KEARNEY, Neb. - The 55th annual Nebraska Shrine Bowl will kick off today at 2 pm in Kearney. The game will be televised statewide on NET.
As things get closer to kickoff, here are five things to watch in Saturday's Shrine Bowl.
A new venue
For the first time since 1960 the Nebraska Shrine Bowl won't be played in Lincoln. In fact the only time the game wasn't played in Memorial Stadium since 1960 was in 2004 when construction forced the Shrine Bowl to be moved to Seacrest Field.
Today's Shrine Bowl will be played at the University of Nebraska-Kearney's Foster Field. The biggest change we'll probably see today is a much better game atmosphere. UNK's Foster Field has seating for about 6,000, and the last two years the Shrine Bowl has drawn roughly between 6,000 and 8,000 at Memorial Stadium.
The "full-house feel" should make for a better game atmosphere than the desolate feel you had at Memorial Stadium. The biggest drawback is you probably lose most of the Omaha and Lincoln fans, but you definitely will gain several more fans from Western and Central Nebraska. If Kearney can deliver this weekend they may be able to make a strong case to permanently keep the game for the future.
The North front seven
One of the real strengths in today's game will be the North front seven on defense, led by Iowa lineman recruit Nathan Bazata of Howells-Dodge and North Dakota State linebacker recruit Nick DeLuca of Omaha Millard North.
Husker walk-on Erik Evans from Waverly will also start at linebacker for the North, which should make it pretty difficult for the South offense to gain much up the middle.
Top-notch QB play
When you look at the quarterbacks in this game, it's safe to say the Shrine Bowl coaches got it right. For the North they will be led by Omaha North's Zach Martin and Millard North's Isaac Aakre, while the South will be led by Lincoln Southeast's Najee Jackson and Kearney's Luke McNitt.
These were arguably the top four senior quarterbacks in the state of Nebraska this past year and it will be fun to watch them all on the field together. Both Martin and Jackson will attend Iowa Western C.C. next year, while McNitt will play for UNK. Aakre is still undecided on what he plans to do, but as of now he's not playing football in college.
Five future Huskers
In all five future Husker walk-ons will be on the Shrine Bowl roster, led by Omaha Westside fullback Harrison Jordan and Bellevue East defensive back Zach Stovall for the South.
On the North squad Norfolk Catholic tight end Connor Ketter and punter Jordan Bellar, along with Evans will lead the way.
I'm really intrigued to watch Bellar punt and Ketter at tight end. I think both these players have a shot to play for NU someday. I've been impressed with Jordan's physical ability at fullback.
Other notable names to follow
A few other names that have jumped out this week for the South are Omaha Central wide receiver Tra-Deon Hollins, Papillion La Vista wide receiver Tyler Wrice and Lincoln Southeast running back Devin Washington. These will be three of the main offensive weapons for the South.
On the North, look for Wahoo running back Tyler Kavan, Blair linebacker Colin Mertlik, South Sioux City wide receiver Nate Rogers and Omaha North tight end Casey Sayles to be standouts .
I'll take the North 31-24. The North defense is probably the strongest unit in the game, followed by the South offense.