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LINCOLN — Jitters? Yep, both Nebraska’s backup scholarship quarterbacks felt them Saturday.
Logan Smothers spent his first season of college football wearing a headset on the sideline watching games in mostly empty stadiums. Heinrich Haarberg has been on campus less than four months, and was “swimming in it” mentally as he began learning the offense.
Beyond the crowd of 36,000-plus, the young quarterbacks had to account for a 25-mph wind that knocked down or sailed many of their throws. And the plan when they would go into the game flew out the window early as coaches wanted to see how they would adapt.
To hear the guys who will back up Adrian Martinez tell it, the results Saturday were a mixed bag. Still, they’ve come a long way from even a month ago.
Freshman Husker quarterback Heinrich Haarberg had the spring game’s biggest play, but coach Scott Frost wouldn’t say whether he prefers him or Logan Smothers as his No. 2 behind Adrian Martinez.
“I didn’t think I played my best game, for sure,” Smothers said. “But I got to run around and have fun.”
Said Haarberg: “I came out today confident that no matter what play they called I was going to be able to run it. And not do anything outside of myself — just run the offense.”
The numbers weren’t spectacular for either QB or walk-on Matt Masker. Haarberg’s final pass was the play of the game — a 25-yard dime to Wyatt Liewer on an untimed down that won the game for the White squad — and part of a 9-for-23 passing day for 121 yards with an interception and a touchdown. Smothers went 8 for 14 for 76 yards and a score, hitting Brody Belt from 23 yards out on a crossing route. Masker attempted two passes, completing one for a yard.
All wore green no-contact jerseys, which limited their runs to the discretion of the officials. Smothers — once a standout sprinter in Alabama — rushed seven times for 17 yards while the explosive Haarberg toted nine times for 8 yards.
Smothers in particular had to adjust.
He expected to play in the first and fourth quarters with the White team. Instead he worked the first White drive — resulting in a punt against the No. 1 defense — and didn’t return until late in the third quarter with the Red (a three-and-out possession). The second-year player also quarterbacked both fourth-quarter Red drives that ended in a turnover on downs and a touchdown, respectively. His final march was his best and included a strike over the middle to Belt with the wind before looking off a defender and finding him again for the score.
Sam McKewon hands out his Husker Report Card to grade Nebraska's performance in all areas during Saturday's spring game.
“(QB coach Mario) Verduzco just kind of switched it up on us,” Smothers said. “Gotta stay ready.”
Smothers is working through a retooling of his throwing motion, which he called “a process, but it’s going good.”
Haarberg, out of Kearney Catholic, called his spring debut “surreal” considering he was part of Nebraska crowds a couple of years ago. A steep learning curve early this spring — he said he spent many evenings in Verduzco’s office learning the scheme — is leveling out now. He led seven straight White drives at one point and saw extensive action overall.
Perhaps the best part of the group of quarterbacks, he said, is how it doesn’t feel like a battle to be No. 2 behind Martinez. His QB competitions in high school were more tense.
“We’re just trying to make each other better,” Haarberg said. “If one of us comes off and had a good drive, we’ll slap each other on the back and tell them ‘good job.’ I think the mentality of this quarterback room is, ‘Don’t worry about others; worry about yourself.’”
Coach Scott Frost must take a more global view of the position, though he wouldn’t say Saturday who he prefers to come in behind his three-year starter.
Campus buzzed ahead of Nebraska's spring game as Husker fans returned to Memorial Stadium for the first time in more than a year. And with their excitement and gratitude came a sense of normalcy.
“This isn’t like a freshman camp back in the day, where we install 20% of the offense and the fundamentals,” Frost said. “We just threw those guys in and said, ‘Learn the whole thing.’ We were really vanilla today, so it was simple stuff. Haarberg has a huge arm, and he’s a really good athlete, and he’s a big kid and he’s smart, so it’s just a matter of catching him up with X’s and O’s and knowing what to do and being efficient.
“That’s where Logan excels. Logan is really smart, knows the offense, processes things well. Those two are going to continue to improve and I got a lot of confidence in them.”
So do their teammates. Masker said he’s seen the game slow down for Smothers this spring. Center Cameron Jurgens said watching Smothers run and Haarberg throw has him “excited” about the future. Receiver Samori Touré has observed both reading defenses quicker and taking better command of the offenses in the past few weeks.
Tight end Austin Allen said Saturday was a good way to ramp up for what’s to come. Especially if either QB is needed in a big moment next season.
“They did well; I don’t think we did anything too catastrophically bad,” Allen said. “It’s good to get that experience in a spring game like this. … It’s good for them to experience Husker Nation in a little bit of capacity before the fall comes around.”
Was Memorial Stadium half-full or half-empty? On a sun-splashed May Day when Husker fans returned to their favorite place, there was room for both healthy skeptics and cautious optimists, writes Tom Shatel.