LINCOLN — Recruiting will pick back up soon as the August dead period gives way to official visits and open dialogue between prospects and colleges in September.
But for the moment, all of it is on the backburner for the Nebraska coaching staff.
“Right now our focus is Illinois,” NU running backs coach Ryan Held said. “We’ve got to get Illinois. It’s all about Illinois.”
Held — also the program’s recruiting coordinator — said many of the particulars for the 2022 class and beyond remain unclear. Nebraska has nine commits for 2022, but may not add more than five or so more before signing day because of uncertainty about next year’s super seniors and the always-moving target of the transfer portal.
Sports Illustrated reported last week that the NCAA is considering a potential expansion of the 25-person scholarship limit as a way for teams to replace players lost to the portal. Held said NU hasn’t yet explored that possibility internally.
“I think it’s fluid,” Held said. “We’re going to roll like normal and then adjust just to see how this thing goes.”
Nebraska has two home games to host prospects in September — Fordham on Sept. 4 and Buffalo Sept. 11. Held said staffers will be able to begin evaluating new game film for junior colleges and high schools in the coming days and weeks.
It'll be steamy
The forecast in Champaign calls for sticky heat Saturday afternoon. Temperatures will be in the mid-80s at kickoff, and almost 90 by the fourth quarter, with 65% humidity throughout.
Few will feel that heat like the Huskers’ defensive linemen, who are bigger and exert more force on each play than most of their teammates. With that in mind, defensive line coach Tony Tuioti is prepared to dig deep into his depth chart.
“All the guys are going to play,” Tuioti said. “I have five, six guys I feel really, really comfortable with, and they're doing a really good job in practice right now. We’re going to keep them fresh, and then as we get closer to the fourth quarter, you can see who's hot and those guys are playing.”
'It's all about the lines'
If the narrative surrounding the start of the Scott Frost era put a spotlight on high-flying offenses featuring elite quarterbacks and fleet receivers, Nebraska’s offensive coaches have pivoted hard in the last year toward a Big Ten-centric approach focused on the trenches.
“In this league, it’s all about the lines,” running backs coach Ryan Held said. “If you don’t have the lines taken care of, it’s a empty feeling when you’re playing.”
According to Held and several other Husker assistants, the battles between the top offensive and defensive lines — more frequent due to a practice tweak from coach Scott Frost — have been rigorous, like iron sharpening iron.
Defensive coordinator Erik Chinander agreed.
“It looks like real college football,” Chinander said. “Looks like the O-line is tremendously improved ... the D-line is much improved. Those outside ‘backer who are playing D-end for us and in nickel stuff. It’s been really good to watch those guys in run situations and in pass situations. I think those ‘live, up front’ — even when it’s not live, tackling the running back — those periods are going to pay dividends for us in the end. I’m very happy the way Coach Frost structured those practices.”
There's always more film
There’s always another hour of film to watch for Chinander — especially for the season opener, especially when the opponent, Illinois, has a whole new coaching staff.
“The hay’s never in the barn,” Chinander said. “And sometimes that works, maybe, to your disadvantage, when you’ve got to watch another hour of film, even though you watched it bunch. But I think you’re always trying to take one more look and see if your eyes are playing tricks on you or you really got it dialed where you want to.”
At the same time, Chinander said, he has to craft a plan for his players that straddle the line between a lot of prep and too much. There’s a point in the week, Chinander said, where the coaches have “get out of the way a little bit” and let the players play.
“These kids have shown ‘just put us in the right spots and let us go play the game,’” Chinander said. “So I want to make sure we’re as ready as we need to but I don’t want to overanalyze the situation and make it even more stressful for the kids.”
Chinander has had to scour film of many programs in scouting Illinois offensive coordinator Tony Petersen, who has coordinated offenses at Marshall — where he was Chad Pennington’s position coach — Minnesota, Louisiana Tech, East Carolina and Appalachian State.
“And we had the (Illinois) spring game from the TV copy, which is hard to see, but you get to see a little bit of what they’re doing,” Chinander said. “So you’re ultimately watching a lot. Then you’ve got to watch Illinois film because you’ve got to watch the personnel.”
Beef toughens beef on the lines
The Huskers’ offensive line looks improved, according to Tuioti.
Center Cam Jurgens and left guard Ethan Piper are playing “very aggressive.” Right guard Matt Sichterman is winning his pass-blocking reps. And overall, the defensive linemen aren’t winning their matchups as easily as they used to.
If iron sharpens iron, as Tuioti likes to say, then beef toughens beef. And if Nebraska’s offensive line can translate its success from practice to Champaign, Tuioti won’t mind watching his group lose a rep or two during the week.
“I’d rather sit back and watch (the offensive line) play all day long,” Tuioti said. "Eat up the clock, score some points, get the ball back. That's hopefully the formula for us this weekend.”
Culp not kicking back
Connor Culp figures he’s lucky to still be on a college campus. Not just anyone gets six football seasons.
The Nebraska kicker, who turned 24 this month, appeared at ease during a chat with reporters Tuesday. He’s settled in Lincoln after arriving as a grad transfer from LSU a year ago.
The pandemic afforded him this season. He’ll look to build on 2020, when he won Big Ten kicker of the year after hitting 13 of 15 field goals and all 20 extra points.
“I’m not taking any day for granted,” Culp said. “Just trying to enjoy every day because it’s going to end in December.”
Culp said he’s a totally different person mentally than he was with LSU. Starting there in 2017 came with wild swings where he didn’t know how to handle success or failure. He’s more level now, confident in the art of kicking.
“It’s just a game,” Culp said. “If you’re not having fun, why the heck are you out there in the first place? It took me a while to definitely develop that mindset. But that’s probably the biggest improvement I’ve had.”
The placekicker also has a sense of humor, which he flashed Tuesday when discussing Australian freshman punter Daniel Cerni. The newcomer last year didn’t understand anything, Culp said, and wanted to run drills with the tight ends. He’s since come to learn the basics, from first downs to penalties.
“You’re just like, ‘Dude, you’re here to punt the ball, don’t overcomplicate things,’” Culp said. “But now he’s really grown into it. He’s become a very great player.”
No 'my bads'
Once the Huskers line up across from Illinois, mistakes have consequences. Mulligans don’t exist, and accountability won’t save you from a tongue-lashing.
“There’s no ‘My bads,’” Held said. “It’s for keeps, it’s for the history books. We’ve got to have guys that understand that every play matters.”
The Huskers try their best to simulate game speed and situations in practice. They tire players out before team periods and practice two-minute drills with the same speed they employ on Saturday.
“But it is still different on game day,” offensive coordinator Matt Lubick said.
Fans scream in the background. Opponents scheme against your tendencies. Butterflies creep into players’ chests.
The solution? Know your role so well that none of those obstacles can make you forget. Those concepts are learned at practice and studied at home, but can Nebraska apply them when the reps count?
“The game is going to be played uncomfortable and tired,” Tuioti said. “You’ve got to be able to focus and be detailed. Hopefully at the end of the day, they fall into their training.”
» Inside linebacker Luke Reimer said he was honored to earn his first Blackshirt this week. Fellow linebackers Chris Kolarevic and Garrett Snodgrass didn’t get Blackshirts like he and Nick Henrich did, but Reimer said no one puts too much stock into it.
“We’ve got to come to practice ready to work, ready to do our job,” Reimer said. “On that side of things, it doesn’t matter for us.”
» Tight end Austin Allen and receiver Samori Touré are two offensive players Reimer named among those he’s excited to watch — and not hit — during games this year.