This was a game of firsts, of sorts.
A fullback carries the ball.
I thought it was an illusion, but sure enough there redshirt freshman C.J. Zimmerer was, carrying the football not once, but three times – all one right after the other. He totaled 22 yards on those three carries, 13 yards the longest gain of the three.
An intentional bounce pass behind the line of scrimmage.
OK, that's not new. In fact it's over 20 years old, the last time we saw that play actually run intentionally when quarterback Turner Gill threw the ball in similar fashion to Iriving Fryar who then completed a pass to tight end Mitch Krenk. But it was still a good play, McNeill hitting senior wide receiver Niles Paul who made an outstanding reaching grab to bring the ball down inbounds.
Bo Pelini smiles at a ref
Probably not the first time, but you can more than likely count on one hand how many times the Husker Head Coach flashed an actual grin at one of the men in stripes versus the various other facial expressions he's made at them while he's been the man at Nebraska.
Taylor Martinez can run.
Run Taylor, Run.
OK, that's not a first, or at least it shouldn't be.
But it's been kind of interesting how many comments are out there which seem to indicate a certain measure of surprise that Martinez can run like they saw in the Spring Game.
Is this thing on?
Has anyone paid attention to a single thing about this young man since the day he committed to Nebraska to the day the Spring Game was played?
Everyone should have known that.
Heck, he was figured to be a safety waiting to happen, perhaps a corner or a wide receiver. He runs a 40 in the 4.4 to 4.5-range.
Of course he can run.
The questions have been always about whether or not he can throw.
And to that end we probably still don't know much about what he can do in an actual game outside of what we learned in this glorified practice, and that being he has a strong arm.
But until he hit Tyler Legate on that pass out in the flats for a score from the five-yard line, he had opportunities to throw, but in every instance chose to tuck and go.
That should not be considered an indictment of any kind. That might have been the best decision each of those times. But it clearly indicates tendencies, something you can't necessarily break in the course of one Spring.
And Cody Green has a few of his own, though, he is far more comfortable in the pocket looking for a receiver than he was last year. You could say that Martinez is now where Green was last year in making that decision whether to run or to pass.
But both are still an obvious work in progress.
The one glaring issue is that when there is coverage on a receiver, while seasoned quarterbacks might look for other places to throw, both Martinez and Green opted to throw it anyway. One of those decisions resulted in Martinez getting picked, and Green should have been picked at least once.
With that being said, let's go back to something Bo Pelini said before this Spring Game arrived. He said that the offense would be basically hamstrung with the limited things they would be doing, the trick plays notwithstanding.
Honestly, the best looking thrower on the day was Kody Spano.
But while you have to ask if Martinez can throw to compliment his running, you have to ask if Spano can run to compliment his ability to pass. We simply don't know that, because he's either been injured or in a green jersey since he arrived over two years ago. And because of that green jersey, it's hard to draw any real conclusions from yesterday's performance.
Both Ron Kellogg Jr. and Latravis Washington looked good in limited duty. Washington continues to show the arm. But the accuracy still needs a bit of work. But you could say that about all the quarterbacks right now. And Kellogg, a much more trimmed down version of the young man who was thrown hastily into the mix last year after Spano went down for the second time with an MCL, looked pretty comfortable and threw the ball fairly well.
The best ball of the day was delivered by Green who hit senior wide receiver Will Henry in stride for a 72-yard touchdown.
TURNING THE CORNER
This is one of those moments where everyone asks if he's turned the corner. Is this his watershed moment where he'll finally realize some of that amazing athleticism he has and the obvious mismatch he is standing around 6 foot, 6 inches tall.
Henry looks up for Green pass which he will take into the end
zone for the score.
Maybe, but as Will Henry said after the game, he knew he had the inside route on redshirt freshman Lazarri Middleton, because he was playing at least 10 yards off from the line. He simply ran his route, cut it to the inside and Green just had to put the ball in front of him, and it would be a jaunt to the house for the score.
There's a difference between doing this in a real game versus doing it in a practice versus a corner who has yet to play a down of Division 1 ball.
It was a good moment for him, but it's really impossible to tell if this is the beginning of a lot of moments or simply a solid play at an opportune time.
Give it up to Niles Paul, though, as he seems to be able to handle his nemesis, Prince Amukamara, who only finished the season last year first-team all-conference at corner. From being physical on his first long reception, where Paul might have pushed off a bit to get the ball to the stellar reaching grab of a Michael McNeill pass – this young man is just a gamer.
It just seems that the more you challenge him the more he's going to show.
So, it's hardly a surprise that the person he credits for challenging him the most this Spring, had one of his own moments of the game.
It's probably going to get replayed a thousand times, and there will be an argument as to whether this is a better illustration of bad tackling than it is of pure determination. But you can't deny the impact Brandon Kinnie's catch and then persistent run after the catch which saw him basically stopped at the 10-yard line, only to see him carrying, pushing and yes, being pushed into the end zone for the touchdown.
