Photo Credit: Eric Francis

These Three Players Caught My Eye at Nebraska’s Spring Game

April 10, 2022

The defense took home a 43-39 win over the offense in Saturday’s annual Red-White spring game inside Memorial Stadium. With the Huskers’ 15 spring practices completed, the program will take a break as the players head home and study the film and everything else they learned.

While not much can be taken from Nebraska’s spring scrimmage as a whole, there was quite a bit to watch on the individual player level. Here are three Huskers who caught my eye on Saturday.

Garrett Nelson, outside linebacker

Each season he’s been in Lincoln, Garrett Nelson has improved as an outside linebacker/defensive end in Erik Chinander’s defense. The Scottsbluff native led the Blackshirts with five sacks and 11.5 tackles for loss last year, but as a whole, Nebraska’s pass rush struggled to get home. It only produced 20 sacks in 2021, 12th in the Big Ten and tied for 101st in the country.

Nelson isn’t OK with that. The passionate and fiery defender wants to change what other programs think of Nebraska’s pass rush. So, he went to work. He gained around 10 pounds of muscle and lost 4% body fat this offseason. At 6-foot-3, Nelson is now playing at 253 pounds after being listed at 245 last season.

Being bigger and stronger is great, but the key is keeping the speed, twitchiness and burst off the line of scrimmage. Nelson showed all three in the spring game. He racked up two sacks—the first half amounted to two-hand touch for most of the starters—and got the best of whoever was trying to block him on the offensive line.

“The quickness is definitely there and it has been throughout the spring,” Nelson said after the game. “I wanted to keep getting better and as we start playing in the Big Ten with those first-round tackles, I want to be able to do that against them as well. Just to cement myself and cement the edge guys as a true threat in the Big Ten and nationally.”

While sacks have been elusive for the Blackshirts in the years since Randy Gregory was around, Nelson and Caleb Tannor do provide a solid base on the edges of the line of scrimmage. Tannor chipped in with two sacks and 5.5 tackles for loss last season. But there needs to be more, and everyone knows it.

Ochaun Mathis, a transfer from TCU who’s one of the top-rated edge defenders in the country, was in attendance for the spring game. Texas really wants him. So does Nebraska. He’d help in the pass-rush department, but hasn’t yet announced where he’ll land this offseason.

With Pheldarius Payne transferring to Virginia Tech, two young outside ‘backers, Jimari Butler and Blaise Gunnerson, need to take a step forward this season. They’ll get that opportunity, and Nelson will be leading them.

“That’s been a highlight for us today and through spring. We’re really thin at that position right now, we don’t have bodies,” head coach Scott Frost said of the outside ‘backers. “That being said, I’ve seen improvement from Garrett, improvement from Caleb, Jimari and Blaise. Those guys have really taken a giant leap forward in my opinion. We had trouble blocking them today, and hopefully that’s a sign that they’re playing good football as opposed to we didn’t protect well.”

AJ Rollins, tight end

Nebraska’s tight end room has been decimated by injury.

Travis Vokolek was limited this spring and didn’t go through contact drills as he recovered from offseason shoulder surgery. Thomas Fidone II, the crown jewel of the 2021 class and a former top tight end recruit in the country, suffered an injury earlier this spring and is out for an unknown amount of time. Chris Hickman and Chancellor Brewington both missed time this spring and didn’t play Saturday.

“It’s weird being a coach, every year there’s one position that seems like you get hit by the injury bug, and that was kind of our position this spring,” Frost said. “That’s kind of one of the reasons we had to go offense versus defense and not just split up into two teams, but it’s good that those guys are getting reps because we’re going to need to count on them sooner or later.”

While many of the tight ends didn’t play Saturday, AJ Rollins did, and he made the most of his spring. The former multi-sport athlete from Creighton Prep caught a team-high four passes for 39 yards in the scrimmage. He was targeted a team-high five times, too, which tells you the quarterbacks like throwing to him—he’s a big target at 6-6 and 230 pounds.

“AJ made a nice catch, he’s been coming along,” Frost said after the game.

Rollins’ best moment, however, was his 27-yard catch from a beautifully-thrown ball from Chubba Purdy, a Florida State transfer who had a slow start to spring ball with an injury and is just now getting back to full strength. Saturday was just his third practice of the spring.

Rollins ran a corner route on the play and high-pointed the ball with both his hands, just like it’s taught. He showed his strength, too, when the safety who came in, Myles Farmer, took a late swipe at the ball in hopes of jarring it loose. It didn’t, and Rollins had a first-down catch that moved the chains.

Vokolek is expected back for fall camp. But if new offensive coordinator Mark Whipple wants to use 12 personnel formations, putting one back and two tight ends on the field, the competition for that No. 2 tight end is heating up. Rollins’ performance Saturday helped him.

Jimari Butler, outside linebacker 

Fans who paid attention inside Memorial Stadium on Saturday heard Butler’s name called quite a bit.

Once someone with basketball dreams, the 6-5, 245-pounder was a late bloomer on the football field at Murphy High School in Mobile, Alabama. He shifted his focus to football, though, and quickly turned into an intriguing prospect that was high on athleticism, but low on experience. Now in his third year on campus, Butler is going to get an opportunity to show what he can do, and he got off to a heck of a start Saturday.

Butler recorded six tackles, one sack and one quarterback hurry. He’ll provide depth behind the starters at outside ‘backer, Nelson and Tannor.

Nelson knows what kind of growth Butler has made since getting to Nebraska.

“He’s come a long way. He’s matured a lot as a young guy, as much as I wish I would have,” Nelson said. “He’s really powerful. He’s gained a lot of weight. He’s trimmed his body down, matured into his body. He’s very quick off the edge, very powerful. He needs some game reps this fall and he’s got a lot of reps this spring under his belt which is good, but getting those reps this fall with how he’s progressing, he’s going to go off the charts. He’s a really good player.”

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