LINCOLN — C.J. Zimmerer can relate to any Nebraska teammate who wants to go 100 mph in spring practice to make the big hit or snag the big catch.
It comes from spending a season laboring on the scout team — the redshirt year where it's hard not to wonder if people have forgotten about you.
Zimmerer has been there.
“It's finally your chance,” said the senior fullback from Omaha Gross. “You've got that redshirt off your back and it's finally your chance to get some reps with the real offense. You're not acting like Wisconsin or Penn State or whatever the case may be (on scout team), so you really push the pedal to the metal and go.”
As an upperclassman, senior tight end Jake Long said, you'd better be ready to handle the up-and-comers' energy. It probably helps keep the seniors and juniors on their toes.
“They're trying to make their mark,” Long said. “I remember those days, too.”
But what happens during the next few springs, several Husker veterans said, is that you start to see things differently. Start worrying less about yourself and getting noticed and more about what you can do to help make the team better in a 15-practice window.
That's what Nebraska is trying to balance with a mix of upper and underclassmen as it returns to practice Monday for its final two weeks of spring football.
“Fun is not the word to describe spring ball,” junior receiver Kenny Bell said. “I mean, I'll call a spade a spade: Nobody likes spring ball. But the teams that have success are teams that are mentally tough enough to come out and work hard every single day and better themselves.”
Ask any coach, Bell said, and he'll tell you how much spring ball matters, as far as both developing talent and developing team. Ask any player, and the answer might depend on how long he has been around.
“I really had no idea what I was walking into my freshman year,” Bell said. “I wasn't aware of the level of commitment to working hard to be successful at this level, so I wasn't ready.”
Some Huskers said the way the team handles spring ball might come down to having the right example set by the seniors. That's one thing cornerback Ciante Evans and defensive end Jason Ankrah said they have been cognizant of with so many fresh faces alongside them on defense.
“They look up to you, so you've got to set the foundation,” Evans said. “You've got to set the standard.”
Some underclassmen might show up in March with a fearless mentality, but Ankrah said eventually you realize you have to balance that with carrying out all the other tasks that go with it.
“When you're on scout team (in the fall) you just go out and play, and don't have to think about anything,” Ankrah said. “Spring is different. You have a playbook in your hand, you have a technique to run, and that's the main thing they have to transition into — play with technique and play within scheme.”
And do it in every drill and every day.
Zimmerer said that was one of the things he realized after redshirting in 2009 and spending that season with the scout-team offense.
“As a young guy, you're not really used to playing year-round football,” he said. “You kind of think, 'The season is so far away, I might be able to take a step off here, take a step off there.' But you've got to get that out of your head because it's all really important, and I think our older guys really understand that and they've really been busting their butts and working hard every day.”
The combination of veterans understanding the situation and underclassmen playing with their hair on fire, Long said, can actually breed a competitive environment, too.
As much as the freshmen and sophomores must learn the way of the program, those higher on the depth chart need to realize that somebody else is always going to be nipping at their heels.
“Sometimes someone might think, 'These younger guys, I ain't worried about them. They're too young. They're not going to know enough,'” Ankrah said. “Some people get too big-headed. Some people get complacent thinking they've already arrived, and that's not the sense at all. I already know I haven't arrived yet. Nobody older has arrived yet.”
And what if somebody did feel or act that way? What if some senior told a freshman that they shouldn't pop them or go too hard against them in a drill, because of who they are or because the season is five months away?
“If I ever heard that from one of our guys, I'd let them know they shouldn't be saying that stuff,” Long said. “When you start to get complacent, that's when you lose your edge.”
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