One receiver who did surprise some was redshirt freshman K.C. Hyland.
Now, this is another instance of people not really paying attention. It's not quite to the level of Martinez, because walk-ons simply don't get that kind of pre-season publicity. But Hyland's ability to catch the ball is nothing new.
We made a few remarks last Fall during practices that during individual drills when Wide Receivers Coach Ted Gilmore would constantly try to challenge his receivers and their ability to catch the ball, Hyland almost always did.
I say almost simply as an acceptance that nobody is perfect. But in all the individual sessions I had seen, he hadn't dropped a ball…not once.
There was a drill I have talked about where players would run toward Gilmore, and he would launch and I do mean launch, a ball toward their direction. If a quarterback throws a ball that hard during a game, it's probably incomplete three out of four times. And for most of the receivers in this drill that was the case. Chris Brooks, Menelik Holt, Niles Paul, etc., so on and so forth. Everyone had problems bringing it in.
Not Hyland. Not once that I saw. And let's not forget the kid is 6-6.
A bigger body that fellow wideout Will Henry, Hyland looks more like a tight end in the making than he does someone you would split out wide. But the kid can catch. Boy, can that kid catch. Michael McNeill seems to be doing well at his role as the "Adjuster." I still laugh whenever I see that. But his big play was the pass to Paul off the bounce pass from Green.
Honestly, we know what McNeil brings to the position as we did with Dreu Young. I think we know what to expect from them. We just don't know how they will be used, exactly.
Kyler Reed had a nice showing as he had four receptions for close to 50 yards. His best stuff, though, at least to me, was when he was having to fight through traffic. I say that, because he actually did. Reed is a bigger type if you look at him as a wideout, but at 230 lbs. and still considered to be a tight end, you might wonder just how physical he can be. He can, and he proved that in the Spring Game. We'll see where it takes him in the Fall.
On the offensive line this was an interesting deal, because you were missing returning starters such as Ricky Henry at right guard, Jermarcus Hardrick at left tackle and Mike Smith, who would have taken snaps somewhere on the interior. That meant some guys got reps they might not have gotten, certainly not to this extent, than they had if everyone had been a hundred percent. But here are some brief thoughts on some of the new guys and some of the returning vets:
Reshirt freshman Cole Pensick did a nice job as the starter for the Red Team. He and the expected starter at center, Mike Caputo, are both about the same size. And both play about the same way. But Caputo right now has an obvious advantage. He knows the offense, he's ferocious off the ball and he plays with great leverage.
Pensick could end up having all those qualities, but he just moved to center this Spring. We can't expect him to approach the position with pure instincts when he's still trying to get it all down. But I think he's found a home in the middle.
We got excited about Brent Qvale last Fall when it appeared he was almost certainly going to play his first year with the team. That hit a big road block with the shoulder surgery. But he's back. And just to look at him on the line, while he's not so much bigger than everyone else he dwarfs people. But sometimes it looks like he does. I still can't get over the athleticism of a guy who looks relatively bulky. But he's got it. Ricky Henry, the returning starter at right guard, commented that Qvale blocks with the same kind of intensity he does. I don't know that I agree with that one, because people who block like Henry are oddly enough quite unique. But Qvale is intense, and he is obviously very physical. I am personally very much looking forward to this kid playing, and because Henry was out this entire Spring, it's not a gimmee that he's going to be the starter versus this giant from up north.
The Jones brothers (not really brothers, but it sounds cool) couldn't play the same position in this game, because Marcel was actually moved to the other tackle spot due to the loss of Hardrick. Both looked pretty good, and while we will get into defense next time around, it seems like even the speedy pass rushers such as Ankrah and Williams, didn't have as much of an impact on the game as you might have thought they might.
Much of that was due to the play at tackle by both Jones as well as Jeremiah Sirles, who looks like he will work himself nicely into the rotation now that he's finally big enough for the spot while still keeping that quickness off the ball.
Redshirt freshman Jesse Coffey got some time and he did well in spots. But there were other times it was a bit of a struggle, especially when just trying to get up and square to the defender off the snap before the defender came barreling around the edge. He'll be fine though.
Jared Crick said after the game that when Keith Williams is healthy, he's a train. He's quick off the ball, strong and kind of mean. He showed that during this game, and it really is waxing nostalgic a bit when you realize how much the Husker offensive line is pulling compared to just two years ago. It's a completely different offense in so many ways, but much of it really comes down to how much these linemen are asked to run laterally off the snap.
That fits Williams just fine, because as big as he is he can get off the ball in a hurry. He has problems with the smaller guys as they are moving parallel to the line of scrimmage, but I don't know too many offensive linemen who don't have those same issues. But match him up with a DT or a DE, I'd take Williams most of the time.
