1. Quarterback battle is wide open
Given the fact that head coach Scott Frost and offensive coordinator Troy Walters have hardly seen Nebraska’s quarterbacks even throw a football yet, neither were ready to say much about where the competition was for the 2018 starting job.
Frost made it clear that the quarterbacks were no different than any other position in that they would go into the start of spring practice with a clean slate.
From there, the battles would go through the spring, on through summer workouts, and likely into the start of fall camp before any decisions were made.
That means Friday’s opening spring practice will be the first day of months of upcoming competition between the group of sophomore Patrick O’Brien, redshirt freshman Tristan Gebbia, and true freshman Adrian Martinez.
The change in offensive system will be a hefty adjustment for returning QBs O’Brien and Gebbia, but Frost said both players had maintained positive attitudes and were eager to learn as quickly as possible.
“Tristan and Patrick have been great,” Frost said. “They’ve been great teammates, they’ve been working hard to learn. I haven’t gotten to see them do much with a football yet, but I’ve been really impressed with how they’ve handled everything and how they’ve gone to work trying to learn the new offense. I’m excited to see what those guys can do.”
2. Frost unveils pre-spring injury list
While Nebraska has yet to hold a practice under Frost, the Huskers are already dealing with some notable lingering injury issues as they head into the start of spring ball.
Frost said safety JoJo Domann (knee), linebacker Luke Gifford (hip), and likely center Michael Decker (knee) were expected to miss all of spring practices as they recover from offseason surgeries.
Running back Tre Bryant (knee) and linebacker Sedrick King (undisclosed) are expected to practice in limited roles, while offensive lineman Cole Conrad (knee) will be further evaluated when the players return from spring break on March 26.
One positive update came for receiver Tyjon Lindsey, who was hospitalized during the first week of winter workouts with rhabdomyolysis (a muscle disorder that could potentially lead to kidney failure).
Frost said Lindsey was “doing great” since his incident and was fully back in the mix with team activities.
“Ever since then he’s done a great job,” Frost said. “He’s gone to work learning. He looks quick and fast, so I’m excited for him in spring ball. He seems to be really enjoying what we’re doing.”
3. Center depth becomes temporary concern
Seeing how there’s a chance neither Decker or Conrad could be available this spring, Nebraska’s depth at center suddenly becomes a potential concern for the next month or so.
Frost said there’s a good chance they would have to move some players in from other positions on the line to help provide a few more bodies in the middle of the offensive line.
Offensive line coach Greg Austin listed guys like Tanner Farmer, Jerald Foster, and Boe Wilson and the first such candidates who came to mind. He also said Matt Farniok and Hunter Miller could move inside to help give snaps.
Though it could make for an inconvenient hurdle to deal with this spring, Frost said the good news was his scheme was very friendly for offensive linemen, which should help ease the adjustments.
“This system does a lot of favors for offensive linemen,” Frost said. “The tempo that we play at helps to wear out the defense. It keeps people on their toes. There’s a lot of things that can help an offensive line and I think those guys will learn to appreciate those things as we go forward.”
4. Austin preaching importance of 'The Pipeline'
If you want to see a fire light up in Austin’s eyes, all you have to do is ask him about “The Pipeline”.
A former Nebraska offensive lineman from 2003-06, Austin knows all about the tradition of the unit he’ll inherit this season. That’s why he wasted no time making sure his players learned about the responsibility that comes playing o-line for the Huskers.
“Ask those guys. Ask them. The first meeting we had, I talked about The Pipeline,” Austin said. “I talked about the standard that this place has that was established a long time ago. I told them, I got recruited to that same standard by Milt Tenopir and Dan Young, and Barney Cotton was my coach when I played as a true freshman.
“We talked about it yesterday - every meeting that I have with those guys I tell them, ‘The standard is the standard.’ They know the standard. There are pictures all around of guys and bios they can read off all these Nebraska offensive line greats.
“I mean, I was not an Outland or Rimington Trophy winner, but I will tell you one thing: it would probably give me more joy to coach one than to actually be one, especially at my alma mater.”
5. Chinander still weighing best approach to Blackshirts
It didn’t take long for Erick Chinander to get question that every new Nebraska defensive coordinator gets almost as soon as he takes the job: “How are you going to handle the Blackshirts?”
There have been several different approaches taken with the heralded black practice jerseys by the past few defensive staffs, often times to the frustration of NU fans over one of the program’s proudest traditions.
Chinander said he wasn’t exactly sure what his plan would be for the Blackshirts, and he was still uncertain as to when they would be awarded or how many would be given out.
However, Chinander stressed that he wanted to get as much valuable input as he could from people like Frost - who will be heavily involved in the process - and legendary former defensive coordinator Charlie McBride.
“One of the things that is challenging for me is that everybody’s kind of got their own idea of what it means,” Chinander said. “I think everybody knows what a Blackshirt is, but I think there’s stories circulating around about how you get one, how long do you get to keep it, what does it actually mean?
“What I’m still trying to sift through right now is what does that mean for 2018 and beyond? I do not want to stray from tradition. I just want to make sure that it’s as good as it can be and it’s not something that we’re just throwing around lightly - ‘You get a Blackshirt! You get a Blackshirt!’ I want to make sure that we know exactly what it means to us before the first Blackshirt gets given out.”
