10 things we learned from Nebraska's Spring Game
Nebraska’s annual Red-White Spring Game ended with the White team (defense) topping the Red (offense) 43-39 on Saturday afternoon at Memorial Stadium.
Here are 10 of our biggest takeaways from the scrimmage...
1. The football was what it was
The spring game has always been more of an event and celebration for the fans than a serious evaluation tool for the coaching staff, and this year’s edition embodied that to the fullest.
For the second year in a row, Nebraska opted to use “thud” tackling rules, where players did not tackle to the ground, and plays were blown dead at the judgment of the officials.
As a result, there really wasn’t much to take away from the scrimmage from a live football standpoint, especially at the Huskers’ two most concerning position groups, the offensive and defensive lines.
We still got to see new quarterback Casey Thompson make his unofficial NU debut, as well as other intriguing newcomers on both sides of the ball.
But when most of the projected starters aren't tackling or being tackled, it’s impossible to gauge how good a team really is in these games.
2. The quarterback play was up and down
While the format made it difficult to evaluate other positions, fans at least got their first good looks at Nebraska’s quarterback group on Saturday.
As expected, Thompson took the first series with the offense but only managed three drives, finishing the day 3-for-4 passing for 31 yards. He was on the field for the Red’s first scoring drive, though all it entailed was a handoff to Anthony Grant for a 60-yard touchdown run.
Sophomore Logan Smothers was the next QB up on the second series, and he ended the day 5-of-14 for 46 yards while losing six yards on the ground.
Redshirt freshman Chubba Purdy was up next on the fourth drive, and he looked as good as any of the scholarship quarterbacks, going 5-of-10 for 63 yards.
None of the quarterbacks put together much sustained success, as the offense managed just two scoring drives - Grant’s long run and a 26-yard field goal by Chase Contreraz (led by Purdy).
In all, the offense managed nine first downs over 12 possessions (57 plays) in the first half, and Purdy accounted for four of them.
Heinrich Haarberg, Matt Masker, and Jarrett Synek took all of the snaps in the second half and did not wear green no-contact jerseys like the others.
3. Special teams still work to do
As a result of the offense’s struggles, Nebraska’s specialists got plenty of work during the spring game.
When all was said and done, new punter Brian Buschini punted the ball eight times for 40.2 yards per attempt. It was a bit of a mixed back with the Montana transfer, as he boomed a 63-yarder and put two inside the 20-yard line. But he also had a 14-yard shank.
The Huskers’ new projected starting placekicker, Furman transfer Timmy Bleekrode, won’t be here until the summer. So the walk-on Contreraz got the bulk of the work on field goals and extra points.
Contreraz made his first field goal try from 26 yards but then badly missed a 42-yard attempt wide left.
Gabe Heins was the next kicker in, and he didn’t do much better, as his first PAT wasn’t even close.
Beyond the kicking game, it was hard to get much of a read on how the rest of NU’s special teams units have progressed this spring, as none of the returns were live.
4. Offensive line picture cleared up a bit
Because of injuries to a couple of key projected starters, Nebraska’s offensive line was an incomplete picture this spring.
But as far as what the Huskers had available, Saturday gave at least a glimpse of where the top group stands at the moment.
The first offensive line grouping of the day was Brant Banks at left tackle, Nouredin Nouili at left guard, Trent Hixson at center, Brock Bando at right guard, and Bryce Benhart at right tackle.
There were numerous other combinations used throughout the day. As noted, the return of guys like Turner Corcoran and Teddy Prochazka should have a big say in what the starting group looks like in Week 1.
But the first five we saw on Saturday appear to be very much in that discussion going into the summer.
5. Garret Nelson capped off an impressive spring
While the offense didn’t do much, part of that had to do with the play of Nebraska’s defense.
In particular, the Huskers’ pass rush was as impressive as anything we saw on Saturday. A lot of that had to do with the play of Garrett Nelson, who had a game-high two sacks in the first half against the top offenses.
After the scrimmage, Nelson said one of his biggest offseason goals was to bulk up and increase his speed and explosiveness off the edge.
Nelson appeared right on track on Saturday, having added roughly 10 pounds of muscle and shedding around four-percent body fat.
Not only was Nelson firing off the ball, but there were also a few plays where he powered over one-on-one blocks. One of those was against the No. 1 left tackle (for now) Banks.
6. Anthony Grant showed some burst
Again, it was nearly impossible to evaluate anything with the running game in the first half. But the play of the game still occurred on the ground, courtesy of Grant.
On the first snap of the game’s third series, Grant took a run around the left end and burned past the defense for a 60-yard touchdown run.
The blocking was nearly perfect on the play, but Grant’s ability to hit another gear and out-run defensive backs to the end zone showed a dynamic the Huskers’ running game has lacked in recent years.
The junior college transfer didn’t do much else on the day, finishing with six carries for 69 yards. But his one big run showed why he got so much praise from coaches and teammates throughout spring ball.
7. Cornerback competition far from over
Replacing Cam Taylor-Britt at cornerback is one of the largest voids Nebraska had to fill on its defense this offseason.
On Saturday, the top two corners to start the spring game were Quinton Newsome and, somewhat surprisingly, Braxton Clark.
Arizona State transfer Tommi Hill got his share of snaps in the game, but it was notable that the fifth-year senior Clark was the first on the field.
Clark ended up with a tackle for loss and a pass breakup, while Hill posted one tackle.
That competition is far from over, but it’s clear that Clark is still very much in contention for a starting job.
8. Makeshift tight end group holds its own
One of the reasons Nebraska opted to go with an offense vs. defense format was because injuries had beaten up a few position groups.
That included the tight ends, who were without their top-four players going into the spring game. But despite being limited on numbers, that group ended up making some of the highlight plays of the day.
AJ Rollins led all receivers with four catches for 49 yards, including an impressive 27-yard snag from Purdy. John Goodwin also hauled in an impressive 33-yard grab.
NU’s tight end group - which also included Nate Boerkircher and James Carnie - combined for eight receptions for 95 yards on nine targets.
9. Huskers introduce N-Vest Nebraska Program
As Nebraska continues to stay on the frontlines of the NIL movement, athletic director Trev Alberts announced the university’s latest plans on Saturday with the N-Vest Nebraska program.
Beginning in the 2022-23 academic year, Husker scholarship athletes will be rewarded financially for academic performance. Those student-athletes who meet established academic benchmarks will receive $5,980 per year.
During the spring game, Alberts clarified that it wouldn’t be based on individual GPA but each sport’s overall Academic Progress Rate (APR).
Nebraska will provide roughly $3 million in additional financial support to its athletes.
10. Husker fans do their part again
For a program that hasn’t finished over .500 since 2016, getting 54,357 people to show up for a spring practice is pretty remarkable.
This year’s spring game didn’t offer much from a football standpoint. But that didn’t stop Nebraska fans from turning out like always.
While it was a great showcase of the Huskers’ fan support and a nice introduction for all of the new coaches and players added this offseason, the crowd was significant for the 30 scholarship offer recruits in attendance.
One of Nebraska’s best selling points is its fan base, and few things showcase that more than having that many people show up for a relatively meaningless scrimmage.
In the many visitor updates that are soon to follow over the next few days, there is no doubt that Husker fans’ loyalty will be mentioned by nearly every recruit.