Our first breath of life in the 2022 season begins.
Helmets are bright white and scuff-free. Uniforms are clean and pressed. The long, hard months of winter conditioning are over. It’s time to see if that offseason progress has yielded results.
Obviously I’m blowing this massively out of proportion. An entire summer of offseason workouts will follow this spring camp. As well as fall camp, which should truly determine the pecking order of things on the field. But it’s hard not to be intrigued by the storylines spring ball has to offer.
New offensive position coaches. New offense. New players. Returning players. Battles for open positions. Answers to our Special Teams woes. It’s quite compelling.
Coach Scott Frost put all his chips on the table and bet on himself after restructuring his contract with Athletic Director Trev Alberts, in hopes that some fresh faces and philosophies might quiet the storm brewing over his lack of success on the field. Out with the old. In with the new.
The questions that crop up in spring are numerous and detailed. We know how the game should be played. We are past the point of simple answers to complex questions and are looking for signs of progress, not just lip service.
I’m here to tackle some of those questions, give you my take, and I hope (like many of you Husker faithful) that we see some signs for optimism in the upcoming season. Not more of the same hair pulling and heartbreak that we’ve endured for the past several.
How much of Mark Whipple’s offense will we see in the spring?
I’m basing my opinion on many other Nebraska Spring Games of the past. The offense should look pretty vanilla this spring. As excited as many of you undoubtedly are at seeing a high scoring Pitt Panther style of attack on April 9th, I’m here to pump the breaks on that Party Train.
New coaches mean new terminology, new concepts, new everything. Do I foresee a blend of Coach Whipple and some of what Coach Frost did well last year? Yes. This marriage was meant to blend styles, not completely scrap one for the other. Frost knows it’s vital to keep the threat of a mobile quarterback on the field to keep defenses honest. But Coach Whipple understands that your quarterback needs to complete those intermediate throws to take some pressure off of that run game. It will really be a question of which quarterback can thread that needle and keep the offense on the field.
Which leads us to our next question.
How are the reps divided among the QB room this spring?
Gone is 4 year starter, Adrian Martinez. I wasn’t necessarily shocked that he decided to move on, but there is a big shadow left on Tom Osborne Field where 2AM once stood with his transfer to Kansas State. I’m grateful to Adrian and everything he gave to this University. A class act and a hell of a fine young man. I wish him success in the Big 12 conference.
Enter transfer quarterbacks Casey Thompson of Texas and Chubba Purdy of Florida State. Thompson tore up the Big 12 for the Longhorns in his only year as a starter. Purdy, who was recruited by Whipple to Pitt before he announced he was coming to Nebraska, comes in with loads of raw talent. His big brother, Brock Purdy, capped off a stellar collegiate career at Iowa State this past year. But don’t forget about the returners.
Logan Smothers, with one start and mop up time under his belt, will be looked at to see if his passing skills can match those of his running. The Grand Island product, Heinrich Haarberg, redshirted last year and by all accounts has a cannon for an arm and can be as mobile as anyone. Those of you who watched last year’s spring game can go back and see he commands the offense in the huddle. He’s a leader. Just what Coach Whipple is looking for. Incoming Freshman from Texas, Richard Torres, will not be much of a factor as he will be rehabbing from an injury sustained during his senior season. Add into the mix the always scrappy and highly respected native Nebraska walk on, Matt Masker, and the room is quite crowded.
In the early weeks of Spring, I assume reps will go primarily to Thompson and Smothers. Thompson has shown the ability to make the types of throws Coach Whipple expects his quarterbacks to make. Smothers will have to show he’s up to the task to make this a race heading into the fall. Any drop off from Smothers, Purdy and Haarberg look to be the next in line. Purdy might have the slight edge having seen live game reps in the past with the Seminoles.
I expect once the game is played on the 9th of April, Thompson/Purdy on one side, Smothers/Haarberg on the other, Let them compete on the Red or White teams, respectively. A Smothers drop off could signal him that he needs to find a new home if he intends to play quarterback at the college level.
