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LINCOLN — The veteran offensive guard held court as the freshman left tackle, with a smirk the size of Lake McConaughy, rolled through an interview area wearing the hat.
You’ve probably seen a photo of by now, perched atop Turner Corcoran’s head: RUN THE DAMN BALL. Linemate Bryce Benhart ordered them from Australia, and they came just in time for Saturday’s spring game. The hat said what most Husker fans want Nebraska to do over and over.
“We love to run the damn ball here,” Corcoran said. A few yards away, veteran Matt Sichterman filled in a few plot holes.
Sichterman did not have a RTDB hat, but he did state a clear goal: Nebraska wants to be No. 1 in the Big Ten in rushing yards. NU was second last year, third in 2019 and fourth in 2018. Now it wants to be No. 1, which means knocking Ohio State off the perch.
“It’s exactly what we need,” Sichterman said. “The history of Nebraska is always to be able to run the ball, and we’re getting back to that.”
You’ve heard that before. You’d love it to be true. The Rewind is telling you, at this moment, that it just might be true. And if the Huskers are to be competitive for the West Division in 2021, it probably needs to be true.
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.
Coach Scott Frost arrived at Nebraska as an action director in a sports car, a man who knew how to make a defense explode right on cue. The last two movies have been box office failures, though, and this team better resembles a work truck with extra cabin room.
If you lined Nebraska’s big boys up against many Big Ten teams in your backyard, right around Thanksgiving, you must just pick the Huskers more than half the time.
Too much to take from a low-scoring spring game? Perhaps — especially with the much-too-boring first-half plan that is hopefully headed for the shredder. But the lines have been the buzz of spring camp and, upon rewatching a somewhat choppy spring game, NU’s first- and second-team lines — on both sides — pushed and shoved with some brute strength.
“I was really pleased with that, and I have been all spring,” Frost said. “We’ve really made an effort to be more physical, to finish plays better. We’ve really improved in that area, this spring, on both sides. Thought the No. 1 defense did a great job of that. And, as simple as we were, I thought we ran the ball pretty well.”
If you’re inclined to think Frost is blowing smoke, remember that he was blunt about NU’s lack of size and strength throughout 2018, and quick to be critical after Minnesota humiliated Nebraska in 2019. Frost retracted some of that criticism after watching the Minnesota tape, but his instinct that night was instructive because it spoke to his vision that NU never, ever get manhandled.
Nebraska needs one of the Husker running backs to take the starting roll. Judging from the spring game, the competition is close and fierce.
A team that can’t physically match up might win some games with smoke, mirrors and great receivers — see Purdue — but in the Big Ten, it’s not a contender. See, as evidence, Purdue, which has tried — and failed — under Jeff Brohm to throw its way to victory despite having multiple NFL-caliber receivers on its team.
This league requires more starch than sugar. It requires work on a five-man sled, and NU’s offensive line, Sichterman said, started working that sled daily late last season.
It’s the hardest conditioning linemen do — pushing a heavy sled 20 or so yards before getting in a stance and doing it again — but the regimen has paid dividends.
“There’s a couple things we started working on toward the end of last season, a couple little tweaks, running our feet more,” Sichterman said. He referenced the Rutgers game, when the Husker line obliterated RU’s overmatched defensive front seven. “We’re working on a five-man sled every day, and I’m really excited about our run game. I think we’re going to be able to run downhill on people all year.”
Cornerback Cam Taylor-Britt sees the progress — “we’re downhill straight pounding the football, man” — and defensive tackle Ty Robinson felt it in practice.
“When I go back and watch the film, I’m bumped out of my gap or I’m double-teamed pretty much to the point where I’m out of the play and I can’t do nothing,” Robinson said. He called the spring “a grind,” and NU’s daily injury report bore the same thing.
Nebraska didn’t want to see anyone get hurt, of course. But it’s a violent sport, and the Huskers can’t afford to lose home games to Illinois and Minnesota any more, either.
