Will Bolt figured his team was adding some gamers among its 17 newcomers this fall. After a few weeks of low-maintenance practices, he’s sure of it.
Shaky reserves bring down the starters, make drills drag on and put a damper on scrimmages. Coaches usually have to stop practices because of sloppy play.
But roughly midway through fall ball, the second-year Husker coach and his staff have never been more thrilled to be observers.
“We’ve been able to sit back and watch a lot and just focus on the finer point of things,” Bolt said Wednesday. “It’s been fun to see the depth of what we hoped we’d have. Right now it looks believable.”
Coaches split the group into two teams each week and track a variety of measurables to declare daily and weekly winners. An overflow of talent in a competitive backdrop has made for entertaining and encouraging sessions at Haymarket Park. Pitching has been “pretty dominant,” Bolt said, while flexibility on the infield and outfield is far greater than it was in NU’s abbreviated 15-game season last spring.
Infield depth in particular is much improved.
Bolt said freshman Max Anderson has played all four infield spots, as has junior college transfer Efrain Cervantes. Freshmen Jack Steil (first base, third base and shortstop) and Brice Matthews (second and shortstop) have shown versatility, too. And that’s before adding returning veterans like Spencer Schwellenbach — the favorite to start at shortstop — Jaxon Hallmark (second base) and Cam Chick (infield and outfield).
“They’ve come right in and fit right in,” Bolt said of the freshmen and jucos. “There’s been hardly any transition for them.”
Many candidates for first base have also emerged, Bolt said. That includes a utility player last year in Leighton Banjoff as well as sophomore Luke Boynton and catchers Gunner Hellstrom and Griffin Everitt, a juco transfer. The catcher spot, which also includes returning senior Luke Roskam and freshman Drew Wessel, is much improved in coaches’ eyes.
“We’ve had a lot of guys play a lot of different spots and do it at a really high level,” Bolt said, “which has been fun to see.”
But pitching has mostly won the fall, Bolt said, which is “quite the opposite” of a year ago. Unlike then, Husker pitchers aren’t issuing many walks and fielders aren’t committing many errors. Pitchers have also seen an uptick in velocity, Bolt said. Many are reaching the low- to mid-90s with their fastballs, whereas maybe one or two could do so last offseason. Transfer Cam Wynne and returning freshman Braxton Bragg, for example, lit up the radar gun during the team’s first scrimmage last month.
Nebraska typically scrimmages every Thursday and Friday, with situational work Wednesdays and drills to begin the week. Something is on the line every day, like the losing side picking up the field or enduring extra conditioning. Often the winners get to choose the payment, Bolt said, with the caveat that the other side might earn that opportunity in the future.
“By the end of the week it gets a little chippy and that’s the way we like it,” Bolt said. “That’s because the guys, they’ve got that edge that they’re playing with. And that’s what we’re going to ask them to play with in the spring.”
Other notes from Wednesday’s press conference:
» While Schwellenbach is penciled in as starting shortstop, Bolt said the sophomore has been “pretty electric” as he returns to the mound after a full recovery from a high-school arm injury. NU is being cautious with the right-hander from Michigan but, barring health issues, sees a scenario where he could have a “significant role” as a reliever with mid-90s velocity and elite command of three pitches. Schwellenbach struck out 233 and walked 27 across 154 career prep innings.
» Fifth-year senior and Lincoln Southwest graduate Logan Foster appeared refreshed and rejuvenated in workouts, Bolt said. Coming off knee surgery last fall, the former Texas A&M outfielder has kept his momentum going after a strong summer. Bolt said he brings leadership qualities to the team.
» Nebraska is “pretty good” healthwise, Bolt said, with no new significant injuries. The coach had previously said left-handers Kyle Perry (Tommy John surgery) and Tyler Martin were out for the fall, while pitchers Colby Gomes and Connor Curry could return this month from various injuries.
» On the retirement of former Husker and Kansas City Royal Alex Gordon, Bolt said he was the epitome of a coach’s dream that the most talented player would also be the hardest worker. Bolt began his coaching career at Nebraska as a volunteer assistant in 2005 and coached Gordon that season, which ended in a College World Series appearance.
“He’s a down-to-earth guy,” Bolt said. “Walking by that facility every day and seeing his name on it speaks to that, the sacrifices he’s been willing to make through the years and just the impactful meaning he has on our program. You couldn’t say enough about what he’s done for Husker baseball.”