Damon Benning remembers well the rigors of Nebraska spring football.
That's right, "rigors."
The way Benning recalls it, during the mid-1990s, "Spring practice was set up as this internal competition that was 15 days of being miserable," the former Husker running back (1992-96) told me this week.
Wow. Sounds like a blast.
"It was a test of wills to see if you were better than the guys at your position group," Benning said. "The coaches basically said, 'If you want a job, here's a chance to go get it.'"
The more things change, the more … well, you know.
As for Benning, his job Saturday will be as an analyst for BTN's tape-delay broadcast (7 p.m. Saturday) of the annual Red-White Spring Game at Memorial Stadium, set to begin at 2 p.m.
The Omaha Northwest graduate rushed for 1,562 yards (5.8 per carry) and 20 touchdowns during his injury-marred Husker career. He also amassed 770 yards in kickoff returns.
In the 1996 Spring Game, dominated by the defense, Benning returned a punt 87 yards for a touchdown.
Ah, an oasis of joy amid the misery.
"The Spring Game was very high-strung. It was like a game," Benning said. "I mean, guys got in their own zone. You had meetings before the game, offense and defense. You went over the plan."
It won't necessarily feel as gamelike this year. It'll be offense vs. defense with a modified scoring system. Each quarter will consist of between 25 and 30 plays. Coach Bo Pelini altered the format because splitting squads may have compromised player safety at a few positions, he said.
Nevertheless, Benning anticipates intensity — hopefully along the lines of what he experienced as a Husker.
"It's an easier rallying cry to be with your own unit than it is to be amped-up to play against somebody in a mixed unit that you know you'll be playing with during the fall," he said.
If you listen to Benning's and Gary Sharp's morning show on 1620 AM in Omaha, you understand Benning's intense passion for Husker football.
With that in mind, there are a few things he wants to see in the scrimmage. He especially hopes for maximum effort as opposed to players merely "trying to get by," he said. Maximum effort, he said, indicates internal accountability. I believe internal accountability in the program is stronger than it's ever been during the Pelini era.
Benning obviously wants to see Nebraska protect the ball.
He'll also pay close attention to body language. He always does. He'll watch how players respond to adversity.
"I think the thing that would keep Nebraska from being great — now that it's starting to amass talent — would be more mental than physical," he said.
NU's amassed talent? Those words may come as a surprise to those who routinely criticize NU's recruiting under Pelini. Benning, though, sees ample talent, especially in the defensive and offensive lines.
Granted, Nebraska lacks depth at defensive end, but it's for reasons other than shoddy recruiting. The first-string ends, junior Randy Gregory and sophomore Greg McMullen, are high-level performers. Benning is particularly interested in watching the 6-foot-3, 280-pound McMullen.
"I want to see McMullen play multiple snaps under duress," he said. "I need to know if he can be 'The Man.'"
I think Benning will like the answer.
Benning also will watch the cornerbacks closely, especially those battling for the starting spot opposite senior Josh Mitchell.
"When Nebraska's secondary is good, its defense is typically outstanding," Benning said.
As for the offense, the first player Benning mentioned was sophomore tight end Cethan Carter.
"I think he has a chance to be one of the best combo tight ends in the conference," Damon said. "I'm going to watch his in-line blocking. I know he can be a good pass catcher.
"If Nebraska wants to be a zone-read team and get to the edges running the ball, you have to have good tight ends. And I think they have a pair. I like (Sam) Cotton a lot."
He'll scrutinize the offensive guards and tackles on the right side, hoping Nebraska can be more "even-handed" as a running team. Last season, the Huskers tended toward the left side.
Note that we haven't mentioned the quarterbacks.
Quarterback play doesn't require intense scrutiny because most of the evaluation is self-evident. You don't have to be Roger Staubach to judge whether Tommy Armstrong is having a good day. You don't even have to be Damon Benning.
Have fun in the booth, Damon. The "rigors" of spring practice are for somebody else now.