After receiving praise from Scott Frost last week, walk-on running back Jaquez Yant received more Wednesday when coaches were specifically asked about him.
“He’s a big, fast back, plays downhill with his pads, he’s going to bring some thunder to you,” offensive line coach Greg Austin said. “Hell, offensive linemen, we gotta get our ass out of the way because he might run us over. He’s taken advantage of all the reps he’s received and done well with them. He’s been active.”
Several scholarship running backs — like Ronald Thompkins, Rahmir Johnson, Sevion Morrison and Gabe Ervin — haven't been available at times this spring, but it would seem Yant and Marvin Scott, a scholarship back, have been.
Austin said NU has run the ball well at times, and linemen shouldn’t worry about which running back is in the game.
“Do your job,” Austin said.
Nouili makes progress
Austin loves the progress of walk-on Nouredin Nouili, who transferred from Colorado State last season and is now factoring into the depth chart at multiple positions. That includes tackle, where Nebraska lacks experienced depth.
The 6-foot-4, 320-pound Nouili had to make progress to compete with the rest of the linemen.
“He came in and he was fat — I’ll say that and he knows that too, we've had conversations,” Austin said. “But he was too big, and then he trimmed up. And he got more of a feel for the offense. It was much different the way of doing things here than Colorado State, where he previously was.
“From a maturity standpoint, he had to get here, where he was facing better competition every day. So you couldn’t go here and just think, 'Oh, I’m a true freshman, if I can play at Colorado State, I can play at Nebraska.’ No, it’s not going to work like that.”
Nouili attended Norris High School as a German exchange student. He fits in well with teammates on the field and in the locker room — a “normal young guy who’s developing into a real dude,” Austin said.
But he may need work on the nuances of driving in the United States. Austin relayed a story about Nouili's confusion over getting stopped for running a red light.
“He was like, ‘The light was orange,’” Austin said. “We don’t have orange lights in America, bro.”
Hickman back to tight end
Chris Hickman moved back to tight end after Kurt Rafdal entered the transfer portal. Hickman was a tight end at Omaha Burke and played that position during his freshman year, but he was moved to wide receiver last season.
He shed some weight to increase his speed as a receiver and is now 205 pounds, according to tight ends coach Sean Beckton. But the coach wants him up to 215 or 220 to increase his blocking ability while keeping his speed.
Hickman has helped freshman Thomas Fidone adjust to Beckton’s coaching style and college football in general. Beckton also said Hickman has been a “pleasant surprise” this spring.
“He's a fighter, the biggest thing about him is he doesn't care if he's going against 300 pounders, he's gonna fight,” Beckton said. “And that's what I love about him.”
Big man, big future
Beckton said junior Austin Allen, his No. 1 tight end, is on the path to the NFL if he continues his progression.
“Austin’s been unbelievable,” he said.
Allen (6-8, 260) was one of the few offensive players whose voice rang through Memorial Stadium on Wednesday during an otherwise disappointing scrimmage for the offense.
“You heard him, that's what I want out of him and Travis (Vokolek),” Beckton said. “But you heard (Allen) really get on all those guys as far as getting things going, as far as being able to execute on the practice field.”
Allen is working on finishing blocks and “being as physical as he can at the point of attack blocking,” according to Beckton.
“He engages well but his body is so long that it’s hard for him to continue to drive through contact,” he said.
Allen has proven during spring practice that he has “elite pass-catching skills,” and Beckton said creating consistency with his blocking will get him to the next level.
Cerni's learning the game
Nebraska’s scholarship punter sat out last fall recovering from an injury. He also learned the game of football for the first time.
Daniel Cerni, who arrived from Australia late in the summer, didn’t know the difference between offense and defense in the American game. He knew how to kick a football a long way — but down, distance and everything else was new to him.
“He’s got a much firmer grasp on the game now,” NU kicker Connor Culp said Wednesday. “Last year it was like, ‘Whoa, what are we doing here?’”
Cerni was recruited through a connection of former NU special teams analyst Jonathan Rutledge. Nebraska last season ranked 111th out of 127 FBS teams in net punting average at 34.67 yards per kick.
Culp, last season's Big Ten kicker of the year, said Cerni represents potential for significant improvement.
“He’s got a phenomenal leg,” Culp said. “I think he’s still trying to understand the game of football from Australia. He’s a little confused that all he has to do is go out there and punt the ball and maybe get a tackle if need be. But he’s doing real well. He’ll help us tremendously on this team.”
Linemen in the spotlight
Three fifth-year offensive linemen rolled through media interviews Wednesday, a rare spotlight moment for blockers who have long grinded behind the scenes.
While Matt Sichterman — a lead contender for time at right guard — held court in front of TV cameras, fellow veterans Broc Bando and Trent Hixson chatted with a handful of reporters. Both agreed they are all a dying breed in modern college football, guys who stay at one school even without prominent on-field roles.
“I just love this program and I want to stay here as long as possible,” Bando said. “It helps when you’ve got good food from Dave (Ellis, director of performance nutrition) and he keeps me nourished and healthy. It keeps me here for a while.”
Bando is in the mix for time at left guard with Ethan Piper. Hixson — an Omaha Skutt grad who was a full-time starter in 2019 before falling back to a reserve role last fall — is taking reps at center behind Cam Jurgens. He began transitioning to the position last season and has grown more comfortable there this spring as he works to be a better communicator and analyst of opposing defenses.
Hixson earned a scholarship before the 2019 season but said he still feels the need to prove himself daily. Now he’s one of the leaders, a guy who can take a newcomer aside to work on technique or support his teammates from the sidelines if he’s not a starter.
“The toll it takes on your body to do that and the mental fortitude it takes to go five years … it adds so much value to our team,” Hixson said. “It helps the younger guys on a whole other level because there’s that much extra experience to help them learn.”
» Offensive lineman Henry Lutovsky, a freshman who enrolled early, “is going to compete his ass off” in practice, Austin said.
“He got into a couple fights just because he’s going to the echo of the whistle,” Austin said. “Love the kid. Excited for what he’s going to be in the near future."
Austin feels the same about another early enrollee, Teddy Prochaska.
“I call Henry ‘Teddy’ and vice versa,” Austin said.
» Austin said left tackle Turner Corcoran, who started one game last season, has been making some freshman mistakes.
“He’s got some things to work on, he’s a young guy, his youth is showing up from time to time — and rightfully so,” Austin said. “But he’s been a good, solid player.”
Behind Corcoran and Bryce Benhart at tackle, Austin said, are Nouili, Brant Banks, Ezra Miller and Jimmy Fritzsche.