Nebraska spring football consisted of just two practices before it was halted due to concerns about the coronavirus pandemic. Even so, conversations with head coach Scott Frost, several players and almost every assistant coach provided at least some information about every position on the field.
Over the next two weeks, the Journal Star is taking a position-by-position look at the Huskers, what was learned early in March and what to look for whenever NU returns to the field.
The Journal Star is taking a position-by-position look at the Huskers. Naturally, we begin in the quarterbacks' room.
Scholarship players (10): Senior JD Spielman, junior Omar Manning, sophomore Wan’Dale Robinson; redshirt freshmen Chris Hickman, Demariyon Houston and Jamie Nance; freshmen Alante Brown, Zavier Betts, Marcus Fleming, William Nixon.
At one point on the first day of spring ball, Nebraska quarterbacks coach Mario Verduzco said he had to gather up his position group and explain something to them.
“I had to get them as a group and say, ‘Listen, when the (receivers) are running this route, it’s not going to be like what you’re used to before. It’s going to happen a lot faster and it’s going to be a lot more crisp,’” he recalled after the first of two spring practices the Huskers got in before it was shut down due to concerns about the coronavirus pandemic.
Likewise, head coach Scott Frost said “some things the receivers did better (on Day 1) than I've seen since I've been at Nebraska.”
The warm and fuzzies are all well and good (what is the first day of spring ball for, after all?) but, man, this is shaping up to be quite a challenge for first-year offensive coordinator and receivers coach Matt Lubick.
Ten scholarship receivers looks like a decent number, maybe just a tick or two below a full boat. But, consider: Spielman is on leave from the team and expected to return, but that’s not a guarantee. Four more guys — Manning, Betts, Fleming and Nixon — don’t arrive until the summer, assuming that still happens on time and everyone qualifies academically. Of the remaining half, Hickman is moving from tight end while Houston and Nance are trying to prove they’re ready to help and Brown was a midyear enrollee.
All told, that leads to a striking fact: With Spielman at least temporarily out of the fold, the grand total of production outside of Robinson is one catch for zero yards (Hickman). And now, at the very best, a delayed spring ball. Perhaps none at all.
There are some walk-ons in the mix — primarily junior Kade Warner — who have experience. Mostly, though, between the status of the incoming signees, the unknown landscape ahead, the overall inexperience and the unknown around Spielman, this group might have more question marks than any other.
“There's obviously some guys that we're thinking might be able to help us this year that aren't on campus yet, so we're going to have our work cut out for us as a staff to get some of the skill guys ready to play on offense,” Frost said. “(We’ll have to) trust some new guys to play.”
“(Lubick’s) got his work cut out for him but I trust him to get it done."
Lubick highlighted Hickman as a guy he thinks can be a standout blocker and explained why it’s such an important part of the game for receivers.
“I always tell receivers that there’s nothing that says more about who you are as a person than how you block, because it’s completely selfless,” Lubick said. “I mean, we want guys that want the ball, but when you’re actually blocking, it’s for the betterment of the whole football team. Any running play that goes for more than 10 yards is because of a receiver blocking. It’s something we always talk about. As a matter of fact, we talk about that more than we talk about catching it or running routes because they’ve got to feel the importance of it.”
One can scan NU's roster and see Frost's staff has emphasized improving size. It's getting there. It had to happen. Especially in the Big Ten.
As far as football goes, much of the post-shutdown attention initially centered on the NU operation on campus: Are student-athletes staying on campus? Is the weight room open? How will food service work?
One thing that’s become clear, though, is that the effect is going to be felt by incoming signees, too. It’s just unclear exactly how. Many schools are shut down or running modified schedules. Standardized testing is going to look different this spring.
The first names that jump to mind are Betts (high school) and Manning (junior college), two players Frost has openly said have academic work to get wrapped up to ensure they qualify at Nebraska. But this will affect everybody in some way, shape or form. That’s not necessarily a cause for alarm, of course. But for a group where multiple new guys are already being counted on to help, having more question marks doesn’t make things any less stressful.