As we approach what would have been Nebraska’s April 18 spring game, we’re going to have some fun and project what might have been talking points. This is not to be taken too seriously.
What would we have heard this week? In a normal world, I wouldn’t have written about field redesign options. In a normal world, you’d be reading about wideouts developing and a defense replacing pieces. But this is not a normal world.
Doesn’t mean we can’t try and maintain some semblance of normalcy in the interim. So, suspend reality for a minute and let’s pretend Nebraska was in the midst of spring football, preparing for the spring game.
One of the food places we were recommended to try in Maui was the Cool Cat Cafe. “Best burger on the island,” I was told. And I immediately thought of Mario Verduzco, Nebraska’s quarterback coach who frequently calls his ‘cubes “cats.” Verduzco is a joy to talk to. He was set to be pretty popular this spring.
"Every position is true competition and quarterback is no different,” Scott Frost said when the Huskers opened spring ball. “Sometimes we treat those guys like a glass case and you can't touch them but we have always said we are going to play the best guy at every position. Adrian is starting out and he is our quarterback and he is going to get the ones at the beginning but we are going to give some reps to Noah (Vedral) with the ones and some reps to Luke (McCaffrey). Just like any other position we are watching every snap they take and every rep they take. We are going to want the 22 best guys on the field at all times and the quarterback is no different.”
Frost said McCaffrey would work with the quarterbacks until the job had been firmly won. At that point, if it wasn’t him, they’d explore how to use him elsewhere. He’s getting a chance. And at this point in spring ball, he’d likely still have that green practice bib on.
Whether Nebraska actually would have had a quarterback competition or not wouldn’t have stopped the questions. Adrian Martinez’s season wasn’t what folks expected from him and anytime that happens, questions start. Nebraska has Vedral, who should be the most comfortable in this offense at this point, McCaffrey, who looked decent in a severely-limited role as a freshman, and true freshman Logan Smothers, who drew a pretty positive review from Verduzco on Day 1.
“Logan, man, he’s going to be a good player for us," Verduzco said. "He’s doing real well. I gave him our preliminary quarterback test and he friggin’ ripped it apart. I just wanted to make certain that he was on his toes. From an athletic standpoint, he’s as good as anybody we could have.
"Now, can he match that with understanding the playbook? By what I saw of him and the reps that we did give him, he feels pretty comfortable."
Is that position truly up for grabs? Nebraska likely would be playing its cards close to the vest in the spring, and Martinez was going to be somewhat limited after offseason shoulder surgery anyway. The real test would be finding the balance in talking about the guys behind Martinez. But Smothers, the quarterback Nebraska has been able to completely and holistically evaluate, would be three weeks in by this point, and if the mental stuff was already there from the get-go, what would the on-field stuff look like?
Perhaps there wouldn’t be any kind of declaration of who would be the starter, but you can bet your butt Verduzco and Frost would still be getting asked about it.
Frost would say, “We’re practicing as fast as we were during spring ball of Year 3 at Oregon.” And the headlines would either read, “Nebraska: Too Fast for Its Own Good?” or, “Nebraska is Going to Be a Top-Five Offense.” No in-between.
(On a serious note, tempo is something that already got and likely would have continued to get attention. Most of the players have been through this before, most know what the schemes look like, most know what’s expected of them. Add to that the upped organizational level offensive coordinator Matt Lubick has brought to the way practices are conducted from the sideline and it’s just natural the team would be operating at a faster pace. Theoretically, the Huskers would have been able to get ideal reps for as many spots deep on the depth chart as they would want.)
The kicking job in 2020 is Chase Contreraz’s to lose at this point.
Maybe we’d know that by now, or maybe we’d still be in the competition. It’ll be a competition for sure, but the walk-on sophomore from Iowa Western Community College might just have the inside track to the job. Barret Pickering and Dylan Jorgensen have left. Matt Waldoch didn’t come back. The only other kickers on the roster are Gabe Heins and Tyler Crawford. Crawford may end up handling kickoff duties (something he did in high school, with 44 touchbacks on 63 kicks) and Contreraz earns the kicker spot.
This was going to be an emphasis. Six different guys attempted a field goal a season ago, which means no one performed that task particularly well. Nebraska outscored its opponents by three points last season (yes, that’s including the Ohio State debacle) and still lost seven games. It missed eight of its 20 field goal tries.
Special teams, as a whole, were set to get the all-hands-on-deck treatment this spring, which means lots of eyeballs and lots of time spent thinking about that phase from each member of the coaching staff.
Will Nixon has been working.
Working on some footwork yesterday in the ladder 🔥 pic.twitter.com/trBz7kQzLE
— William Nixon (@william_nixonTD) March 27, 2020
Light workout – staying active! GBR! Be safe – miss my Midway teammates! pic.twitter.com/m4lJvwGGAl
— William Nixon (@william_nixonTD) April 3, 2020
Others are, too, but Nixon has been kind enough to share them. The son of a football coach, Nixon’s quarantine has probably been filled with tasks from Dad to keep him in as good of shape as possible and keep his mind sharp. The freshman wideout will enroll in the summer (if he can), but he’ll still have a good chance to play in a wideout room looking for anything it can get.
Nixon is in a group of summer enrollee wideouts—Omar Manning, Zavier Betts, Marcus Fleming—who were going to be interesting case studies. Would they all be able to leapfrog guys already on campus and earn some playing time from the jump? If so, would it be because of what they did or what the ones already here didn’t do?
That, at the very least, was the thinking before spring ball started. But two names popped up early and likely would have continued to make noise at wideout: Alante Brown and Jamie Nance, the first a true freshman and the second a redshirt freshman.
“He caught a slant today and took it to the house,” Frost said of Brown. “It was a pretty sight. I think Alante's the type of guy we want in this offense, the guy who can play inside receiver slot, play in the backfield if you need him. He's going to give us some versatility. He's got a lot to learn and a long way to go just like a lot of us, but I think the early signs are positive.”
Frost was asked about Brown. Nance was offered up unsolicited as a guy making moves. With only four scholarship receivers on campus to open spring ball, those two would have gotten every opportunity to show their stuff. Brown was a highly-regarded high school prospect. Nance was unheralded, but just needed some time in the weight room.
What we might have been building toward was a room that wouldn’t be quite as easy as we previously thought to walk into and grab a role.
Sound off in the comments below if there’s a spring ball topic you think would be all the rage right now.
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.