To hear the guys who will back up starting quarterback Adrian Martinez this fall tell it, the results from Nebraska's spring game were a mixed bag. But they’ve come a long way from even a month ago.
To beat the bad teams by more and win the toss-up games more often, NU may have to rely on running the ball and stopping the run until Nebraska’s quarterbacks, running backs, receivers, special teams and secondary prove that they’re among the league’s best consistently.
The first four areas are repeated concerns that need no explanation, including quarterback, where Adrian Martinez has to cut down on turnovers and stay healthy. But The Rewind adds defensive backs as a guard against the annual overflowing positivity that seeps too often into media coverage.
Nebraska intercepted five passes last season in eight games. Indiana picked off 17 in eight games.
The Huskers allowed 7.2 passing yards per attempt in 2020. Northwestern allowed 5.2.
NU fans have seen great defensive backfields — Bo Pelini had them all the time. Reserve the word “great” for 2010, when NU allowed — in the Big 12! — 5.5 yards per pass and had 19 interceptions in 14 games. If Nebraska does that in 2021, then roll out the superlatives.
And to be fair, the same is true of the offensive line.
Nebraska just had two offensive linemen picked in the NFL draft, so why will the unit improve? NU’s defensive line did one year after Carlos and Khalil Davis were drafted, is one reason. Better competition among the linemen is another.
The Huskers are young at tackle — Corcoran admitted to a rough start to spring camp — and will ask center Cam Jurgens to be the standout Frost thinks he can be. The Huskers have four quality guards, though, headed into the offseason. And in Trent Hixson, a good backup center.
On defense, Robinson, Damion Daniels and Ben Stille — who sat out the spring — are part of a rotation of six, perhaps seven. That doesn’t include talented young pups still a year or two away.
Make a list of the areas you feel best about on this team. How quickly do the offensive and defensive line show up? Now compare that list to 2018.
Now you see where Nebraska’s improved.
“We’re ready to be first,” Sichterman said, reiterating his goal for the rush offense. “Our work’s got to match it, but we’re ready to be first.”
The fan base is with him.
On with the Rewind.
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Outside linebacker Blaise Gunnerson: That was no cheap sack he scored on Corcoran. Gunnerson drove Corcoran back on the way to Martinez. He and Jimari Butler looked to have a pulse at outside linebacker, which is good news. Simon Otte had a few plays, too.
Receiver Samori Toure: He’s probably the player I heard the most about from fans after the game, and when Martinez says the words “very reliable” about a receiver, take note. Quarterbacks throw to guys they trust, and Toure may also play a mentoring role to Omar Manning.
Left guard Broc Bando: He looks like one of the better backup guards you’ll ever see. Bando has value at tackle, too. Technically, he has a sixth year of eligibility after this one, too.
Safety Noa Pola-Gates: Looked rangy and capable, finishing with seven tackles. Eteva Mauga-Clements (seven tackles) and Isaac Gifford (10) had nice days, too. All three should be special team factors this season. And with Will Honas’ injury, Mauga-Clements could be more of a factor on defense, too.
Quarterback Heinrich Haarberg: Great clay. Seeing it get shaped should be fun. A recruit in attendance at the game sent me a Twitter direct message openly impressed with Haarberg’s decision-making three months into his college career.
Running backs Gabe Ervin, Jaquez Yant, Cooper Jewett and Sevion Morrison: Those four jumped out to me Saturday. Two scholarship guys in Ervin and Morrison and two walk-ons. Yant is fun to watch in a no-huddle scenario because defenders won’t be keen to tackle a 245-pounder twice, while Jewett on that outside sweep has the speed to get around the defense. Morrison flashed some phone-booth elusiveness, while Ervin — who is a giant — has the look of a complete back once he puts all the pieces together.
Nebraska football's spring game was a day for fans, fun and a breaking a rule at the end because you can.
