Photo Credit: Eric Francis

With Casey Thompson Poised to Be QB1, the Backup Competition Rages

April 17, 2022

With 15 spring practices in the books, Nebraska football’s next portion of the offseason has arrived.

Players are armed with video libraries of correctly-run practice reps, concepts and just about everything else that coaches expect them to know like the back of their hand when fall practice starts around late July and early August.

There’s change occurring on all three areas of the team. Erik Chinander’s defense needs to replace seven veteran starters. Two transfer specialists—Montana punter Brian Buschini and Furman field goal kicker Timmy Bleekrode—are expected to outperform who they were brought in to replace.

And then there’s the offense, where first-year offensive coordinator Mark Whipple is blending what he wants to do with what head coach Scott Frost already had in place. The operator of that attack, the starting quarterback, hasn’t been named yet, at least not publicly.

There does seem to be a leader in the clubhouse, though. That’d be Casey Thompson, the Texas transfer who tossed 30 touchdowns in the past two seasons with the Longhorns. The 6-foot-1, 200-pounder played the first two series of the spring game, attempted four passes—he completed three for 31 yards and didn’t turn the ball over—and was one of three quarterbacks in no-touch green jerseys.

On April 4, Frost said there’s not a timetable to name a starter.

“The timetable is whenever it’s clear to us and to everybody, and I think there’s a lot of guys doing some good things,” he said. “But we’re nowhere near ready to make an announcement yet.”

Nothing likely changed in the days between Frost’s timetable thought and the spring game. The first 14 practices were meant to tell the coaches much more than the 15th in front of an announced 54,357 fans.

While Thompson’s Power Five starting experience and combination of quiet confidence and leadership makes him a solid choice to be Big Red’s QB1, the competition behind the Oklahoma City native may have heated up during the spring game. Everything that happened during the scrimmage should be taken with a grain of salt, of course—that’s important to remember. But the battle between the other two wearing green—Logan Smothers and Chubba Purdy—became more intriguing.

Judging by the eye test from this sportswriter—and it’s a poor eye—it was the Florida State transfer, Purdy, who looked more comfortable. He completed five of his 10 attempts for 60 yards and looked calm and confident in the pocket. It was good to see zip on his passes. His 27-yard completion to rising tight end AJ Rollins, the former Creighton Prep multi-sport star, might have been the prettiest pass of the day:

 

Purdy has Power Five starting experience, just not much. While in Tallahassee, the 6-2, 210-pounder was thrown into the fire on the road at North Carolina State in 2020, which isn’t exactly an easy environment for a true freshman making his first college start. Purdy did what he could considering the situation, going 27-of-53 for 219 yards and two touchdowns while rushing for 57 yards.

Unfortunately for Purdy, injuries were a part of his time at Florida State and they popped up again this spring. He broke his left collarbone in the first scrimmage of fall camp as a Seminole, then faced nagging problems with it following surgery which impacted his growth in the program. When Purdy got to Lincoln, he felt discomfort in a foot after early-spring workouts, which forced him to be limited to only mental reps instead of physical ones, too. The spring game was just his third full practice of the spring, which make his performance all the more impressive.

Yes, Purdy and the two other quarterbacks wearing green knew the pass rush wasn’t allowed to touch them if it got close. That would make a lot of guys look good in a pocket when the bullets aren’t live. But Purdy looked like he knew what he was doing maneuvering a pocket and going through his progressions. He’s a quarterback, no doubt about it. And he grew up under the same roof with a pretty good one, too, in Brock Purdy, his older brother who started four years at Iowa State.

Grains of salt aside, Purdy looked good at the spring game. It makes you wonder what he would’ve looked like if healthy for all 15 practices.

As for Smothers, Nebraska fans already know where his strengths lie. The 6-2, 195-pounder from Muscle Shoals, Alabama, provides the best run threat of the trio. If Thompson does win the starting quarterback job, could there be a situational run package for Smothers? There are benefits to the quarterback-run game, like adding another blocker for the defense. I like the idea of that.

However, Husker fans have watched a quarterback-run heavy offense for four consecutive years now. There haven’t been many wins, but plenty of times when you held your breath wondering if Adrian Martinez, one of the toughest guys out there, was going to get back up after taking another blow from a Big Ten defense.

One thing about Smothers is this: he’s got heart. He’s a competitor. He wants to be at Nebraska. He’s a man of few words, and I respect that about him. He quietly goes about his business.

“I came here from Alabama, this is where I want to be,” Smothers said when asked if he ever entertained the idea of transferring. “The whole time I knew I’m staying right here.”

When Martinez had to leave the game with an injury at Michigan State last season, Smothers didn’t look like a wide-eyed second-year player. It looked like he welcomed the pressure. He moved the offense to two first downs before back-to-back false starts from the offensive lines derailed the series.

It’s not a secret that Smothers needs to grow as a passer—he went 5-of-14 for 46 yards in the spring game. He’s serviceable in that area though, and if given an opportunity, might impress. Like Purdy, Smothers had one of the better throws of the spring game, it just fell incomplete because corner Quinton Newsome made a great play on the ball:

 

In his lone start of his college career, the season finale against Iowa, Smothers went 16-of-22 for 198 yards and rushed for 64 yards and two scores. The one interception he threw late in the fourth quarter stung, but it’s unfair to expect a game-winning drive from a quarterback who rarely saw the field in 2021. That was prime territory for miscommunication, and it happened.

Whipple has said he’s going to call plays that fit whoever is at quarterback. The plays that are called for Thompson wouldn’t necessarily be the ones called for Smothers.

Both Purdy and Smothers bring different qualities that would benefit the offense. It’s up to Frost and Whipple to decide how to use them.

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