Nebraska football practice, 8/14

Nebraska tight ends Jack Stoll (from left), Austin Allen and Kurt Rafdal line up for a drill during practice at Hawks Championship Center on Aug. 14.

Jack Stoll is the veteran in Sean Beckton’s room and is considered an entrenched starter.

Beckton didn’t say any differently on Wednesday — in fact, he said the junior from Colorado continues to set the standard in his room — but he also didn’t shy away from issuing Stoll a challenge in front of the others in Nebraska’s tight ends meeting room.

“I told Jack Stoll in front of all of them yesterday, I told him that Austin Allen and Kurt Rafdal have closed the gap on him,” Beckton said Wednesday. “There was a major gap between Jack and those two last year, and those guys have really closed the gap physically and also mentally in terms of understanding what we’re trying to accomplish on every single play.”

Allen (6-foot-8, 250 pounds) and Rafdal (6-7, 245) both provide huge targets for sophomore quarterback Adrian Martinez. At the outset of camp, Beckton wasn’t shy about saying that each had some physical shortcomings and they were pressed into duty despite not being fully ready.

The competition in the room has only increased further as redshirt freshman Katerian Legrone continues to progress, and freshman Chris Hickman makes physical gains after coming in underweight and also dealing with a shoulder injury. Then Rutgers transfer Travis Vokolek arrived this summer, though he must sit out the 2019 season.

Asked about any separation in the group behind Stoll, Beckton pointed first to Allen, the Aurora native.

“Austin probably right now, if we had to go play today, he’s probably the second guy right now, but Kurt Rafdal is right behind,” Beckton said.

Mazour making strides: Coaches naturally look to players they can trust, and Ryan Held obviously trusts Wyatt Mazour at a high level.

Held, the second-year Nebraska running backs coach, has a group that includes junior-college transfer Dedrick Mills, sophomore Maurice Washington, true freshmen Rahmir Johnson and Ronald Thompkins as well as redshirt freshman walk-on Brody Belt.

In addition, versatile true freshman Wan'Dale Robinson definitely will get snaps in the backfield, the coach said.

Based on Held's comments Wednesday, Mazour also could have a sizable role in the rotation this season.

"He's got really good feet, can run and he knows (the offense), which gives you a chance because we can do a lot of stuff with guys who know what they're doing," Held said.

A 5-9, 200-pound senior walk-on from Albion, Mazour was slowed during spring practice by nagging injuries.

"But he's really -- knock on wood -- has had a really good fall camp in terms of being healthy and everything," Held said. "I'm really liking where he's at."

Mazour earned a scholarship before the start of the 2018 season and went on to play all 12 games as a reserve running back and on special teams. He carried 11 times for 76 yards and a touchdown and caught one pass for 21 yards. He also served on several special-teams units, including the kickoff return squad. He had three returns for 48 yards.

"He's steady Eddie," Held said. "You feel comfortable putting him in the game in any situation. The guys really like him. I'm glad he's on our team."

Transitioning to game prep: The end of fall camp is nigh, and the Nebraska football team will soon — as in the next day or two — begin turning its attention toward preparing for next Saturday's season opener against South Alabama.

That's both exciting and somewhat challenging. If fall camp marks the beginning of a new season, then game prep is a marker of the end of a long, long journey from the end of the previous season to the start of the next.

"We feel good about fall camp up to this point. We’re night and day from last year in terms of the scheme. So now whatever we throw at them, they can handle. So now we’ve kind of got to separate and get into some South Alabama, show them some clips so they can get familiar with what we’re going to see," Nebraska offensive coordinator Troy Walters said Wednesday. "But we don’t want to lose the edge of going against our defense because our defense is playing well and making us better. So we’ll combine the two and make sure we’re peaking come next Saturday."

Nebraska's coaching staff has been trying to simulate gameday atmosphere and situations in recent days in an effort to get the Huskers ready. But there are always the unknowns of how newcomers will react to the environment inside of Memorial Stadium. There are the unknowns, too, of what exactly NU will see when the Jaguars line up across the way.

"The competition against the defense has been awesome. Going against them every day has made us better, so we don’t want to lose that. We don’t lose the good on good, so we’ll go against our defense 1s vs. 1s, 2s vs. 2s," Walters said. "But now the focus shifts to getting a jump start on South Alabama and understanding their tendencies and what we’re going to see defensively."

