Notebook: Another step taken in QB competition
Click Here to view this video.
The hottest topic surrounding Nebraska all spring was the competition and development at the quarterback position, but in the wake of Saturday's annual Red-White Spring Game, there might still be more questions than answers.
None of the six quarterbacks who saw snaps in the game were overly dazzling, and the group combined to complete 34-of-68 passes for 412 yards, four touchdowns and three interceptions.
Junior incumbent starter Tommy Armstrong was 6-of-12 for 77 yards and a touchdown on the day for the Red team, while redshirt freshman AJ Bush got the start for the White squad and finished 12-of-22 for 124 yards but threw two picks.
Maybe the best performance of the game went to redshirt freshman Zack Darlington, who was 7-of-11 for 70 yards and a touchdown along with a 19-yard scramble for a first down.
On the other end, sophomore Johnny Stanton was the odd man out, as he didn't even take his first snap until 16 minutes remaining in the game. Stanton ended up competing just 3-of-11 passes for 19 yards and an interception.
Needless to say, it was far from perfect at the position new head coach Mike Riley and offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf consider the most important on the entire team.
But considering NU is just four weeks of practice in to installing a completely new system under a first-year coaching staff, the spring game struggles didn't come as much of a surprise.
"I think the best way to describe all the quarterbacks today is they made some plays, and they all missed some," Riley said. "I think we missed some open receivers, I think we missed some reads. We threw a couple of more mental types of mistakes for interceptions than physical. But probably the positive part is they all made some plays, and that's good."
Even though his numbers weren't anything to write home about, Riley said Armstrong's Red-White game performance was a nice cap on what has overall been a solid spring.
"The hard part for a guy that's been playing for a couple years is having all of a sudden a whole new system put in," Riley said of Armstrong. "I thought he did a really good job of learning it, and then there's probably some new football that he's dealing with.
"But the thing that never wavered about Tommy and that's a separator for him right now as I see it is his confidence. He's a confident guy, and he plays like it. If something doesn't go exactly right, he doesn't blink and he goes right back out there and plays. I like that about him."
Armstrong agreed that his comfort level with the offense grew significantly over the past month, saying he feels more in control under center and in the huddle with every practice.
"I felt like I improved, just mentally," Armstrong said. "Being able to know where I needed to go with the ball. My assignments, giving other guys assignments. Putting myself in the right situations."
There may not have been a player who garnered more spring hype than Bush, as he emerged as arguably the top contender to potentially unseat Armstrong as the starter with an impressive four weeks of practice. He too struggled on Saturday, but Riley credited that to it being the Alpharetta, Ga., native's first experience playing in front of that large of a crowd and the nerves that went along with it.
"AJ was one of those guys I thought started out very nervous, and then settled in to start making some plays," Riley said. "He threw a couple interceptions that were a lot more mental than physical. But I think we all saw glimpses of what can be there."
Riley noted to not make too much out of the fact that Stanton didn't enter the game until the fourth quarter, as it was just a matter of how prepared each quarterback was to play in a game situation after just one spring. Riley said he does have a QB depth chart set in his mind, but wasn't ready to disclose it until he and his staff have time to meet with and further evaluate each quarterback.
"I've got an idea, but we don't have to decide today or announce it today, and I wouldn't do that anyway," Riley said. "The kids would know first if there was indeed one. There will be. Somebody has to take the first snaps and the second snaps and the third snaps. We'll have a pretty defined first, second and third string going into (fall) camp now that we have spring ball over."
- Robin Washut
Foltz continues to shine
Generally when a punter is regarded as a candidate for the player of the game, things aren't going well for a team.
But with the way junior Sam Foltz has been punting all spring, including a huge day on Saturday, it's not quite as big of a surprise.
The Grand Island, Neb., native served as the punter for both the Red and White team in the spring game, punting a total of eight times for an average of 51.0 yards per kick.
He pinned two of those inside the 20, and had longs of 71 and 59 yards.
Riley has had plenty of talented punters over the course of his coaching career, but with what he's seen already after just one spring, there's a chance Foltz could end up being as good as any of them.
"I think Sam is a terrific athlete and punter," Riley said.
