10 things we learned from Nebraska's Spring Game
1. After Martinez, the QB race is wide open
Fans got a little bit longer look at starting quarterback Adrian Martinez than some expected, as he played the first five drives for the Red team for a total of 23 snaps.
After he checked out of the game, though, was when the real quarterback competition began. Bunch started the first five drives for the White squad, and he, Noah Vedral, and Luke McCaffrey finished out the game.
While Bunch got the start opposite Martinez, it was Vedral and McCaffrey who saw more success in their opportunities. Head coach Scott Frost said in his postgame interview that Vedral would be the No. 2 quarterback if NU had to play a game tomorrow, but added that the battle behind Martinez was nowhere near finished.
“All three of the other guys did some good things,” Frost said. “Made a couple mistakes here and there, and there’s a learning curve there, but I feel good about that room in general. We’ll let the competition stay open all the way through fall.”
2. Mission accomplished: Huskers stay healthy through spring ball
Aside from a brief scare when cornerback Dicaprio Bootle briefly went down with an apparent right leg injury in the second quarter (he got up and walked off under his own power), Nebraska accomplished its biggest goal of the day by avoiding any notable injuries.
There’s a reason Frost mentioned that during his opening answer after the game, as his most pressing concern for the Spring Game was finding the balance of putting on a good show for the 85,000 fans at Memorial Stadium while also keeping his guys healthy.
Aside from a few bumps, bruises, and minor setbacks, the Huskers made it through spring ball relatively unscathed, and for Frost, that was as important of a victory as anything.
“My first thought is that I’m happy we got out of the spring healthy,” Frost said. “For the most part, we didn’t have any major issues. I think we got out pretty healthy today.”
3. Defense capped off an impressive spring
The deck was certainly stacked in the Red team’s favor with nearly all of the first-team players on its roster, but both the Red and White defenses came to play on Saturday and finished off an all-around strong spring.
The Red defense started with the projected first unit of Darrion Daniels, Ben Stille, and Carlos Davis on the defensive line; Mohamed Barry, Collin Miller, Alex Davis, and JoJo Domann at linebacker; and Bootle, Lamar Jackson, Marquel Dismuke, and Deontai Williams in the secondary.
That group stifled the White offense all day, holding it to just 14-of-34 passing for 155 yards, a pick, and four sacks. Take away Matt Masker’s 55-yard scoring bomb to Wyatt Liewer, the Red defense would have held the White to under 200 total yards and zero touchdowns.
The jump the defense has made since the end of last season was one of the top storylines of the spring, and Saturday’s spring game gave a good glimpse as to why.
"We're really good; like, really good,” Daniels said. “The teams I've played on that were really good had a lot of leaders in older guys, but on this defense, there's leadership all around. We've got a lot of young guys holding a lot of older guys accountable and the same vice-versa. I feel like there's a really good balance of everybody keeping everybody right."
4. Pickering has come a long way
There was a point last season where Nebraska’s kicking game, for the first time in years, seemed to be on very shaky ground. Barret Pickering, then a true freshman, missed four of his first eight field goals to start the year.
But the Birmingham, Ala., native turned his season around by making his final 10 attempts. On Saturday, Pickering looked as calm and collected as ever, drilling all three of his field goals from 27, 33, and 45 yards and hit all four of his extra points.
Nebraska had gotten a bit spoiled with its run of top-level kickers over the years, so for Pickering step his game up the way he has since last November will provide some familiar comfort in the third element.
5. McCaffrey showed his potential
He may still have a steep hill to climb before he’s ready to push for a starting job, but McCaffrey showed why Nebraska’s coaching staff is so excited about his potential.
The true freshman only completed three of his 13 passes while repping with the Red and White offenses, but he also made a few plays that raised some eyebrows on Saturday. McCaffrey showed the ability to improvise outside of the pocket and buy time with his feet, and he also put his dynamic speed on display as a runner.
The former three-star didn’t score a touchdown and threw an interception, but both of those areas were also the fault of his receivers. His pick came on a deflection off the hands of his intended target, and he and a potential touchdown pass dropped in the end zone.
