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Spring countdown: Six Huskers looking to bounce back from injuries in 2021
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HUSKER FOOTBALL | SPRING COUNTDOWN

Spring countdown: Six Huskers looking to bounce back from injuries in 2021

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Northern Illinois vs. Nebraska, 9.14

Nebraska cornerback Braxton Clark (17) intercepts a ball in front of teammate Ben Stille in the fourth quarter on Sept. 14, 2019, at Memorial Stadium.

The Nebraska football program has one full week remaining in its eight-week winter conditioning program and begins spring ball a little more than two weeks from now.

As the 15-practice spring session approaches, the Journal Star is looking at different groups of players on the roster who face particularly interesting weeks ahead.

Injuries, of course, are part of life in football. Every team in the country deals with them and, though the Huskers stayed relatively healthy in 2020 — both on the injury front and the COVID-19 front — they still had some key players miss extensive time.

Here’s a look at several who look to bounce back in 2021 from injury absences, beginning with spring football.

Some players who just missed this list: defensive back Nadab Joseph, who dealt with an eligibility issue before getting on the field for a couple of games and subsequently hurting his knee against Purdue; freshman punter Daniel Cerni, the Australian who missed his first college season with a preseason leg injury; and sophomore defensive lineman Tate Wildeman, who has dealt with multiple injuries in his career but whom the coaching staff still holds in high regard.

Defensive backs Braxton Clark and Javin Wright

We’re going to cheat right off the bat and combine Clark and Wright. They’re in slightly different spots in their careers — Clark has seen playing time at corner and is already entering his fourth season in the program, while Wright is a redshirt freshman — but both could be significant factors on Erik Chinander’s defense.

Clark (6-foot-4 and 210 pounds) is a physically imposing corner and will compete with several others for a starting spot opposite Cam Taylor-Britt. He looked poised to push Taylor-Britt and Dicaprio Bootle for time in 2020 before a preseason shoulder injury ended his year before it began. He made one start in 2019 (at Purdue) and held up well, and is a player that secondary coach Travis Fisher has a lot of confidence in.

Wright (6-3, 205) is less of a known commodity outside the building at this point. At 6-3, he could end up at any spot in the secondary or could move down into more of a linebacker in the JoJo Domann mold. Regardless, he’s a versatile player that Fisher and Chinander will be happy to have back on the board after a preseason camp knee injury cost him the 2020 season.

You could also make a case for including safety Myles Farmer, too, though in five games played in 2020 before a freak pregame ankle/leg injury against Purdue, he saw more time on the field than anybody else on this list. 

Defensive lineman Deontre Thomas

The veteran defensive lineman earned a spot in Tony Tuioti’s rotation but dealt with injuries and was limited to just two games in 2020. He didn’t appear after taking a late hit from behind during the Penn State game and going to the turf awkwardly.

Even without Thomas, NU’s defensive line showed signs of development and improvement as the year went on. With several promising young players in the mix and Ben Stille back for a sixth year, playing time is not going to be easy to come by up front. Still, it certainly can’t hurt to have a 28-game veteran like Thomas back in the mix.

Wide receiver Will Nixon

On the opposite end of the experience spectrum, there’s Nixon. The freshman wide receiver tore his ACL in July and missed his rookie campaign. But head coach Scott Frost and offensive coordinator Matt Lubick haven’t been shy about saying that Nixon was tracking toward being a factor on offense for the Huskers before his injury.

Now that Wan’Dale Robinson is gone, Nixon’s path to playing time is even clearer. That’s not to say he has no competition — Alante Brown and some of NU’s bigger receivers are capable of playing out of the slot — but the staff is high on Nixon. The beginning of spring ball will arrive more than nine months after his injury, so he should get plenty of work in over the coming weeks.

Another candidate somewhat similar to Nixon is freshman running back Sevion Morrison, who would not have had a guaranteed role in 2020 but was making a run at one before being slowed by a combination of minor injuries and COVID-19 protocols. 

Reserve Husker OLB Niko Cooper entering NCAA transfer portal

Outside linebacker Blaise Gunnerson

Gunnerson is one to watch going forward if he can stay healthy. At 6-6 and 245 pounds, he clearly has the size and he showed the kind of explosiveness that made him look every bit the part of a four-star prospect before he arrived on campus. He has also dealt with extensive injury issues, including high school operations on each hip to shave down overgrown bones.

Gunnerson spent most of his first season on campus in the rehabilitation group. If he’s healthy going forward, he brings a size-speed combination that NU otherwise lacks in its outside linebacker group. The Huskers did a better job piecing together production from Domann, Garrett Nelson, Caleb Tannor and others in 2020, but the Carroll, Iowa, native would be a more-than-welcome addition to the mix this spring and beyond.

Wide receiver Omar Manning

Perhaps the biggest wild card of the group, Manning will be interesting to follow this spring and through the summer.

Many fans are familiar with his story at this point. He’s a highly touted junior college transfer and a physically imposing outside receiver at 6-4 and 210 pounds. He arrived on campus last summer with fanfare but appeared in just one game and was targeted one time.

Frost has said repeatedly that the goal is for Manning to be healthy. That has seemed to be in reference to both physical and mental health.

Manning has been involved through the winter conditioning program.

Nebraska has added several bigger receivers to its ranks, from Zavier Betts to transfer Samori Toure to walk-ons Levi Falck and Oliver Martin to a trio of incoming freshmen this summer. And even though Frost said he doesn’t want to put too much pressure on Manning, it’s clear NU thinks he can help the Husker passing game if he continues on his current track.

Contact the writer at pgabriel@journalstar.com or 402-473-7439. On Twitter @HuskerExtraPG.

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Husker football reporter

Parker joined the Journal Star as the University of Nebraska football beat writer in August 2017. He previously covered Montana State athletics for the Bozeman Daily Chronicle and graduated from the University of Wisconsin in 2012.

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