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Who best set up what today’s Spring Game means in the big picture? Not overhyping it, not just setting it in the corner of the garage either, but keeping it in its proper context about as to what it means to depth chart discussions and the like? I’d say the new guy around here, yet also a four decades veteran of the game, nailed it.
“We want to get out of it healthy,” Nebraska offensive coordinator Mark Whipple said of his chief concern for today. “Is it going to make the difference (in position battles)? It does on some guys. I think it’s more for the younger guys who haven’t gotten as many reps.”
With some injuries already adding up across the roster – Nebraska is down to seven D-linemen, and you won’t see a key player like middle linebacker Luke Reimer or probably tight end Travis Vokolek – you can see why Whipple would lead his thought as he did. Besides, he has a lot of data points on his QBs and offense beyond what will show today.
“Casey Thompson has played against Oklahoma,” Whipple added, and “it’s not like it used to be in the old days where you were 15 full-pad days” in the spring. “Now there are some guys who can make headway there if they play well, and some guys they play really bad. But there’s a bunch of tape that we have.”
That’s not a buzz kill for those who just want a taste of football at Memorial Stadium today, and to see a sizable amount of new Huskers who will be key in 2022 at least zip the turf around a little bit. It’s just a useful cautionary flag to not turn the over up too high with any takes after this practice.
But there have been enough clues this spring, from the tape, to give some insight into who has their arrow pointed up as this spring closes, which is worth keeping in mind as you decide where to aim the binoculars today. No one needs a hint about watching Casey Thompson closely, so we’ll try to steer toward some others in this space that follows.
The newcomer safety from the junior-college ranks had a strong spring from Travis Fisher’s view, perhaps positioning himself for a possible starting role.
“Everything is starting to come second nature now and I’m starting to play faster,” Singleton said. “Really right now it’s about perfecting that and playing as fast as I can.” And as Fisher told him just this week, “There’s no reason for you to not be a 1. There’s no reason. There’s no reason to not come out and dominate wherever you’re out on the field. That’s the mentality you have to have.”
Fisher likes that Singleton is a safety with corner coverage skills. You can put him on all sorts of different skilled guys and he can run with them.
He’s a film junkie too apparently. “Let’s say those guys had 30 opportunities, 30 days to come in and watch film, he’s been there every single day,” the coach said. “That’s what I’m talking about. That’s what I want out of a guy I can coach instead of that cocky guy.”
Honestly, wide receiver Alante Brown’s name was the one you heard the most from the first week as a guy possibly rising – along with safety Marques Buford Jr.
Certainly Trey Palmer will be a major point of focus for fans, but Nebraska needs a player like Brown to be the real deal to build that depth, especially after the departure of Zavier Betts dropped that receiver room down one guy in talent.
“He’s a kid that comes to work every day to get it done. He’s probably the most improved guy since the start of this process when I came in,” said Mickey Joseph this spring, noting that Brown has really good hands for a former QB. But it’s the detailing of routes is where he is starting to figure it out. “We always say if we paint a pretty picture, the route can be completed. If it’s a bad picture, then the route won’t be completed.”
In the portal age, you like the stories like Jimari Butler, who has been off stage his first couple years in the program, but also didn’t just find the exit sign to drive off somewhere else.
While the D-line concerns are legitimate in my mind, Nebraska has some rush end/outside backer types that can be pretty good when put all together in Garrett Nelson, Caleb Tannor, Blaise Gunnerson and Butler. This feels like the year we start to get some servings of what Butler can do.
“I’m proud of Jimari because he plays very limited high school football, he’s a basketball guy,” said defensive coordinator Erik Chinander. “He goes out and he’s the best player and then he comes to Nebraska and all of a sudden you’re buried in the depth chart a little bit and you’re playing on the scout team. That one would be easy to say, ‘Hey, I’m going back to Mobile, Alabama.’ And he didn’t. He fought through it, he worked through it. He’s done everything the right way.”
A year ago at the Spring Game, the reps got out of sync somewhat at QB and we didn’t see Logan Smothers until pretty deep in the scrimmage making some think Smothers was also buried pretty deep in the competition. He actually wasn’t.
He ended up being the No. 2 and, frankly, played quite well for what he was asked to do anytime he popped up in a game. While Casey Thompson is probably the day’s headliner – we’ll save our words on him for now. And Chubba Purdy, slowed by injury to start the spring, probably will be the biggest curiosity to fans among the QBs.
But whenever Mark Whipple has spoken about Smothers, he’s seemed to like how quick he functions and doesn’t make the same mistake twice. We’ll see how Smothers has taken to Whipple’s teachings in the passing game, which has put a heavy focus on footwork and rhythm.
“I think one of them asked me the other day, ‘Coach, what do you mean with rhythm?'” Whipple recalled early this spring. “I said, ‘Well, look at you. You’re all uptight. You’ve got to get in the flow. You’ve got to be a dancer back there. You’ve got to see the pressures. Teaching them to throw into pressures, into man pressures, teaching them zone pressures. … Those sort of things.”
