It's honestly hard, at least for me, to call this Spring session of practices as a build up to a game, which really isn't a game. But as we have come to learn in Nebraska, any opportunity to see the football team in person is one that fans, if they are capable of making it, wouldn't pass up.
But it isn't about what they will see as much as who.
I know that Athletic Director Tom Osborne came out and in response to Nebraska being the only Big Ten team not to have their Spring scrimmage aired on TV - and said that it was basically for two reasons. One, making sure the stands were as full as they could be and two, not wanting to show anyone in their new conference anything in regard to offense, defense, etc.
The first reason is a good one, except for the fact that this is Nebraska. Nobody should know better than Dr. Tom himself that even if you aired the game, people would still show up in droves. Maybe not 80 thousand, but still a bunch. Even if the national media doesn't care about the attendance figures outside of an obligatory blurb which lasts about a minute or less, you know those inside this state do.
Of course, there is the money aspect, and even in Nebraska, where tradition seems to override all else, I doubt anyone in the athletic department frowns on the revenue generated, especially since assigned seating led to better money for better seats a few years ago.
But enough as to the motivations for things that really have nothing to do with the game itself.
What do you expect from this game?
I'll give you a hint: Nothing
I know you aren't going to like this, but understand that what you see in this last practice where teams are divided up by a draft and not by depth chart - there is no chemistry. Understand that how teams are divided means there are going to be units on either side of the ball who haven't, as a unit, faced each other. It's not a free-for-all as much as it is just another chance to see how much the fundamentals have sunk in.
That's the thing about Spring.
Our attention has been so much on the changes in scheme, we have completely looked past the reality that "how" you block is more important right now than where and when. And that importance was made even more-so when so many new coaches came into the mix. Now it's a different offense and some changes on defense. But you have a linebacker coach, a wide receivers coach, the coach in the secondary as well as the running back and quarterback coach - you could spend most of your practices just trying to get a feel for what your guys can do.
But here are a few things which I do believe we can look at and get at least a decent feel for as we will move into the doldrums leading into the Fall:
Turnovers: It was the bane of this team's existence last year as they ranked among the worst teams in all of the FBS in fumbles lost. But they actually did lead in fumbles put on the ground. Then there were the interceptions. It was just a turnover-marred season that when you consider how it can kill some teams, Nebraska actually did quite well despite all of them. But it was a theme coming out of last season and going into the Spring. Offensive Coordinator Tim Beck ran his offensive guys pretty hard after a practice a few days ago. Well conditioned athletes, and skill position players at that, were having their endurance tested to its limits. It was a lack of basic fundamentals, and turnovers are one of the most basic aspects of that. You can bet the defensive teams will be trying like crazy to force turnovers in the upcoming Spring game. If the offense doesn't give up any, I think that's a good sign for the future.
Penalties: Another of those fundamental basics, but this time it's more about mentality than technique. It's about focus at the line, not letting the noise get to you and basically, just understanding the situation. Nebraska ranked in the conference as one of the worst teams in the Big 12 in regard to penalties. They even set a team record for penalties in a game, that now infamous contest where Nebraska got 16 called against them when they faced Texas A&M down in College Station.
Dropped balls: Texas anyone? Yep, that will long be remembered as a game where Nebraska, seemingly cursed by Texas for years, gave yet another one away to the Longhorns by dropping three certain touchdowns, which would have given them not just a win, but a comfortable one at that. Dropped passes have been even more amplified, because due to Nebraska's run-heavy scheme for most of the first half of the season, opportunities to catch the ball were few and far between. So, when those opportunities did come around and balls weren't brought in, they stood out that much more. Well, it's impossible to say whether a new wide receivers coach in Rich Fisher is going to automatically mean that teflon gloves become a little stickier. But keep an eye on that in this game. A dropped ball is a dropped ball, even in a practice. If you see a lot of them, you know this group still has a ways to go.
OK, now what not to look for:
An offense: I should be more specific about this. Don't look for an offensive game plan that is going to give you even the remotest of ideas of what this group is going to do come the Fall. Bo Pelini already said it's going to be basic. And when that man says basic, you can bet that Blue Bunny isn't as vanilla as what we are going to see tomorrow. That is one reason I found Osborne's comment about not wanting to show anything to the opponents in regard to why this game isn't on the air - particularly interesting.
They aren't going to show anything anyway.
Part of it is just being pragmatic. You don't come off an entire Spring session of working on fundamentals and trying to install new schemes on both sides - and go right into a Spring game where you unveil everything you have done in regard to those changes. It would be uglier than any Spring game you ever saw, and we all know we have seen some stinkers.
And again, because this isn't first team against first team or second team against second team, chemistry is right out the door.
A defense: Having Jared Crick and Cameron Meredith not in there certainly doesn't help, but it's not like this group would be blitzing every other play even if they were. As vanilla as the offense is likely to be, the defense is probably going to be just as.
Let's remember that Lavonte David couldn't get off the field almost the entire season last year. This year he will have some company. Back to that chemistry issue again. The secondary lost five players who had starting experience. Yep, not much chemistry there and like the linebackers, they are fielding a brand new coach. On the defensive line, I think you could see something, maybe. There is a wealth of experience on the inside, and some of the heir apparent(s) such as Josh Williams and Jason Ankrah will show a bit of what they can do on the outside.
That brings us ultimately to special teams, and finally we have something we can sink our teeth into. Either you can get the ball into the end zone or you can't. Either you make the field goal or you don't. Alex and Adi are gone, and now it's up to Brett Maher, Jason Dann and others to try and step up to replace them. I don't know that they will be given the opportunities many might hope. I certainly don't expect to see Bo trotting out Maher for an attempt at 67-yards like we saw a week or so ago at Purdue.
He made it by the way.
But I think this is a unit that you can see some things that will actually tell you a little bit about what to expect in the future, and whether you should be hoping Mauro Bondi, the kicker slated to show up in the Summer, is the next big thing or has to be, based on what you have seen.
And that leads you to the biggest aspect of why people go to Spring games.
Ah yes, those grandiose individual performances in Spring, only to be followed by an actual career that wasn't nearly as exciting. But then there are those who have shined in both. But all those players, so many who will be hitting the field for the first time - even us boring old media types are looking forward to seeing who actually steps up and makes plays we can talk about for years.
And yes, there is the simple and enjoyable camaraderie among fans that comes with a game in Lincoln, even when it isn't an actual game. Where else can you have a reunion 80,000 strong? That's what it is in Lincoln. It's the same people coming back who have been going for years, getting together with people just like them.
Sometimes I think you could hold an event in Memorial Stadium, where nothing is actually going on, but everyone was invited to come if they wanted - and you could still get at least half the stands full. Welcome to Nebraska. Where if it's not football season, it's a time where people are preparing for it. Spring is a season. The Fall is a season. And in the last five to eight years, recruiting has become its own season, too.
Call this the game before the game.
The bad news? You will probably learn next to nothing about this team's offense, its defense and just how it's all going to look.
The good news? Nebraska is guaranteed to win.
Sounds like a non-conference game in the mid-to-late-90s, doesn't it?
I can't wait.