Nebraska’s spring game is almost here, and the event typically showcases younger players who get more time than some entrenched starters.
As we go through the 10 players to watch Saturday, you’ll see a blend of young and old. Each player has flashed potential, but has room to grow.
*Jersey numbers in parenthesis
» Wide receiver Omar Manning (5): The once-heralded junior college recruit wowed in the open scrimmage on April 17, flashing separating speed and a considerable catch radius over and over. Remember when Scott Frost said he had never coached anybody that looked like Manning? He's listed at 6-foot-4, 225 pounds and appears to be all of that. With nagging health issues seemingly behind him, the considerable hype may have just been a year premature. His performance Saturday will affect how the rebuilding offense is viewed heading into the season.
» Outside linebacker Pheldarius Payne (0): On a veteran defense with many established returners, Payne is a sneaky breakout candidate. His debut season in Lincoln wasn't bad — 21 tackles and a couple pass breakups in eight games as an undersized defensive lineman — but he also didn't have the benefit of spring practices because of the pandemic and a shoulder injury. The 6-3, 260-pounder has since transitioned to outside linebacker and is in a far different place mentally and physically than 2020. The former juco standout might be a solution to the pass-rushing problems that have plagued Nebraska for the better part of a decade.
» Quarterback Heinrich Haarberg (10): A still-wild colt from Kearney Catholic, Haarberg has produced some impressive throws in the media’s limited views of practice. He’s clearly an athlete — raw but electric — who can make tough throws outside the pocket. Saturday will be about slowing down his process, reading the defense and doing the little, simple things.
» Wide receiver Oliver Martin (89): Has Martin found the place he belongs? The 6-1, 200-pounder bounced from Michigan to Iowa and now Nebraska. He started the Huskers’ final four games last season after receiving eligibility in November and recorded five receptions for 63 yards. Martin seemingly hit his stride this spring and had multiple catches on April 17. He said he feels more confident with the Husker playbook and is not thinking as much on the field. With more confidence, Martin could blossom into one of Adrian Martinez’s favorite and most-reliable targets.
» Safety Nola Pola-Gates (21): Nebraska benefits from five sixth-year “super seniors” who fortify the defense for 2021. Two of those players, Deontai Williams and Marquel Dismuke, are near locks to start at safety, and third-year freshman Myles Farmer may be in the rotation there. But next year Farmer will need a safety partner, and Pola-Gates — a much-hyped, hard-hitting recruit from the 2019 class — is the likely choice. Defensive backs coach Travis Fisher has spent extra teaching time with Pola-Gates this spring. We'll see how he fares against NU’s receivers.
» Quarterback Logan Smothers (8): Coaches love his speed, his running ability and quickness of decision-making. Can he throw the ball consistently? Time to find out. Smothers, presuming he’s fully healthy, should get 20 to 25 passes Saturday that show off what he can do. And before fans fall too hard for speculation on what Smothers can’t do, remember: NU hasn’t exactly been a hotbed of passing quarterbacks since Joe Ganz left. The Husker brain trust isn’t asking for Dan Marino here.
» Running back Jaquez Yant (0): The second-year walk-on freshman has benefited from injuries to the scholarship backs and has taken advantage of the extra snaps. He's listed at 6-2, 225, but one assistant said he's closer to 240 or 250 pounds. We’ll see how well he performs in a spring game against a motivated defense. NU wants two or three backs to emerge from the pack as major contributors. Yant is in the mix.
» Safety Javin Wright (33): When Wright stretched out and intercepted a pass over a wide receiver on April 17, he caught much higher expectations from Husker fans. Nebraska’s coaching staff was high on his production in practice going into the 2020 season, but his development was delayed by a season-ending injury. Back healthy, the third-year redshirt freshman is taking reps at the nickel position while JoJo Domann is out for the spring. After a pretty good showing earlier this month, Wright could be the man to earn takeaways this fall, a big emphasis for NU’s defense. First let’s see how the 6-3, 205-pounder progressed through spring practice and if he can stay healthy.
» Wide receiver Will Nixon (12): Nebraska’s receiver depth seems to be the most promising it's been in recent years. Nixon, a second-year freshman who suffered a season-ending ACL injury last summer, adds speed. The 5-11, 185-pounder took reps with the first team on April 17 and caught several nice balls. He showed off his spinning abilities on a lateral pass from Matt Masker with Wright and Cam Taylor-Britt on coverage. If the practice was full speed, he could have scored. Nixon — who also returns kicks — has a diverse skill set, and NU can use him at multiple receiver positions. Nixon could add something special, especially after the catch.
» Punter Daniel Cerni (40): Nebraska felt strongly enough about Cerni's ability it recruited him from Australia and awarded him a scholarship. But the freshman suffered an injury in fall camp last season and didn't appear in a game as the Huskers finished 111th of 127 FBS teams in net punting average (34.67 yards per kick). He drew attention from teammates last year for not knowing the American game at all, but has impressed them this spring with his powerful leg. Beyond the open scrimmage, this will be the first look at a potential key specialist for years to come.