Ernest Hausmann is an early enrollee who has benefitted from a lot of reps as some veterans like Reimer clean up injuries. By all accounts, the young guy out of Columbus brings some lumber when he hits too. Nebraska may be set at the top of its depth chart at middle linebacker but Hausmann is one of those guys looking to set himself up for the future on that depth chart, with his future also perhaps being now on special teams.
“He’ll be way ahead of the curve when it does come around for fall camp,” said inside linebackers coach Barrett Ruud of Hausmann. “Obviously you see the athlete on tape right off the bat. But more importantly just a high, high quality person. Very focused guy. Still has a lot of fun, but man, he’s into it. And that’s what you look for. He’s trying to get better every single day … and he’s focused, he’s disciplined, he’s detailed and that’s nice when you don’t have to teach him a lot of that stuff early on.”
With the Huskers being cautious with Travis Vokolek this spring and Thomas Fidone out a while, attention goes to who’s next up at tight end. It’s very popular in these cases to immediately look at scholarship recruits and give your answer. And, yes, there should be intrigue in AJ Rollins and James Carnie. But let’s not do a disservice to what the guy who coaches them every day said this spring.
Because that guy is big on Boerkircher, another Aurora native like Austin Allen.
“He’s been very detailed since the offseason He’s really improved in all facets. He’s become a run blocker. I don’t think he has had a drop all spring. He’s made tough plays,” said Sean Beckton, who stopped him at four games to not burn his redshirt last year. “I saw the potential in him. Gives us a long shelf life with him here.”
Will one of the new transfers dent the starting lineup on the O-line? I’m still pretty curious about how the guards shake out. It seems like Nouredin Nouili at left guard might have the firmest hold, and veteran Trent Hixson is having a good go of it at center from what I gather.
But is there a spot for a Kevin Williams Jr. to slide in his one year as a Husker and be one of the top five. He’s someone to watch for today, as well as where fellow transfer Hunter Anthony sits. Donovan Raiola has not given a lot of clues out publicly, and his O-linemen haven’t either, about who’s where. And Turner Corcoran and Teddy Prochazka are hopefully on their way back this summer and fall.
But O-lineman Brant Banks did tell us the run game has been purring. So did Sean Beckton for that matter. “You’ll see it in the Spring Game,” Banks said. “We’re all right now at a level of conditioning that we’ve never been at before. So I mean, we can run the ball as many times as we want and we’ll keep coming out the same way every time. So I think that’s the biggest change we’ve had this year. You’ll see it in the Spring Game. The way we’re running it is insane.”
We won’t make you pick between your eagerness to see Anthony Grant and Jaquez Yant today.
Grant is a new guy in a Husker uniform, but so is Yant in some ways with a new body. Grant has impressed with his elusiveness and looks like he’ll be in the rotation for sure. Yant is down about 25 pounds to the low 230s in weight but can still truck people when needed. You’d assume both have big days in a setting like this where Nebraska probably won’t get overly exotic.
“It’s getting better,” Bryan Applewhite said of the new-look Yant and his stamina. “He couldn’t go two plays in a row the first day. … We finish runs. If we’re on the 50 and it’s a run play, they have to go across the goal line at full speed and then you have to jog back because you might have the next play. But he actually has done a good job of trying to work to get himself into playing shape, but they all have. Because that’s the standard.”
The Husker defensive line needs another body or two from the portal, I think. You can tell that just listening to Ty Robinson talk the other day about how many reps they’ve taken on. Also, some of those young guys just might not be quite ready.
Nash Hutmacher needs to be, but I dare say Mosai Newsom needs to jump into that category too. Both are worth attention in a scrimmage like this. Hutmacher is probably closer to where you need him, but Newsom needs to show some signs in events like this.
“I had hair before spring ball started and now it’s all gone,” Mike Dawson said, pulling off his cap as proof. “It’s a fine line. Because the guys, they want to do well. No one wants to do well more than the guy that is out there. So it’s not like they go out there and are like, ‘On this play I’m going to do the exact opposite of what he told me to do,’ but sometimes it looks like that and feels like that as a coach. You’re like, ‘What in the world? How can you be doing that after this amount of time in practice?'”
Punter Brian Buschini would have quite a fan club just by uncorking one 57-yarder today or something like that, angled toward the sideline, no return.
Buschini was honest that he was still working out some kinks early in the spring, so we’ll see where he’s at probably in limited views today. However, special teamer Grant Tagge did say this spring, “There’s been a couple times that we’ve been indoors doing special teams because it’s been rainy and cold. But he’s smacking the top of the roof in the Hawks (Center), and that’s something we haven’t always had. I think we’re really excited to go cover kicks for the guy.”
We’ll leave this preview at the door with Tommi Hill, who has jumped right into the conversation as a leading candidate for a starting corner job opposite Quinton Newsome. The next step for him, Fisher said, is understanding the game more like Newsome.
“That’s what we (need out) of him, because his skill level is so high. You ask me who got probably the best skill level, it’s (Tommi). His skill level is so high. Now we just got to fix him. How much time can Tommi spend in the film room instead of at the apartment? Or how much time over the summer does he come in the office and get with me and get with Quinton and learn this stuff? It helps this team.”
But if you want spring risers – Tommi Hill did that. For guys like him, Saturday is about trying to put an exclamation point on it.
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