What we learned this spring about the Huskers' biggest position battles.
What we saw: Nebraska finds itself with a bright future at the position.
For now, however, junior transfer Tanner Lee looks like the top dog. If redshirt freshman Patrick O'Brien is close at all in the race for the starting job, one would think Lee would get the nod because of his 19 starts at Tulane in 2014 and 2015.
O'Brien has acquitted himself nicely this spring, and we're guessing his teammates would be confident if he was directing the attack come fall. He makes good decisions, and he's the biggest and strongest of the three top QBs. He clearly has been schooled-up well at the position. He makes it look easy at times.
Meanwhile, true freshman Tristan Gebbia had the press box buzzing with his effectiveness Saturday. Seeing most of his time with the White squad, he was 28-for-45 for 268 yards and a touchdown, with one interception. Listed at 6-foot-3 and 180 pounds, he needs to spend his redshirt year bulking up. But he's a gym rat, and it shows on the playing field.
What they said: Nebraska head coach Mike Riley said the overall efficiency of the top three quarterbacks was good Saturday. "I'm proud of that, you know, because none of them have played in a game (at Nebraska). They're all still learning." He added, "They made maybe not always the best throw, but the right throw … We probably had a few too many drops. Otherwise, we would've looked even better. Some guys dropped the ball on Tristan quite a bit."
Offseason work: Riley reiterated that Tristan Gebbia is gearing for a redshirt season. However, as the third quarterback, Gebbia needs to continue to get repetitions with the varsity offense. Gebbia's hard work in the film room shows in how well he reads coverage and goes through his progressions. Lee seems to be even-keeled — an underrated trait for the position.
What we saw: Tre Bryant and Mikale Wilbon were “really close” in competition for the running back spot entering the Red-White Spring Game, Riley said, and there probably wasn’t a major shift from that Saturday.
Bryant got the first chance with the top unit and had rushes of 11, 16 and 9 yards in the first series of the game to account for all of his 36 yards.
Wilbon was up next. He finished with seven carries for 49 yards and a TD. He also had two receptions for 20 yards.
And we shouldn’t leave out Devine Ozigbo, who was bothered by injuries this spring. He rushed seven times for 49 yards. He looked good breaking a few tackles on a 19-yard run up the middle in the second quarter. He also had a nice 15-yard run in the third quarter.
What they said: Terrell Newby, the No. 1 back last season, is gone, leaving a big spot for someone to take. “Of course I want to be the No. 1, that’s the only thing on my mind, and of course I want to win games,” Wilbon said. “Right now I’m just still working and watching film and still getting better every day.”
Offseason work: “I’m going to try and get better as far as getting more explosive, catching the ball better and just working more on my blocking this summer,” Wilbon said.
What we saw: Keyan Williams and JD Spielman both enjoyed strong days and appear virtually interchangeable as far as the starting lineup is concerned. Both will play extensively.
Williams, a 5-foot-10, 200-pound junior, runs precise routes, as one might expect considering his dad, Keith Williams, is the receivers coach. Keyan finished with six receptions for 69 yards. He does an excellent job of finding soft spots in the defense in short and intermediate routes, but also caught some downfield passes.
Meanwhile, Spielman, a 5-9, 180-pound redshirt freshman, is a bit more explosive and dynamic, as evidenced on his 30-yard touchdown reception on a perfectly thrown pass from Tanner Lee. Spielman finished with four receptions for 70 yards.
What they said: Riley provided a nice big-picture assessment of why the slot receiver is important in the offense. “There’s kind of a simplicity to this thing,” he said. “If you have two good wideouts – and we feel really good about Stanley Morgan and De’Mornay Pierson-El – and (defenses) try to double-cover those guys in certain situations, then the interior part of your passing game has got to come alive.” Enter the slot receivers, along with the tight ends and running backs, who also become important in that conversation.
Offseason work: Remember, Spielman seldom played a traditional receiver role at Eden Prairie (Minnesota) High School, meaning this is only his second year at the position. On the other hand, Keyan Williams has been playing it basically all his life. The good news is Williams can help bring Spielman along, and the duo will just get stronger.
What we saw: Junior Cole Conrad and sophomore Michael Decker alternated for the majority of Saturday's spring game, both receiving reps with the top unit (Red team), and the White team.
Because redshirt freshman John Raridon was moved to left guard late in the spring, Conrad and Decker are getting most of the work at center. Walk-on Jake Kitten, a redshirt freshman, also saw some game action.
Conrad and Decker helped push the offense down the field on several scoring drives Saturday, and each snapped the ball without any issues. Offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf said earlier this spring that shotgun snaps were inconsistent at times.
What they said: "I think the overall competition, anytime you can compete and win the position, it's a really good feeling," Conrad said Saturday. "It helps you a lot for the mental side, too. You have a bad day, you can't just hold your head. You have to bounce back and move on."
Said Decker, "(The competition) helps greatly, because it's just that added pressure of making sure that you're on your P's and Q's as far as your technique, making sure that you bring it every day."
Offseason work: Conrad and Decker got most of the snaps Saturday, so it's clear this is a two-man battle. Decker said he wants to make sure to study every day. "You could never get enough of that," he said.
What we saw: Eric Lee capped off the best spring of his career the right way. He was active, with six tackles (including one for loss), and a pass breakup for the Red squad. He's definitely given his coaches something to think about. He could also be vital as a potential nickel back.
All indications throughout the spring are that sophomore Lamar Jackson is the first guy up at that position. Jackson had a couple of missed tackles on Saturday that won't look great in review, but his tools are evident.
Complete confidence, though, can only come from getting out there and shutting people down when keeping score for real.
What they said: Lee pointed out this week that he and Jackson have had a good connection even while competing at the same spot. "In film we learn off each other's mistakes," Lee said. "We know as soon as we get off the field someone has something to say to each other — obviously from a positive coaching perspective. Because we both want to see each other succeed."
Offseason work: Even though Jackson stands 6-3, 210 pounds, he admitted this spring he felt like he had "kid strength" last year compared with some competitors with "grown-man strength." So he needs to keep building that strength and endurance to make sure he's ready to be an every-down player who doesn't wear down and can be physical when a ball carrier comes his way.
His attitude will help him. You can tell he wants to be elite and has been honest about areas needing improvement.
What we saw: Junior Luke Gifford had himself a day. He ripped the ball away from Keyshawn Johnson Jr. and then recovered it. He had a tackle for a loss. He picked off a pass with his one good hand. He had a club over the other one from a broken bone. Basically, Gifford showed why linebackers coach Trent Bray said this spring the junior has made his position battle close with Marcus Newby.
The senior Newby had four tackles himself, and his ability to cover backs and tight ends will definitely loom large in the fall. Bottom line: Both guys are going to play and they are going to play key snaps.
What they said: Regarding that stripped fumble, Gifford said making those types of plays has been preached often by defensive coordinator Bob Diaco.
"That's something I think, not just me, all our guys have done in practice, there's been plenty of them," Gifford said. "So I was just lucky enough to get one today. But our guys have worked so hard at it and I think it's going to translate definitely to the field."
Offseason work: Gifford seems to be his own toughest critic, which is good. While he made some big plays, he pointed out to the media a missed tackle he had. Don't get it wrong: He was happy with his performance. But that drive for consistency is what he needs to continue to have. Copy and paste that last line about consistency for Newby, who as of mid-spring was still considered the No. 1 guy by Bray. Whomever can process the mistakes they do make and then not repeat them figures to play the most in 2017.
— Steven M. Sipple, Brian Christopherson, Brent C. Wagner and Clark Grell