Backup QB discussion ongoing: Nebraska football coaches haven't pinpointed a No. 2 quarterback behind Adrian Martinez just yet.

The four-game redshirt rule enacted right before last season obviously adds nuance to the discussion.

But that discussion among staff will occur in earnest soon, Husker quarterbacks coach Mario Verduzco told reporters following Wednesday's practice.

The season opener looms Aug. 31.

"I'm certain at some point coach (Scott) Frost will come to me like he did last year and we'll have a discussion about that," Verduzco said. "He'll let me know what the deal is, if we have to make sure Adrian is No. 3 or whatever."

He was joking, of course. Martinez has a stranglehold on the starting role. But there's been spirited competition behind him, with sophomore Noah Vedral of Wahoo and freshman Luke McCaffrey of the Denver area leading the way in that regard.

Vedral has added weight -- he's listed at 6-1 and 200 pounds -- and managed to keep it on, Verduzco said.

"He's throwing the ball as well as he's thrown the ball since I've been around him," the coach said.

The speedy McCaffrey (6-2, 200) has improved his throwing mechanics by "leaps and bounds."

"He worked on it over the summer," Verduzco said. "The fixes he's made are intact. Now he just has to make certain that during the course of a scrimmage or a practice that it happens. It's been really, really, really good."

Verduzco said it's been an "exciting" August for his quarterbacks. As Nebraska shifts to game week next week, the transition should be smooth, the coach said.

Martinez on Manning watch list: Adrian Martinez’s summer of preseason recognition continued Wednesday when he was named to the Manning Award’s preseason watch list.

The Manning Award is given annually to the top quarterback in the nation.

The 6-2, 225-pound Husker standout, who set several school records and finished 12th in the nation in offensive yards per game (295.1) as a freshman in 2018, is one of just three sophomore signal-callers on the preseason list. The others are Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence and Texas Tech’s Alan Bowman.

Overall, 30 signal-callers are on the preseason list. Martinez is joined by fellow Big Ten quarterbacks Shea Patterson (Michigan) and Nate Stanley (Iowa).

Martinez worked as a counselor at the Manning Passing Academy this summer.

Thompkins in picture: Nebraska true freshman running back Ronald Thompkins practiced in full pads Wednesday, but is being held out of contact for the time being.

The 5-foot-11, 195-pound Georgia native is working his way back from a major knee injury that sidelined him for all but one game of his senior year at Grayson High School.

He missed all but six games of his junior season with an injury to his other knee.

But Husker running backs coach Held cautions against counting out Thompkins as a possible contributor this season.

“I even told him again today, ‘I’m going to give you every opportunity to build yourself up to have a chance to play this year,’” Held said. “That guy is talented. We’re just being smart and not having him go out there and do anything that puts him in jeopardy.

“But it’s not like he’s done for the year redshirting. I’m going to see what he can do and build him up. We want as many weapons as we can get because it’s a long season and we want to present matchup difficulties to the defense.”

Thompkins continues to build stamina and his knowledge of the offense.

“Hopefully next week we’ll get him more plays to see where he’s at,” Held said. “It’s kind of a wait-and-see with him.”

Hickman ‘not scared’: Nebraska freshman tight end Chris Hickman is a good athlete who had a knack for making big plays during a standout career at Omaha Burke.

That’s not what Husker tight ends coach Sean Beckton points to when he talks about Hickman’s bright future in Lincoln, however.

“He’s not scared to take on a 300-pound kid, and when a kid’s doing that right there, you know they’re going to end up being a good football player,” Beckton said.

Hickman is up to 212 pounds according to the veteran assistant coach, but is still an almost sure redshirt candidate in a deep position group.

“He’s worked extremely hard,” Beckton said. “Now, he knows he’s got a long way to go to get his body where it needs to be, but he makes up for it with his tenacity at the point of attack and his fearlessness when he gets there. That’s one of the things Coach Frost and the rest of the assistants have seen.”

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Reach the writer at 402-473-7436 or cbasnett@journalstar.com. On Twitter @HuskerExtraCB.

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Husker basketball reporter

A Ravenna native, Chris covers the University of Nebraska men's basketball team and assists with football coverage. He spent nearly 10 years covering sports at the Kearney Hub and nearly four years at the Springfield News-Leader in Springfield, Mo.

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