Spring football practice

Defensive end Ross Dzuris watches teammates before practice at Hawks Championship Center on Wednesday, April 8, 2015.

You remember who led the way in tackles in last year's Red-White Spring Game, of course. No? You don’t? That’d be Waverly’s Erik Evans.

He piled up nine tackles, including two behind the line of scrimmage. A very good day, and even though it’s just a scrimmage, here’s guessing Evans will still remember it fondly many years from now. Perhaps he’ll have had 12 or 13 tackles by the time the grandkids ask about it, because a little embellishment among family never hurt a soul.

We bring this up here, because that’s what the Red-White game is about as much anything. The headliners you read about all the time will have their say in the fall. But this is a day when anyone out of a roster of 121 can become a story for a day.

It’s also a day that can allow some “under-the-radar” players who are more than just feel-good spring stories to further their cases for the fall.

And so we name off a dozen players to watch who aren’t named Tommy Armstrong, De’Mornay Pierson-El, Maliek Collins or Nate Gerry.

Away we go.


Quarterback — Zack Darlington. He does not possess the strongest arm of the QB contenders, but the redshirt freshman seems to make smart decisions and has gathered some momentum near the end of spring. While a lot of people are rightly fired up about AJ Bush, and while Johnny Stanton and Ryker Fyfe may have come to mind first at the beginning of spring, don’t sleep on Darlington when it comes to NU’s top three QBs. Remember, he led his father’s team to a state championship in the largest classification in Florida. He was recruited by some big boys. He’s got enough tools to deserve attention on a day like this.

Guard — Zach Hannon. The sophomore from Kansas City, Missouri, is in the best shape since he’s been in the program and was getting a look with the top offensive line unit for good portions of the spring. The battles for the starting guard jobs figure to go deep into fall camp. But Hannon, who is yet to play a snap on offense as a Husker, is worth a look, even with the excitement that surrounds fans seeing redshirt freshmen such as Jerald Foster and Tanner Farmer.

Tackle — David Knevel. It may seem off course to classify Knevel in an “under-the-radar” category, since he stands 6-foot-9 and weighs 310 pounds and was once recruited by Nick Saban at Alabama. But since he’s at a position that is loaded with seniors — Alex Lewis, Givens Price, Matt Finnin and the injured Zach Sterup — he may not be considered a favorite to win a starting job in 2015. But … you can tell Riley and Mike Cavanaugh see plenty of promise in Knevel. And given that all those seniors won’t be around in 2016, it’d be good for both the third-year Husker and the program if Knevel could become an important piece of the rotation this fall.

Tight end — Luke McNitt. Mike Riley likes using tight ends, and has already said the position has been “a pleasant surprise” since he arrived here. The sophomore McNitt, who transferred here after playing some quarterback at Nebraska-Kearney, is an intriguing prospect in that mix. It’s hard to know exactly where McNitt stands, but he’s shown some promise this spring, including a one-handed snag that put his hands on display. With Cethan Carter out of the Spring Game with injury, it’s an interesting game within the game to see which tight ends show up on the stat sheet.

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Running back — Graham Nabity. Adam Taylor and Mikale Wilbon will probably be among the biggest attention-getters Saturday. But Nabity, a walk-on junior from Elkhorn, has received enough kudos from coaches this spring to make you wonder if he could be more than just a story of spring. We won’t overdo it just yet, but Riley’s history shows he is not afraid to move under-the-radar walk-ons to important roles if they earn their place. What’s clear is that Nabity has gotten a fair look from coaches this spring, even getting some reps with the top offense on occasion. That’s all a guy can ask for.

Wide receiver — Lane Hovey. The junior from Adel, Iowa, can help this team in 2015. Heck, he helped last fall, catching five passes for 69 yards. At 6-4, 205 pounds, he has the size. But as you might remember, he also has real good speed. Earlier this week he also showed off his hands, going up high in traffic to snag a jump ball. Yes, it would seem to be De'Mornay Pierson-El and Jordan Westerkamp at the top, with Brandon Reilly making a very strong case in that group. But you're going to need more than that. And Hovey has a chance to be an important piece of the rotation.


Tackle — Kevin Maurice. We all know which players make the most hay up front. But Maliek Collins and Vincent Valentine can't play every snap, meaning the 6-3, 280-pound Maurice needs to stay ready. He appeared in 10 games last season and had eight tackles, including a sack against Florida Atlantic. He played in six games as a true freshman. A native of Orlando, he was widely regarded as one of the fastest rising prospects in Florida after an excellent senior season at Freedom High School.

End — Ross Dzuris. While the starting duo of Greg McMullen and Jack Gangwish seems stabilized, the 6-3, 250-pound Dzuris, a former Plattsmouth High standout, is in a pack of ends vying for playing time. With Mick Stoltenberg moving to tackle and A.J. Natter slowly recovering from knee issues, it's important for linemen such as Dzuris, Sedrick King and Joe Keels to seize the moment.

Linebacker — Luke Gifford. The former Lincoln Southeast standout became the first player to verbally commit to Nebraska's 2014 recruiting class, doing so in March 2013. Although he was a safety throughout his decorated prep career, the 6-3, 215-pound Gifford is now playing linebacker, a position where the Huskers have serious depth issues across the board. He has looked like a good fit at the position this spring — his athleticism is readily apparent — but needs to add strength. His experience at safety obviously pays off in coverage. But he needs to prove himself against the run. How about a few doses of Imani Cross?

Cornerback — Trai Mosley. He definitely was an under-the-radar recruit in the class of 2014. Nebraska was the first to offer a scholarship to the Pflugerville, Texas, native. "You look on paper, you see 5-10, 170. He looks like 100 other guys on paper," said Hendrickson High head coach Chip Killian in June 2013. "Then you look at him on film. Then you come eyeball him face to face, and he really jumps out at you how good he is, how strong he is." The redshirt freshman certainly jumped off the page last month when he made three interceptions on a Saturday morning. His teammates don't overlook him.

Defensive back — Aaron Williams. Of the four true freshmen who enrolled in January, he seemed to attract the least amount of attention. Yet there he was last Saturday, practicing with the first string as a safety in the nickel defense (with Byerson Cockrell playing nickel). Williams starred last season at Carver High in Atlanta. "He's picked up things quickly," defensive coordinator Mark Banker said. "The physical part of it is the pleasing part. He matches up pretty well with the majority of the guys out there, and if he doesn't, he does whatever he can to throw himself in there and finish the play."

Safety — LeRoy Alexander. Yes, he's a fairly big name, even though he comes off a seasonlong suspension in 2014. The 6-foot, 195-pound safety was a star last spring, working with the first team. He was a projected starter before his suspension in August. He's been spending a lot of time this spring with the second unit.

— Brian Christopherson and Steven M. Sipple

Reach the writer at 402-473-7439 or bchristopherson@journalstar.com. On Twitter @HuskerExtraBC.


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