Five things to watch as spring ball resumes
After one introductory practice and a full week off for spring break, Nebraska gets back to work this morning to get the meat of its 2018 spring practices underway.
Here are five key things we'll be keeping an eye on over the next three weeks...
1. Let the QB battle begin
Easily the biggest position battle on the roster this offseason is at quarterback, where Nebraska will officially kick off a wide-open competition between redshirt sophomore Patrick O'Brien, redshirt freshman Tristan Gebbia, true freshman Adrian Martinez, and even walk-on Andrew Bunch.
Head coach Scott Frost, offensive coordinator Troy Walters, and quarterbacks coach Mario Verduzco have already had numerous meetings with the group leading into the spring, and the first helmets-only practice before the break was a good initial on-field introduction.
But starting today, the race is going to turn up a few notches. Frost and his staff have stressed that there's only so much value they put into quarterbacks knowing what they're supposed to do in the film room and throwing well in jerseys and shorts.
Some of the most valuable evaluation is going to happen when the Huskers finally put the pads on. Even though the quarterbacks won't be open for contact this spring, how they handle throwing against a live defense could be the first true separator.
2. How fast will the players adjust to the tempo?
The first practice on the Friday before spring break was a nice tone-setter for Frost and Co. to give their new players a taste of what to expect when the bulk of spring ball gets underway.
All accounts were that the first session was a definite success, as Frost and other NU coaches said it was a noticeably better inaugural practice than their first day at Central Florida two years ago.
While those reports were certainly encouraging, the Huskers are about to learn what Frost practices are all about over the next month. Frost said he ideally wants to get 130-140 reps into each session, meaning with three practices a week, NU could run more than 1,800 practice snaps before the Red-White Spring Game.
Can the players maintain the level of focus, intensity, and effort they showed on Day 1? Or will the speed in which the new staff operates take them some time to adjust?
3. How will NU work around injuries at center?
There's a chance that junior Michael Decker and senior Cole Conrad, the only two returners with actual game experience at center, could potentially both out for the majority of the spring due to injuries.
As a result, Nebraska might be left with a fairly big void to fill in the middle of its offensive line during spring ball.
Decker (knee) will still be able to participate in walk-thru reps but no live work. NU's medical staff evaluated Conrad (shoulder) further on Monday, so his availability going forward remains to be seen.
Offensive line coach Greg Austin listed guys like Tanner Farmer, Jerald Foster, and Boe Wilson and the first candidates who could help take over the workload at center this spring. 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.
4. Who will emerge at running back?
While he has only just begun to evaluate his newest running back unit at Nebraska, Frost said he thought there was more than enough potential within the group.
Junior Tre Bryant’s knee 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 cautious 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 junior college recruit Greg Bell would also join the mix this spring.
Another factor that could have a big role in determining playing time this season is versatility, as the staff has placed a high value on skill guys who can play both in the backfield and in the slot and perimeter as receivers.
5. Will the pass rush improve?
Nebraska's defense obviously had an abundance of issues last season, but the lack of any semblance of a pass rush ranked towards the top of the unit's list of problems.
The Huskers managed a dismal 14 sacks in 2017, a number that undoubtedly has to increase significantly for the Blackshirts to get back to being a dominant defense again.
It will be interesting to see if a veteran like senior Freedom Akinmoladun (who had a team-high 4.5 sacks in 2015) or fast-rising sophomore Ben Stille (who led NU with 3.5 sacks and 10 tackles for loss last year) can emerge as pass rushing threats in new defensive coordinator Erick Chinander's scheme.
More interesting will be if any of the new additions to NU's roster can make a case for immediate roles over the course of the offseason. Nebraska added at least four potential instant-impact edge rushers in freshmen Caleb Tannor, David Alston, Tate Wildeman, and Casey Rogers.
The Huskers also have a wealth of talent at linebacker that should also play a major part in helping increase the pressure on the quarterback in 2018 and beyond.