One player who got a lot of reps at the left guard spot was sophomore Seung Hoon Choi. And he didn't look bad in spots. He certainly has the desire, and sometimes on the line that can be the difference between success and failure. From a pulling aspect I'm still not quite sure on how he'd do consistently. But I think as young as he is, he's got a good future. I'm not saying he's a starter, all-conference or anything like that. But I doubt many people gave him much of a shot to play at any point of his career. I'd say from what I've seen you better not rule him out as someone who can contribute.
Not wanting to shortchange those guys in the backfield, but what we saw in the Spring Game was kind of what we expected, outside of this being the first chance for fans to see how the bigger Rex Burkhead runs.
Safety/Linebacker Eric Hagg said earlier this Spring that just because you have your hands on Burkhead, doesn't mean you are going to bring him down. Point of fact, I don't think anyone brought down that Plano, Texas native from first contact during the Spring Game. It was usually the second or third hit and when that came it was two or three guys if not more, who finally got him down to the ground. He's simply relentless. As for Helu Jr., the first run of the game he made was one which made me think to Oklahoma and a few other games where even at his size he's deceptively quick laterally..shifty even. This kid has such good moves, and though I think it's basically 1 and 1A between him and Burkhead, If Helu stays healthy he could be in store for a very special season.
It usually took three or more to bring down Burkhead
Give it up to Austin Jones, who was the workhorse back for the entire Spring game, the only ball carrier with double digit carries. He also added two receptions for close to 30 yards. And he's fun to watch, because the kid fights like someone who everyone says can't make a yard. You know what I mean? He's not that big, and let's face it, when you look at the few opportunities he had last year, most of the time he had little to no blocking. He was nailed in the backfield most of the time, before he could even think of where he was going to go. But he got some opportunities here, which he did something with. You can't question his heart, no doubt about that. He'll fight for yards as hard as anyone. I'm not sure what that ultimately means in regard to playing time. But you'll never question the effort which he's willing to give.
Collins Okafor gave some of that same kind of effort, all while sporting a cast on his left hand. That can't be easy for a running back to have and still be dependable with the ball. But he ran well, tough and quick to the outside. Lester Ward had a couple moments in both running and receiving. He looks far more capable now that he's a bit bigger than he was last year. Dontrayevous Robinson looks like the load he's expected to be, and he does hit the hole with a purpose.
And as to those fullbacks? Yes, I am talking about fullbacks. There's a reason to mention them outside of the obvious things they do, despite having a role which seems to be relegated to anonymity most of the time.
But Zimmerer got three carries and even new fullback Ryan Hill, who moved over from tight end, got a carry as well.
It's up there with Sasquatch, the Lock Ness Monster and UFOs
A fullback (C.J. Zimmerer above) finally carries the ball at
Here's my question: Is this legit or was this another trick play, albeit only considered that, because a fullback hasn't carried the ball at Nebraska in around three years?
Well, it worked, didn't it?
I mean, Zimmerer only got stopped for a loss the third time he ran it, after running it the two previous plays. Ryan Hill got positive yards as well. Is it really so hard to believe that the fullback might have actually found itself being relevant again in the Husker offense? Is it incomprehensible that the fullback might once again be a weapon?
Of course not, and it would be good to see as the more things you give a defense to worry about, the more effective that makes your offense.
But if the fullback does indeed find its way back to the mainstream as a ball carrier for the Big Red, there will be a moment I'll take in wishing they had made that change before the Makovickas decided to test the waters elsewhere.
Yes, that's me waxing nostalgic. So sue me.
All in all, considering how stiflingly simple this offense was yesterday, it wasn't all bad in the end. We didn't learn too much about what to expect down the road. But that's clearly a Bo Pelini agenda. This Spring Game isn't suppose to give you a window into the future. It's the last practice of Spring. That's what it is, and that's how Bo treats it. If anything, this last practice is a reward for his players for the most physical Spring they have had since Pelini arrived. It just so happens over 75 thousand people came by to watch.
But I think the offensive line is in good shape, and the entire group of running backs, if healthy, should be a solid group for the team. And I am firm in my belief that unlike last season, there will be more than one receiver stepping up for most of the year.
And while I am not ready to throw this offensive line in with so many of the really good ones at Nebraska, some of them almost legendary, I think not only will they have solid starters, but I think there is going to be ample depth.
You may not like injuries during the course of having to deal with them. But on the other end of it you are developing depth. This Spring they have done that, which I think will pay off big when the real season arrives.
As for the quarterbacks, let's not look at this last practice as any more than just that. It wasn't anything close to what you are going to see come the season. There is a lot of work yet to be done, and I am not sure we'll be seeing any quarterback completing over 60 percent of his passes on the season, if he plays that much to begin with. But this isn't quite the same offense as it was just a couple of years ago, either.
It's a process. I think someone said that once.
Can't remember who.
But they were right.