For the first time in the Scott Frost era, coaches are opening up a full practice to fans and media.
Over two hours, NU may not reveal much in terms of strategy, but the progress of certain players should be clear. Here are eight — not including Husker veterans like Adrian Martinez, Austin Allen, Caleb Tannor or Cam Taylor-Britt — we’ll be watching closely Saturday.
Each player's jersey number is in parenthesis
» QB Logan Smothers (8): Injuries are often a byproduct of running the quarterback as much as Nebraska has the last three seasons. So what to make of Adrian Martinez’s presumptive backup? Smothers is a man of mystery in many ways. The Class of 2020 recruit from Alabama shut down his recruiting process early after committing to the Huskers in the summer of 2018, and he’s had precious few reps with NU beyond the scout team before this spring. How well he is able to execute the offense now will impact the QB position into the fall and maybe for years to come.
» WR Samori Touré (6): Nebraska didn’t have a go-to wide receiver in 2020 outside of since-departed Wan’Dale Robinson, who doubled as a running back for most of the season. Maybe the Huskers found their No. 1 in the Montana transfer. The 6-foot-3, 190-pound receiver has earned praise from coaches and teammates for his athletic ability, speed and football IQ. Touré, who had 155 receptions for 2,488 yards at Montana, said he wants to prove he can compete with the best cornerbacks in the country. Nebraska hopes that becomes reality.
» P Daniel Cerni (40): Cerni, a freshman punter from Australia, missed last season with an injury, and the guy who recruited him, Jonathan Rutledge, is no longer at Nebraska. Given Cerni has a scholarship, NU will be expecting him to earn it with the 50- to 60-yard wowzers he was recruited to punt. Australian punters have a terrific reputation for distance and directional skill. Can Cerni continue the trend? If we told you a great punter might be more valuable to Nebraska than certain skill positions, would you believe it? Have you seen NU’s special teams over the last two years?
» RB Gabe Ervin (22): Projected starter and USC transfer Markese Stepp is out for the spring, so Ervin and freshman walk-on Jaquez Yant are taking reps with the first team. NU’s running backs have been plagued with injuries the last few seasons, and the Huskers are desperate for consistency. Ervin has the coaches raving about his ability to slip through holes and desire to be great. If Ervin continues on the upward path, NU could have multiple running backs to lean on come fall, something they haven’t had in a few seasons.
» LB Chris Kolarevic (31): Nebraska has found impact talent in the transfer portal in recent years, and the inside linebacker from Northern Iowa appears to be the latest. He’s a known product from his FCS days — he made 144 tackles between 2018 and 2019 — but how does he translate to Power Five competition? Physically, Kolarevic is as imposing as any Husker linebacker. Opportunity is there for him this spring too, especially with senior Will Honas limited by offseason surgery.
» OLB Blaise Gunnerson (24): Nebraska loved its two high school outside linebacker signees in the 2020 class. Gunnerson and Jimari Butler have the size, length and athleticism to be prototypical outside ‘backers in Erik Chinander’s system. With COVID wiping out any normalcy last season, and Gunnerson recovering from an injury, this is their first real crack at development and progress. Gunnerson won’t be a fully realized player yet because NU asks a lot of its outside ‘backers, but the Huskers will count on him for depth at a slightly thin position.
» WR Omar Manning (5): The top junior college receiver in 2019 missed almost all of the 2020 season with health issues, but this spring he appears to have turned the corner and impressed teammates with his speed and ability to make plays downfield. Nebraska’s coaches have been cautious with praise — they know Manning needs 30-40 more practices to cement his consistency and commitment — but if he makes a few wow plays Saturday, the whole Husker fan base will know it.
» OLB Pheldarius Payne (0): A decent first year — 21 tackles, two for loss and a sack — could make way for a special 2021. Payne is healthy, in good shape and more dialed in to the nuances of NU’s defense. The odds-on favorite to be Nebraska’s best pass rusher, Payne possesses good instincts as a defender. He tends to find the ball. We’ll be watching pass-rushing drills very closely, especially if and when Payne is pitted against Turner Corcoran and Bryce Benhart.