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LINCOLN — Stuck in his room, quarantined, watching his teammates lose to Illinois, Nebraska running back Sevion Morrison had all the emotional support he could have wanted. He didn’t suffer some of the worst COVID symptoms, so he was shocked when he tested positive for the virus last season.
Roommates were good to him. The coaching staff, too. He could send a text and get what he needed.
But he was also in the middle of the worst year imaginable to be a college football freshman.
“It was frustrating,” Morrison said. “But it molded me into something.”
The Husker coaching staff hopes that’s true for Morrison and many other players in a 2020 recruiting class that ranked among the nation’s top 20. When coach Scott Frost had finally completed it, NU had 10 four-star prospects, according to 247Sports. It was a blend of freshmen and junior college players, 500-mile radius guys and stars from the Southeast. There was even a punter from Australia. At 26 total signees, it was Frost’s bold follow-up to a head-turning 2019 class.
After early “resistance” among some players, Scott Frost said the Huskers are “making progress” in improving their vaccination rate. "We’re doing everything we can to try and educate the guys."
Then COVID hit. Injuries, too. Typical ones — like the quad and hamstring problems that kept four-star Morrison from playing as a true freshman — and fluke events, like the training camp play that sidelined Australian punter Daniel Cerni for the season.
Of the six juco signees, only outside linebacker Pheldarius Payne — who played through his own injuries — made a significant impact last year outside of special teams. Another of the six, Niko Cooper, has already left. He was joined in exodus by five more freshmen — all from Florida — who ditched the program over the course of six months.
Twenty-six signees. Three freshmen — left tackle Turner Corcoran, receiver Zavier Betts and running back Marvin Scott — started a single game each at their respective positions. Freshman receiver Alante Brown was NU’s No. 1 kickoff returner. Payne developed into a key cog of Nebraska’s defense. Otherwise, the group made a small impact.
A most-difficult first year contributed to that.
“It was tough on everybody last year, that’s been said enough,” Frost said. “We recruit guys from out of state, they come and there are no students on campus and nothin’s open. That was a hard year on those guys. They missed out on spring ball and fall camp and organized winter and summer conditioning, nonconference games and a chance to get in games maybe last fall.
Injuries have hit Nebraska's tight ends, and Scott Frost offered an update on the long-term outlook at that position. Here's what he had to say on that and more topics during Friday's press conference.
“We’ve been trying to hit fast-forward on the development with some of those guys, and a lot of them responded really well.”
Backup quarterback Logan Smothers appears to be one of them. Smothers had a strong day in NU’s second major scrimmage, Frost said, and has seemed to be working alongside No. 1 quarterback Adrian Martinez in camp. Smothers chose, like most quarterback recruits, to enroll early so he could get a head start on the playbook and the rigors of college practice.
COVID canceled most of those plans.
“First spring, two practices in, and I had to go home,” Smothers said. “That’s not what I came here for.”
He returned in summer 2020, impressing coaches in training camp with his decision-making. But Smothers had lost valuable time to work on his inconsistent throwing motion, so, in spring 2021, he had to log all the repetitions under coach Mario Verduzco that he would have had in 2020 during a normal year. Smothers spent much of spring improving on it.
Wednesday we heard from quarterbacks Logan Smothers and Heinrich Haarberg, plus position coach Mario Verduzco, as they shared some thoughts about the ongoing competition to back up Adrian Martinez.
Defensive tackle Jordon Riley, meanwhile, got healthy. The transfer from Garden City (Kan.) Community College had a strong training camp in 2020 before getting hurt just before the Oct. 24 Ohio State game. He played at times last season, but clearly carried more weight than he wanted. He lost 15 pounds in the offseason.
“I was weighing 330 — close to 340 — last year, so I really made the initiative this summer to drop the weight,” Riley said. “... I feel it tremendously. I’m way lot quicker, way lot faster, my reaction’s been faster playing.”
Payne, meanwhile, reshaped his body from that of a defensive linemen to an outside linebacker. Will Nixon recovered from a torn ACL. Betts, openly admitting he lacked motivation and focus prior to this summer, used a chat with his father as fuel for his fire. Receiver Omar Manning, who has not spoken to any media since his December 2019 commit, has consistently been in practice after a 2020 when he spent more time on his health. Manning, the No. 1 junior college receiver, is one of the best cases of how a difficult 2020 needs to turn into a productive 2021.
Morrison is another. Nebraska won a heated recruiting battle over Baylor, Arkansas and others to land his commit, and his big-play ability — especially on outside runs — makes him an intriguing option in the backfield. Shelved by COVID, injuries and a few bad diet/sleeping choices off the field, Morrison was a bit of a long shot entering camp.
This week, he looked different and sounded different. A 9:30 p.m. bedtime reshaped his attitude and well-being. He ate better away from the training table as well. He’s now more in the mix for playing after a lost 2020.
“Kids come along at different times, on kind of different schedule,” Frost said. “Sevion hit his stride in the offseason program this summer and this winter. He looks a lot better, looks leaner, looks faster and he’s been doing a good job. I think he’s grown up from his first year here.”
Which games could be lopsided wins? Which could turn into blowout losses? Sam McKewon ranks every game on the Huskers' 2021 football schedule from easiest to hardest.