Who emerges from the WR room? Familiar names or fresh faces?
14 scholarships. That’s how many occupy the wide receiver room recently inherited by Coach Mickey Joseph, formerly of LSU Tigers. Coach Joseph, a former Nebraska quarterback, does come in with quite a resume. He coached Justin Jefferson and Ja’Marr Chase to the league and have quickly become primary pass catchers for their respective teams with Chase making a Super Bowl appearance in his rookie season.
Trey Palmer, an electric return man and receiver for the Tigers, followed his coach to Lincoln and will look to be a factor at both positions. Isaiah Garcia-Castaneda comes in as another transfer from New Mexico State. Don’t sleep on him, he could easily be Nebraska’s replacement for Samori Toure, given his tape and ability to run crisp routes with a burst of speed. Returners Omar Manning, Zavier Betts, Oliver Martin, Brody Belt, and Alante Brown will need to win over their new position coach quickly in hopes of not losing their standing as upperclassmen who’ve earned playing time in the past.
Kamonte Grimes, Latrell Neville, and Shawn Hardy II all spent last year as redshirts, with Hardy II winning Offensive Scout Team Player of the Year honors and Neville coming in with a previous relationship with Coach Joseph during his recruitment. And finally, the incoming freshman comprised of Victor Jones Jr. of Florida, Janarian Bonner of Georgia, and Decoldest Crawford of Louisiana. Both Bonner and Crawford are late May arrivals, but don’t think that keeps them out of the race come fall.
I named 13 of the 14 because no one is sure of Wyatt Liewer’s status at this time. He went through Senior Day, but could return if he so choses. With this many wide receivers, don’t be surprised if more names pop up in the portal, as Will Nixon announcing his departure just a few days ago.
Manning and Betts need someone like Coach Joseph to unlock their full force of talents that seemed so obvious several years ago during their recruitment. I like the additions from the transfer portal in Palmer and Garcia-Castaneda, as they are proven players. My hope is we see Manning, Betts, Palmer/Castaneda in most 3 to 4 wide sets. With solid experience from Martin, Brown, and Belt in the slot. I also like Neville and Hardy II to see the field early.
Who emerges in the RB room? Familiar names or fresh faces?
We begin with a new position coach to the Cornhuskers. Coach Bryan Applewhite arrives after coaching running backs for the TCU Horned Frogs the past several seasons. Respected in many coaching circles and two decades of experience will speak volumes to his ability to navigate this crowded room.
Rahmir Johnson was the unquestioned lead back for a majority of the season. Whether that was based on skill over the other backs in the room, or the fact he was never in the doghouse with former RB’s coach Ryan Held remains to be seen. But he will certainly have earned first crack at the top spot.
Jaquez Yant looks like he could play at any position on the field, based on his size. I’ve seen him up close and personal, in and out of pads, and the young man is impressive physically. But what’s going on between the ears is what Coach Applewhite will have to determine. Can he handle the pressures of being the “bell cow” back for the Huskers? He too will have his chance.
Markese Stepp, the transfer from USC who was anointed as the lead back before setting foot on the field due to recovering from an injury. He had his moments, but never quite found his footing with Coach Held and wasn’t called on until the end of the season, due to the health of Rahmir Johnson. He was visibly frustrated with how this past season ended in interviews with local media. A fresh chance could put him in line for a bigger role, or a potential journey back to the transfer portal.
Gabe Ervin Jr. was the season opening starter and the future looked bright for the freshman from Georgia. A knee injury halted him at 3 games, but preserved his redshirt. It’s difficult to say how much of a look he’ll get this spring. As long as rehab has gone successful, he could be in the light running and cutting phases. I would predict for his overall future, he absorb as much coaching as he can and pursue the starting position with vigor in the fall. He beat out upperclassmen and transfers before. Don’t bet against the young man to do it again.