“I think he’s a well-composed kid who’s going to be able to handle it,” Martinez said of McCaffrey. “The first time you go out there in front of 90,000 there’s not a whole lot that can really prepare you, but I think he did a good job, I really did. He made some real nice throws, some good plays and he controlled what he could. I think he did a solid job out there.”
6. Daniels was as advertised
The arrival of Daniels as a graduate transfer from Oklahoma State was one of the storylines of the spring, and his unofficial debut as a Husker did not disappoint.
Daniels only had three tackles and a half tackle for loss on the day, but his presence in the middle of NU’s top defensive line was evident from the opening snap.
He combined on a TFL and then pushed his blocker into the quarterback to help cause an incompletion on the Red’s first defensive series, and he helped his team hold the White squad to just 81 rushing yards on 25 carries.
The fun part is imagining how good Daniels could be with a few more months of learning Nebraska’s scheme under his belt.
“I know this spring I was really trying to get ahold of my position as a defensive lineman,” Daniels said. “Just trying to get my plays down and always telling them to see the whole scheme of the defense, trying to understand the coverages and the way the linebackers are doing it. So, I feel like it's trying to understand the whole defense instead of just the D-line."
7. Davis has made some big gains
Alex Davis always seemed to have the tools necessary to be an impact player on Nebraska’s defense, but never looked comfortable enough to maximize his ability on game day.
The reports all spring were that something had finally clicked with the 6-foot-5, 255-pound senior, and he gave plenty of reason to believe it on Saturday. Davis was credited with a game-high two sacks and had a downfield interception negated when Bunch was ruled down on a touch sack.
The Riviera Beach, Fla., native was the starting strongside linebacker for the Red team, and if he keeps up his current play he’ll likely be on the first unit again come September.
8. Punting, return games left much to be desired
Maybe the most concerning part of the spring game was Nebraska’s punting, as there was little consistency from any of the three punters.
Senior Isaac Armstrong, who took over the starting duties last season, averaged a modest 37.5 yards on his four punts and didn’t place any inside the 20-yard line. Caleb Lightbourn, who lost his job to Armstrong, did little to make his case by punting three times for an average of just 29.3 yards.
Walk-on Jackson Walker got the majority of the work for the White team, posting the best average of the day (39.2) on four punts, pinning two inside the 20.
In the return game, there were no kickoffs in Saturday’s intra-squad scrimmage. Also, given the number of key players who sat out of the spring game, many of the contenders for the top punt returner job weren’t even available to play.
As a result, cornerback Cam Taylor handled all of the punt return duties, and he fair caught the four punts he fielded on the day.
9. Bradley, Belt took advantage of their opportunities
Because of Nebraska’s dearth of running back depth this spring, guys like Jaylin Bradley and Brody Belt had golden opportunities to shine in the Red-White game.
While neither put up eye-popping numbers, both had solid days and led their respective Red and White teams in rushing. Bradley, one of only two scholarship running backs available for the game, rushed 12 times for a game-high 57 yards, including posting the longest run of the day at 18 yards.
Belt, who emerged as a nice spring story with his consistent play in practice, carried the ball a game-high 13 times for 53 yards, and he had a touchdown on the opening drive negated by a penalty.
The running back room is going to change dramatically this fall when some new faces arrive on campus, but if nothing else both Bradley and Belt made their case going into the summer.
10. Once again, a hat tip to Husker fans
What makes the Spring Game such a special event is how much it means to Nebraska’s fan base.
For the coaches and the players, it’s a fun experience, but in the grand scheme of things is just one of 15 spring practices. For the fanbase, though, it’s one of the biggest highlights of the offseason, and the 85,946 fans who filed into Memorial Stadium made Saturday another Red-White Game to remember.
"It kind of exceeded (my expectations),” Daniels said. “It was probably the most fans I've seen in a stadium my whole time in college, and it's just a spring game. I can only imagine what it'd be like for a real game."