LINCOLN — A Nebraska offense that averaged an anemic 23 points per game last season appears to be heating up this spring.
Scott Frost said Monday the offense has developed a “good back and forth” with the more experienced defense. Friday’s scrimmage that lasted 120-130 plays featured some of the best work he’s seen from Nebraska receivers since he arrived in Lincoln more than three years ago.
"A lot of guys getting reps and there's just a lot of talent at that position," Frost said. "I'm excited about that group."
It’s a big shift in attitude from a few months ago when top receiver Wan’Dale Robinson transferred to Kentucky. Robinson was the only NU pass-catcher with more than 13 receptions last season, but Montana transfer Samori Touré has given a jolt to the room. As has the return of freshman Will Nixon — who missed 2020 with a knee injury — and junior Omar Manning, who missed most of last season with health issues.
Frost said those three, plus Barron Miles, an “exceptional” Oliver Martin, and walk-ons Levi Falck and Wyatt Liewer have had strong springs.
“It’s as deep a group as we’ve ever had, and there’s a lot of talent in that room,” Frost said. “So we’ve got to make sure we have time for quarterbacks to throw because I expect guys to get downfield a lot more for us.”
Cornerback Cam Taylor-Britt — who has to cover NU’s receivers — said the offense has more speed and is taking more “deep shots” this spring. Taylor-Britt identified Touré, Zavier Betts, Alante Brown and Manning as the guys who can stretch the field. He said Manning has "a little gear" other receivers don't and "he can open it up."
Outside linebacker Garrett Nelson also noted the speed of NU’s offense — and not just the tempo it plays with. The Huskers have actually slowed down their tempo this spring in order to better detail some of the work with the offensive line.
“Not to get the whole ‘hype train’ barreling into a brick wall or something, but the improvement’s there,” Nelson said.
The strong play includes the quarterbacks, according to Frost. Starter Adrian Martinez is having a strong spring, looking “leaner” and “faster” to Frost, and also healthier on multiple fronts.
"When he takes off right now, he looks like a 4.4 guy," Frost said of Martinez’s 40-yard dash time. "A guy who can really run and be a weapon. I think he did a lot of work in the offseason. Mostly, I think Adrian's just in a good place mentally right now. I think he's more comfortable, playing with a lot more confidence."
Frost said backup Logan Smothers had his best day as a Husker in the Friday scrimmage. The four-star recruit enrolled in January 2020 but lost that spring due to the pandemic and then had a truncated fall camp. He's now effectively getting developmental work for the first time in his Husker career.
"Simply put, I thought he threw it the best he's thrown it," Frost said. "And that continues to improve. He and Mario (Verduzco) have been working on his stroke a little bit. He's always been a quick decision-maker, sees the field really well, accurate, gets the ball out of his hands, but he pushed the ball more downfield on Friday. He certainly can run well, so he made a couple plays with his feet too."
Walk-on Matt Masker, a Kearney Catholic grad, appears to be the No. 3 quarterback for now because he has a mastery of the offense, Frost said.
The youngest quarterback is Heinrich Haarberg, also from Kearney Catholic. He signed in December and chose to enroll early. Frost said he's been impressed by his arm strength and overall athleticism in the first two weeks of camp. Nebraska coaches won’t be tinkering with his throwing motion much.
"(The ball) jumps out of his hand," Frost said. "So with him it's more getting comfortable with the offense, getting confidence, making sure he's making the right reads. His ability will take care of the rest of it.”
Freshman running backs Gabe Ervin and Jaquez Yant played well Friday, Frost said. Many backs missed the scrimmage with various injuries, including presumptive starter Markese Steep, who is out for all of spring with an injury. Several more backs weren't practicing as of last Wednesday.
Ervin, from suburban Atlanta, has been the buzz of camp for a week. Yant, a walk-on from Tallahassee, Florida, is a newer name on the radar.
The 6-foot-2, 225-pounder attended the same high school as defensive backs coach Travis Fisher, which drew him to NU after he wasn’t sure he would academically qualify for some of the scholarship offers he received. Yant did the schoolwork and made it to Nebraska.
“He’s doing a great job,” Frost said. “He’s been a great addition to our team and a guy who, if he keeps on the track he’s on, I don’t expect him to be a walk-on for his whole career.”
Roughly 4,000 fans will be able to see NU’s offense this weekend when the Huskers hold an open practice. Frost doesn’t plan to show much, but does want players to get used to a Saturday atmosphere.
“Anxious to have people see what we’re doing,” Frost said. “We’ll probably be a little bit vanilla on Saturday and not show a whole lot, but I think it will give people a glimpse into what our whole practice is.”