Anthony Grant was the #1 rated JUCO running back for New Mexico Military Institute, previously Florida State, and put up video game like numbers at that level. Husker fans have heard that song before when Nebraska snagged the top JUCO RB commit, Greg Bell, just a few seasons ago. Bell left before fans even really heard his name called, being beat out by Devine Ozigbo. He went on to an impressive career with San Diego State and could factor into the upcoming draft, but the point is, Husker fans have had a #1 rated JUCO back before and it didn’t stick. Grant seems more of a fit with this coaching staff then Bell did. Plus, he’ll get a fresh set of eyes on him working with Coach Applewhite.
Ajay Allen and Emmett Johnson are summer enrollees, but I’m intrigued by both of them. Both are extremely smooth runners in the open field. Neither is shy about contact, and I could see one or both of them being flex type players in Scott Frost run spread run schemes, should they continue to appear. Johnson is particularly well spoken, as I had a chance to interview him early this year. A fine young man and fine addition to the Scarlet and Cream wherever he ends up playing at.
Rahmir should have first team reps early, with a good battle between Yant, Stepp, and Grant. A walk on or two can impress with Ervin Jr. out. Then wait for the additions of Allen and Johnson in the Summer.
Can Coach Raiola build a solid foundation for the offensive line room heading into fall camp?
Coach Donovan Raiola certainly has the resume of an up and coming coach at his position. Learning under Coach Juan Castillo in Chicago with the Bears organization. A graduate assistant with Notre Dame under offensive line coach Harry Hiestand. A former offensive lineman at the University of Wisconsin under legendary coach, Barry Alvarez. He now gets the chance to lead a position group at a Power 5 school of his own. The talent, we’ve been, told, is there. Now Coach Raiola has to find his Top 5 guys.
I suspect a huge shake up at every position on the line this spring, and maybe, into fall. Offensive Tackles Teddy Prochazka and Turner Corcoran will be nursing injuries during spring and will have their chance to battle for a spot come fall. That leaves quite a few names to sift through. Bryce Benhart, Ethan Piper, Nouredin Nouili, Trent Hixson, Broc Bando, Brant Banks, and walk on Ian Boerkircher have all seen starts and playing time throughout their various careers.
Unproven Ezra Miller, transfer from Iowa, and Henry Lutovsky are names that have come up recently as well. Especially Lutovsky, given his size and nasty nature in which he plays the guard position. Add two grad transfers in Kevin Williams Jr. from Northern Colorado and Hunter Anthony from Oklahoma State, and you’ve got the makings of a good battle for 1st and 2nd team positions on the offensive line.
14 names. 10 spots. Those are also just the names that have resonated with Husker fans voiced by various coaches and players. A sneaky unknown addition could make it’s way into Coach Raiola’s room we may not yet know about.
With the injury situation as it is, I’d like to see a first team line up like this from left to right: Banks, Nouili, Piper, Lutovsky, Benhart. I know Bryce has earned his fair share of criticism from last season, given his poor play. He’ll be the first to tell you he was overmatched. However, I still believe he has a competitive spirit and will absorb Coach Raiola’s teachings for a bounce back sophomore campaign. Remember, he’s only a sophomore.
Anthony has played both positions on the right side in the past and William Jr. has played both positions on the left, so they are solid utility players should their services be needed this season. Hixson and Bando are seniors with a veteran presence, versatility, and savvy. The question will undoubtedly be: How do Prochazka and Corcoran factor in during fall camp?
This concludes Part 1 of my 3 Part examination of the Nebraska Cornhuskers Spring Football camp.
Be on the lookout for my 5 defensive questions heading into Spring Ball, as well as my 5 Special Teams questions to follow that. I’m eager to hear from these new coaches and the players. There is a good buzz coming into the Spring around the team and an entertaining showing on April 9th at Memorial Stadium will give plenty of Husker faithful some hope and optimism going into the 2022 season.