38.9%: Nebraska’s first-down pass completion percentage Saturday. You’d like to see much, much better than that. In 2020, NU was much better, completing 72.7% of its first-down passes. Frost’s offenses — 62.5% in 2019 and 69.2% in 2018 — have always been efficient on first down in ways Mike Riley’s offenses never were. The best first-down completion rate under Riley was 56.9%.
5.5: Passing yards per attempt Saturday. That’s low — you’re looking for something over 7 — and before Haarberg’s final drive, the number was 4.6. Having watched the game again, the meager performance is related to some misfires on shorter passes and several deep passes that didn’t connect.
Five: Wins by the White team in the spring game since 1990. The White team beat the Red team in 1995, 1998, 2005, 2016 and 2021. In 1995, the White team got a considerable boost from a transfer blue-chip quarterback named Scott Frost, who threw for 158 yards and two touchdowns to Riley Washington. In 2005, Zac Taylor was on the White team while returning starter Joe Dailey, who had fallen to No. 4 on the depth chart, was on the Red.
Seven: Targets each for Oliver Martin, Will Nixon and Brody Belt. The latter two caught five passes on their seven targets while playing for the reserve teams, and both operated out of the slot. Look for that duo to be NU’s No. 2 and No. 4 slot guys during the season with Alante Brown moving into a good battle with Nixon for that No. 2 spot. Nixon looks quicker between the two.
3.4: Husker draft picks per year since the 2001 draft, when Nebraska had seven picks. That’s the highest total in the last 20 years, tied with 2011. In the past three drafts, the average, even with Brenden Jaimes and Matt Farniok getting selected Saturday, is 1.2. That’s a function of losing too much, losing in high-profile games by wide margins that didn’t impress scouts and a revolving door of schemes.
In the Big Ten West, Iowa’s five-year average is four, followed by Wisconsin (3.4), Minnesota (1.8), Northwestern (1.4), Nebraska and Purdue (1.2) and Illinois (0.8). The Wildcats’ success — two division titles — is remarkable given the number of NFL draftees.
Samori Touré said he was impressed at the major improvement the receivers showed in the spring. “We’re all getting closer. I think it’s starting to show on the field and I’m excited for the fall.”
After each game, I ask Husker fans for their take. Selected and edited responses follow:
Aaron Britton: “I'm less worried about the RBs than I was. Yant looks real, and so does Morrison. I'm more worried about special teams than I was. I don't know that any Punter looked ready. Also, I really think we need to go to the portal at QB. The backups don't look like they could win a Big Ten game.”
Zachary Tucker Luben: "The softest spring game I have seen ever. Two-hand touch — sometimes, if a player was near the runner, it was called down. How does this make the team better? How does that improve tackling? Adrian looks good and quick, we are DEEP at WR and RB. Defense should be decent."
Rob Warren: “More of Frost’s 'No Flow O.' They were behind the sticks first series of the scrimmage. On a positive that Hutmacher kid from South Dakota is a dude. He looks like Mt. Rushmore.
Robert Harder: “Didn't watch. Doesn't matter what they do in the spring. All that matters is what they do this fall.”
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.
A tougher-than-you-think game Sept. 11 probably just turned into an exactly-what-you-think game when Lance Leipold left as Buffalo’s coach to take on the thankless task that is Kansas football.
Leipold, a former UNO and Husker assistant, went 37-33 at Buffalo over six seasons and takes over a KU program that has won 18 games in the last decade. Buffalo, on top of losing a good chunk of its top players from 2020, loses a coach who may take more of the UB staff with him to Lawrence.
Partly sunny. Warm and cold fronts all summer.
Some unsurprising departures from the program via the transfer portal.
A recruiting month to remember in June, too. NU will have double-digit commits by the Fourth of July.
Sam McKewon hands out his Husker Report Card to grade Nebraska's performance in all areas during Saturday's spring game.