"I've coached I think three NFL punters - four counting the one when I was in the NFL - and he might be as consistent as any of them that I've been around. I've been really impressed with him."
Foltz's spring game performance was even more impressive considering he didn't play at all in the second half after becoming ill during the game. His absence led to Nebraska going for it on fourth down five times on the day.
- Robin Washut
Spring game an audition for zone-read play
Ever since he was hired Riley has said he would like to keep the zone read in his offense despite not running it much, if at all, at Oregon State.
But the play fits the skill sets of NU's quarterbacks, particularly Armstrong, and the new coaches said they would tailor their scheme around the players' abilities.
But the Huskers didn't do much tackling during spring practice, so it was difficult for the staff to get a great handle on how to run the play and which quarterbacks excelled at it. The spring game finally gave them a good look.
"We'd like to have that as part of it," offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf said. "We had some of that going through the spring and wanted to test it live. It's hard to simulate that in practice without the quarterbacks being live. I thought we had a couple of good runs out of it. It gives us a little flexibility formation-wise."
Through film study the coaches had determined some situations they might want to use the play for, but they wanted to see how the quarterbacks responded when the bullets were flying.
The results were mostly positive - Darlington had a nice 19-yard run on one keeper and the running backs ripped off several long runs on strong fakes by the quarterback.
"The only way to make it real is to have it live, so that was good for us to look at it and see how we can improve it," Langsdorf said. "We ran it with everybody to see who might be a better run threat than another. I think all of them are pretty athletic back there."
- Dan Hoppen
Pierson-El's diversity stands out
Based on what Riley has done with slot receivers in the past, De'Mornay Pierson-El seemed to be a perfect fit from the moment the new coach was hired.
He displayed good hands and lightning-quick agility as a freshman, skilled that mirrored what Brandin Cooks and Markus Wheaton had done for Riley at Oregon State.
All his skills were on display Saturday. Pierson-El caught a wide receiver screen and ran a jet sweep on the first possession and nearly returned a punt for a touchdown in the first quarter. He finished with three catches for 37 yards, including a 32-yard score.
"Any time at any moment any play can hit," Pierson-El said. "(Riley) has a trust in me to run certain routes. He was telling me in the game to practice some things and work on them so when we come back, I can have them down and pack in even more. It fits well."
The jet sweep in particular could become a pet play for Riley and Pierson-El. The latter reeled off a 39-yard run on a sweep in the second half, and he should only improve at the play the more experience he gets with it.
"We've had some special people to use with it and De'Mornay (Pierson-El) looks like that kind of guy that can make something exciting happen," Riley said. "I think that sweep play is always going to be something that is part of our identity.
"There's some other stuff that goes with it that has always been fun to do, and it's nice to see it take shape like that because when it's going it gives you another running weapon in your offense."
- Dan Hoppen
***For those wondering what exactly happened when Armstrong took a knee in the end zone for a safety to end the first half, it apparently was an issue with miscommunication from Armstrong's helmet radio. Langsdorf said he told Armstrong that whatever he did, make sure he didn't take a safety. Armstrong instead heard that as "Take a safety", and kneeled the ball despite his better judgement.
***Riley said safety Nathan Gerry suffered knee injury prior to the spring game, which is why he was held out. He said Gerry would be back to 100 percent by mid-June.
***Riley said he's never received a Gatorade bath following a scrimmage before, but noted he made it a point to move over to the Red sideline before the game ended to make sure he started his NU coaching career on the right foot with a win.
***Riley said the staff would meet with each player individually over the next month and go over specific goals for the offseason. He said NU would resume its strength and conditioning work next week.
***Riley said he wasn't surprised with how well Terrell Newby played Saturday, as he's been noticing Newby since midway through spring ball. Riley said Newby fits what they need at running back, as he's a versatile player who can pass block and catch passes.
***Riley said the defensive game plan was pretty vanilla, which was on purpose. Riley said the staff wanted to establish their base scheme and just see what players could do.
***Riley said there will be a post-spring depth chart at some point, but he wasn't sure when it would be released. He said the toughest position to fill out was linebacker, and that the incoming freshmen would definitely play a factor at that unit.