6. Dixon's 2018 status remains unclear
Nebraska is still waiting on the official ruling regarding the eligibility status defensive back Breon Dixon, who submitted an appeal to the NCAA to play immediately after transferring from Ole Miss in the offseason.
Frost said they hadn’t heard any news regarding where Dixon’s appeal stood, but noted there were several other former Rebel players who transferred and submitted similar requests after Ole Miss and former coach Hugh Freeze were hit with hard NCAA sanctions.
The Huskers remain optimistic about Dixon’s chances of getting the waiver, and the sophomore is on campus and enrolled in classes and went through winter workouts.
“He’s doing a good job in workouts right now and we’re glad to have him,” Frost said. “I know there’s several kids that have left an institution that are looking to see if they can be immediately eligible or not. I don’t think that’s worked out yet, and I don’t think an NCAA ruling’s come down yet. So I’m sure you’ll find out when I do.”
7. Improving run game is a top priority
Frost knows about Nebraska’s rich history at running back as well as anyone, and he’s confident his offense will help add some more names to that impressive list in the future.
In talking about the importance of having a feature running back, Frost reeled off a long list of players who had thrived at the position in his style of offense: LaGarrette Blount, LaMichael James, De’Anthony Thomas, and Kenjon Barner at Oregon and Adrian Killins and Otis Anderson Jr. at UCF, to name a few.
While he still had to evaluate his newest backfield at Nebraska, Frost said he thought there was more than enough potential within the group.
Bryant’s injury status might be one of the biggest questions heading into the spring, as if he can get back to where he was at the start of last season he could be the frontrunner to win the starting job this fall.
Frost said they would be very careful with Bryant this spring, but added that he watched the film and thought the junior “looked really good” in NU’s first two games.
Frost also said seniors Mikale Wilbon and Devine Ozigbo and sophomore Jaylin Bradley all “looked great” in winter workouts, and noted that star juco recruit Greg Bell would also join the mix this spring.
“Our offense is always going to be committed to the run first,” Frost said. “To varying degrees we’ve thrown it and run it depending on our talent, but we can’t go as an offense - and really no offense can go if you can’t establish the run.”
8. Winter workouts make big impression on Huskers
New strength and conditioning coach Zach Duvall came to Nebraska with a big reputation as one of the best in the business, and the early results from the winter workout program seem to back that up.
One Husker after another raved about the gains the players have made in the weight room over the past couple months, not only in their strength and mass, but also in their drive to work harder than ever.
Senior nose tackle Mick Stoltenberg said the defensive and offensive lines were the first group to lift each day at 6 a.m., and they embraced that as “a badge of honor” to set the tone for the rest of the team.
“It was probably the best offseason I’ve had,” junior defensive lineman Carlos Davis said.
Senior defensive end Freedom Akinmoldun said he’s never been stronger in his life, and he just set a new personal best mark of 630 pounds on his one-rep squat max to prove it.
“That’s a number I thought I was never going to see,” Akinmoladun said. “I never thought I was going to put that on my back.”
Junior linebacker Mohamed Barry said the workouts have been as intense as advertised, but the players quickly embraced them as a daily challenge to get better individually and as a team.
“The workouts pushed us to the edge and pushed people to points of almost breaking,” Barry said. “That’s what I liked about it. Just seeing people getting pushed to that point, it’s exciting.”
9. First look comes on Friday
Nebraska will officially kick off its 2018 spring practices with a 6-8 a.m. session on Friday morning before the team takes the following nine days off for spring break.
Frost said the coaches and players had been meeting all week to get on the same page going into spring ball, and Friday’s practice would essentially serve as a chance to lay out exactly how the rest of the spring would go once things fully got underway.
While it may only be an initial introduction of sorts, Friday will likely serve as a stark contrast to the practices NU had in the past. Frost said he expects to get in around 130-140 reps each practice between team and 7-on-7 drills.
“This isn’t going to be Navy SEAL Hell Week… Our practices are fun,” Frost said. “The guys are going to enjoy them. We’re just going to get a lot done in a short amount of time than most people do. It’s going to take a while to get to that conditioning level, but we’re also not going to kill them off on the first day.”
10. 'Have a desire to excel and no fear of failure'
That headline above is the mantra Frost and his staff have adopted to describe their coaching style and the message they want to instill in their players.
Frost certainly doesn’t lack intensity, but he refuses to be the type of coach that berates his players whenever they make a mistake.
Instead, he wants to encourage them to trust their abilities, make plays, and not play scared of being chewed out by their coaches.
Frost said he learned that approach from Pittsburgh Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin, who was his defensive backs coach with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers when Frost was a safety in the NFL.
“We’re not going to yell and scream at kids,” Frost said. “We’re not going to cuss at kids. I don’t think that’s the right thing to do, and I also don’t want to make kids afraid to go make a great play. If someone misses a tackle or drops a ball, they don’t need to be yelled at, they need to be taught the right way to do it so it doesn’t happen again.
“Once you take away that fear of what might happen if you make a bad play, it really frees you up to go make great plays. I want our team to always play with a desire to excel and no fear of failure.”