Photo Credit: Eric Francis

Padding the Stats: Belated Spring Game Standout Plays

April 13, 2022

While most of you were watching the Red-White Spring Game on Saturday, I was in Des Moines at a grassroots basketball tournament. I had to catch a replay on Tuesday, which means I didn’t get to experience the atmosphere and everything that surrounded the game.

What I did get to see was the football, or at least that version of it. With the offense-defense format featuring nothing but thud “tackling” in the first half and so many impact players sidelined, I don’t think we learned all that much. So instead, I’m leaning into the entertainment factor of it all.

Here were some of the top plays that stood out to me, and some thoughts to go with them.

Anthony Grant’s 60-Yard Touchdown Run

Let’s start with the first offense points of the game for the Red team. Let’s get this disclaimer out of the way off the top: it probably shouldn’t have counted. It looked to me like Simon Otte was there and got a tag on Grant in the backfield. But the officials didn’t blow their whistles.

Grant showed some sweet feet on the run. He danced a bit in the backfield, but it wasn’t wasted motion. Grant took the handoff going from left to right, saw his path blocked off by Braxton Clark and cut it back, saw Otte there waiting and his linemen getting push up the middle, stepped up past the original line of scrimmage than cut it back and beat the defense to the left edge, turning the corner and beating Tommi Hill in a foot race up the left side for the touchdown.

Credit to AJ Rollins with a chip from Nate Boerkircher for washing Ty Robinson out of the play and sealing the edge, then Boerkircher climbed to the second level to chip Nick Henrich who Brant Banks was blocking. Grant did the rest.

Color me intrigued by Grant.

Alante Brown’s Missed Opportunity

This next play (and I’m going chronologically rather than ranking them because it’s easier) is more of a disappointment than a highlight. Nebraska kept things pretty vanilla on offense (we’ll have to wait until Aug. 27 to see the new-look offense in all its glory), but they did throw a few tricky plays in there. 

Late in the first quarter, whoever was calling plays (we know it wasn’t Mark Whipple) dialed up a double-pass for wideout Alante Brown. I wanted to see what kind of arm the former Simeon (Chicago) High School signal-caller had, but he didn’t pull the trigger.

Credit to the defense for sniffing it out. Nick Henrich quickly recognized what was happening and showed off some serious closing speed to reach Brown before he had a chance to find anybody open and tagged him down for a loss of 5.

Good job by the defense, but in this case I wouldn’t have minded a busted coverage.

AJ Rollins’ 27-Yard Catch

Two plays after the failed double pass, we saw maybe the most impressive aerial play of the day. On third-and-13, the Red team lined up at the right hash marks. Tight end AJ Rollins lined up in-line to the left side and ran a deep out route. 

The offensive line gave quarterback Chubba Purdy a clean pocket and the transfer dropped back and fired a rocket outside the numbers to the left side. Rollins got deep on outside linebacker John Bullock (Creighton Prep on Creighton Prep crime) and Rollins went up and high-pointed the ball, coming down with it as the rotating safety, Myles Farmer, tried to break it up.

Rollins is perhaps the guy who has benefitted the most from the opportunity created by the injuries in the tight end room, and I thought he had a really good day overall. He caught four of his five targets for 39 yards, none more impressive than this one.

Jimari Butler’s Sack

The defense had eight tackles for loss, three sacks and four quarterback hurries according to the stats. Granted, it’s hard to know what to make of those numbers because of the format, but I still thought the edge rushers showed some things (the offensive tackles, not so much).

Garrett Nelson was responsible for two of those sacks, and I thought he looked terrific rushing off the edge. He looked faster and more explosive than I’ve seen and he showed some serious bend getting around the edge.

But I’m going to focus on a younger guy here. Consider me intrigued by Jimari Butler. 

Early in the second quarter, the Logan Smothers-led offense faced a third-and-7 inside its own 30. On the snap, Butler shot off the edge and left tackle Ezra Miller attempted to slide over in front and block him. Butler promptly put two hands on him and shoved him out of his way without breaking stride, putting Miller in the turf and continuing forward for the sack, tagging Smothers before he got the pass off.

Nebraska is obviously making a hard push to land former TCU edge rusher Ochaun Mathis from the transfer portal for immediate help, but the Huskers might have something long-term in Butler.

Chubba Purdy’s Pass that Didn’t Count

Whereas Grant’s touchdown counted but probably shouldn’t have, this pass from Purdy to Zach Weinmaster probably would have counted but didn’t.

Late in the first half in White team territory, the Red team went for it on fourth-and-5. With Purdy at quarterback. On the snap, Blaise Gunnerson turned the corner on right tackle Hunter Anthony and flushed Purdy out of the pocket toward the right sideline. 

Early enrollee Ernest Hausmann sprinted after Purdy from the second level and the quarterback jumped backwards on the run and fired the ball up the sideline. Somehow he managed to drop the ball in a bucket between three defenders and walk-on running back-turned-slot receiver Weinmaster, coming over from the far side of the field, came down with it.

The officials determined Weinmaster’s toes came down on the sideline, but it looked like his back foot was touching first. Regardless, Purdy put the ball the only place it could go with a ridiculous pass, laying it over the outstretched arm of cornerback Javier Morton with safeties DeShont Singleton and Ashton Hausmann trailing Weinmaster.

Obviously you’d rather not see your quarterback having to make a play while running for his life on fourth down, but the ability to do so might come in handy for this team.

Jarrett Synek’s Touchdowns

This last section is a two-for-one special. I’m sure most fans were looking forward to seeing the new quarterbacks, but it might have been the walk-on redshirt freshman from Hastings who stole the show.

Jarrett Synek finished the game 3-of-5 passing for 55 yards and a touchdown and ran the ball two times for 24 yards and another score.

Let’s start with the run. Early in the fourth quarter, the Red team faced a fourth-and-4 in the red zone and went for it. Synek dropped back to pass, didn’t see anything downfield, pulled the ball down and took off for the right sideline. He showed off the wheels, beating Otte to the edge and running through his diving shoestring tackle attempt and continuing forward.

Noa Pola-Gates had a crack at taking him down at the 3, but he cut it back and broke the arm-tackle attempt then crossed the goal line for the 16-yard score. Truitt Robinson, the younger brother of defensive lineman Ty Robinson and a walk-on receiver, had a block in there to help Synek out as well.

The degree of difficulty on the passing touchdown wasn’t quite as high, but it was still impressive. On first-and-10 just past midfield, Synek dropped back to pass and scanned the field. He didn’t see anyone initially and rolled out of the pocket to his right to extend the play while keeping his eyes downfield. Finally, he spotted a receiver and let it fly, throwing a strike to Ty Hahn who caught it near the 5 and crossed the goal line before safety Koby Bretz could get to him.

It looked like a broken coverage as Hahn was wide open, but Synek executed the play well and put the ball right on the money for the 42-yard score, the longest completion of the day. If you didn’t see Synek in high-school, he was a serious dual-threat baller for Hastings, putting up some crazy stat lines.

As much fun as it is to see the new guys or big games, guys like Synek and Hahn are truly what the spring game is about — guys who put in the work but face an uphill climb towards playing time in the regular season getting a chance to play in front of family and friends and show the fan base what they can do.

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