Joseph—and a select few players are scheduled to appear in front of the media. But before the team restarts, let’s do a bit of catching up.
Here are three of the top storylines that I’d like to know more about as the back half of the spring schedule gets underway.
The offensive line shuffle
Strong play at the offensive and defensive lines is crucial to winning football games. That’s true across all levels of football, but of the Power Five conferences, the Big Ten is maybe the most unforgiving if a team doesn’t have good lines. It’s truly a grown-man league along the line of scrimmage. That’s why Donovan Raiola and Mike Dawson have big jobs in front of them this spring.
Raiola, who’s coaching an o-line for the first time in his career at the Power Five level, is in an odd spot. He’s trying to teach his own style of o-line play and instill a standard that the guys in his room are expected to uphold. Yet, he has to do that while two potential starters, sophomores Turner Corcoran and Teddy Prochazka, are unable to go through drills and instead are limited to what’s basically a player-coach role on the practice field as they each rehab injuries.
“We got them coaching guys up and helping and just being a part of the unit,” Donovan said of Corcoran and Prochazka. “I’m always pushing the narrative of helping each other, everything we do, we coach each other and help each other. So they’re right there, they’re right on our hips. The more the players can take control of this thing, the better off we’ll be.”
With Corcoran and Prochazka being limited physically, it opens the door for others, like the two transfer linemen the Huskers grabbed this offseason in Kevin Williams Jr. from FCS-member Northern Colorado and Hunter Anthony from Oklahoma State. Head coach Scott Frost said he’s been pleasantly surprised with both of them.
“I love both of their attitudes, they’re both tough guys. They play that way, they play with a lot of energy,” Frost said. “They’re both doing really good things and they’re going to compete for time.”
It’s important to remember that the program is still only in the spring and the o-line will need to replace two linemen—center Cam Jurgens and right guard Matt Sichterman—that saw the bulk of the starting reps last year. That means there are going to be multiple guys playing different positions along the line. Finding the best combination is the goal, so that’s likely one of the reasons Frost didn’t mention who was playing where specifically when he last met with the media on March 9.
“I saw them move around today, one of them is at guard right now and one of them is at tackle, but I saw the tackle play guard and the guard play tackle,” he said. “We’re going to get our best five guys on the field and we have a long time to figure that out.”
Williams, a native of Omaha and graduate of Omaha North High School, has the size and length you’re looking for in a Big Ten linemen at 6-foot-5 and 330 pounds. Anthony, listed at 6-6 and 320 pounds, was Oklahoma State’s starting right tackle for the first game in 2020 before a foot injury derailed his season and career in Stillwater. Both have experience playing guard and tackle.
Then there’s the center position. Multiple guys are getting a look there. If you’re someone who uses the team’s hype videos to help determine the depth chart, then you’d say Trent Hixson might be the leader in the clubhouse. The Omaha Skutt grad started every game at left guard in 2019. It’d be wise to not count out Ethan Piper, though. After a strong 2020 that saw him start every game at left guard, he struggled in 2021 and was benched. Maybe a fresh start with a new coach and position would do the Norfolk Catholic product some good.
Defensive line depth
We know Ty Robinson is going to be incredibly important to the interior of the d-line. It’s going to be a big season for him, and he knows it too. But behind Robinson, there are things to figure out.
One of them is Casey Rogers. When he’s on the field, he’s solid. But can he stay there — that’s the question. Rogers is another of the projected starters who will miss, or at least be very limited, this spring as he’s looking to be closer to 100% in the fall.
Dawson, now coaching both the d-line and outside ‘backers following the departure of Tony Tuioti to Oregon, is tasked with finding and developing the interior linemen behind Robinson and Rogers who will be expected to provide quality reps in the rotation. Now is the time for guys like sophomores Nash Hutmacher and Mosai Newsom, redshirt freshmen Marquis Black, Ru’Quan Buckley and Jailen Weaver and junior Colton Feist.
Hutmacher showed good things when he got more playing time toward the end of last season when Damion Daniels was injured. But how effective and durable will the 325-pounder be during an entire season? He’ll likely get that opportunity to show what he’s got in 2022. Feist is an interesting option as well. The in-state walk-on from Yutan, Nebraska, was injured for most of last season and even walked on Senior Day against Iowa, but he’s practicing this spring.
What kind of jump can Newsom, Black, Buckley and Weaver make? Steady contributors will need to emerge from that group if the Huskers want to replicate what it did on defense last season. If the coaches don’t feel good about what’s behind Robinson and Rogers, they’ll likely look to the transfer portal for a quick fix. That’s something that’s likely already been happening.
The defensive backfield/nickel position
Quinton Newsome seems like he’s put himself in a strong position to be one of the opening-day starters at corner. Myles Farmer might be in the same boat at one of the safety spots. Those two have experience playing under demanding defensive backs coach Travis Fisher and defensive coordinator Erik Chinander. But the rest of the depth chart will be interesting to watch unfold.
We know Fisher recruited Tommi Hill hard when he was coming out of high school in Orlando, but Hill chose to attend Arizona State instead. After one season in Tempe where he recorded nine tackles, Hill was looking for a change of scenery—enter Fisher and Nebraska. At 6 feet and 205 pounds, Hill fits the mold of the big and physical corners from last year—Cam Taylor-Britt (6 feet, 197 pounds) and Newsome (6-1, 185). Could he be one of the leaders for that corner spot opposite Newsome?
It’s hard not to mention Marques Buford Jr. when talking about the defensive backfield, too. As a true freshman last season, Buford worked at both corner and safety while being a member of all the special teams. He really impressed as a gunner on the punt coverage unit—you need to be a solid tackler in space to be a gunner, and the 5-11, 190-pound Texan showed he’s exactly that.
This season, though, Buford is working solely at safety. One can tell Fisher really likes Buford’s game. The sophomore has exactly what the coach is looking for. To play for Fisher, you need to have a little nasty in you. Buford has it.
“I like to call him a dog,” Fisher said of Buford. “He’s a dog, man. He’s not scared of anything. He comes, he shows up every day. Can put him at multiple positions. When I put Marques at safety, he didn’t know it was coming. I did it right before practice. Maybe during practice, I say go to safety. If he knew exactly what he was doing or not, the first thing I noticed was his speed. The first thing I noticed was it doesn’t matter if he knew what he was doing or not. The first thing I noticed was him getting to the rock.
“Players like that are dogs. That’s the mentality.”
Others in the DB room will need to show Fisher they have that mentality inside of them. Braxton Clark, former Ohio State transfer Tyreke Johnson and junior college addition Javier Morton are three guys who will be looking to impress Fisher at corner. Throw Hill and Northern Iowa transfer Omar Brown, the 2019 FCS Defensive Freshman of the Year, into that group, too.
At safety, it seems like it’s a now-or-never time for Noa Pola-Gates, who’s entering his fourth season on campus and hasn’t been a contributor on defense. With junior-college product DeShon Singleton now competing for time, the safeties will be a very interesting position to watch.
Then there’s the battle taking place at nickel between Isaac Gifford, Javin Wright and Chris Kolarevic. Each bring their own unique traits to the position, and once Chinander finds out what they’re good at, it will help shape the defense around them. Gifford filled in admirably last season when JoJo Domann was forced to end his season early with a hand injury.