LINCOLN – Touchdowns would be nice.
To be clear, you can’t ask for many spring football games, even if 50,000 or 60,000 crowd Memorial Stadium in search of hope that 2022 won’t be like 2021’s recurring trap.
It wasn’t 1998 after all, when Bobby Newcombe’s 91-yard touchdown in the spring game on Saturday led to him being named the starter ahead of Eric Crouch and Frankie London the following week. But NU fans have been more than loyal, and there’s a slew of sales to consider.
So touchdowns would be nice. Preferably on the arm of quarterback Casey Thompson in the first half against a slightly outclassed defense. Maybe in the red zone. Or during a two-minute exercise that is not extended by an untimed down, like the game last spring. And if no one is hurt, so much the better.
“The way the spring games have gone now, in my mind, we want to come out of this healthy,” offensive coordinator Mark Whipple said.
An injury in the 1998 Florida State spring game — to starting quarterback Dan Kendra — likely changed the course of spring games forever. A prep All-American, Kendra blew her knee and never became a star. Slowly, the tradition changed from a three-hour car accident to a two-hour event where no one is likely to earn a job.
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“There are guys who can improve there, if they play well,” Whipple said. “And some guys if they play really badly. But there’s a bunch of tapes we have.
Last Wednesday, Whipple said he hadn’t spoken to trainer Scott Frost about the format and didn’t know what it would be. The game is sure to be a bit smoother than the 2021 version, a mix of touch and tackle football so scrappy that Logan Smothers – then as now the backup – went virtually two whole terms without playing, leading some to speculate that he had fallen behind Heinrich Haarberg, who led a late comeback. (He does not have.)
Looking back, the relatively poor attack in the Whites’ 21-20 win was a harbinger of the season. The teams combined to go 8 for 28 on third downs. Teams completed 30 of 59 passes for as many interceptions (two) as touchdowns. A kicker missed a field goal from 29 yards. The defenses mostly held on but struggled against the run in the second half.
That final part – about defense battling the run – could take place this Saturday. With so many players bumped and so many newcomers to the first two units, the Blackshirts project is a work in progress. It’s reasonable to be a bit concerned about the D, especially if NU can’t get TCU’s Ochaun Mathis out of the transfer gate.
Nebraska’s offense, which is still learning the Whipple scheme, a new style of online play and how to follow a new quarterback, will have some issues to deal with. But touchdowns would be nice. So would quarterbacks who release the ball – at the peak of their fall – to open up the guys, running backs who hit holes hard while avoiding their offensive linemen’s guards and receivers executing crisp, precise routes that create space instead of receivers always looking for open space.
And a quarterback contraband game. From below center. Throwing tight end into the flat near the goal line. That would be nice too. With touches.
Husker fans can also get them.
Thompson, a conscientious type, will want to perform well in front of a large crowd. Nebraska wants him to have a good performance. A scrum can be structured to succeed without divulging much of the playbook. Whipple has been around a few, and he likes what he’s seen from his QBs.
“Casey did well, Logan did (good), Chubba Purdy is working a little harder, so that’s good to see,” Whipple said. “Young people are coming. A group of very good children who love the game and are fun to be around.
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Mathis is the big transfer this week, but several NU sports – including basketball – will do better than you might expect in the market. Name, image and likeness opportunities – largely managed by ABM – are well curated.
More to come this week on developments there.
Additionally, parents and student-athletes have reliably reported year after year that few athletic departments can match Nebraska’s comprehensive support system. Academicians. Life skills. Mental health services. NU is good at it.
One to watch in women’s basketball: Minnesota transfer Sara Scalia, one of the best 3-point shooters in the nation who played for the same AAU club as Sam Haiby, would be good enough to catch passes from a guard like Jaz Shelly.
If coach Fred Hoiberg speaks to the media this week, it could mean he’s added a new assistant to the coaching staff. Unless that guy is Coach K, Hoiberg will face plenty of questions (OK, a few) about the program’s three-year struggles.
A question to ponder: if Nebraska doesn’t have the horsepower to outrun Big Ten foes, will Hoiberg slow down the offense in an effort to drag more talented opponents into a rock fight?
NU had the 19th fastest adjusted tempo in the nation — best in the Big Ten — according to Ken Pom. The Huskers were 35th in 2021 and 16th in 2020. None of Nebraska’s offenses ranked in the top 100.
Nebraska softball has a 10-game winning streak. Don’t be surprised if he’s down to 15 after facing the Big Ten’s two worst teams, Michigan State and Iowa, over the next 10 days.
After that, the perennial powerhouse of the Minnesota Big Ten comes to town. The Gophers have appeared in the last eight NCAA tournaments.
When was the last time Nebraska Athletics beat Ohio State in something as serious as NU’s baseball team swept the Buckeyes this weekend?
Slovenian Kristina Novak and Maja Makoric form one of the best doubles teams in Big Ten women’s tennis. They won again this weekend against Illinois and haven’t lost as a duo since Jan. 29 against Duke, although some of their matches didn’t end because the doubles point had already been secured.
From the mail bag
Every week during the offseason, I will answer questions from Twitter and/or Facebook. Here are a few:
What are the signs that this new staff can pull it all together and produce a winning season? For too long the fan base has been fed coachespeak only to see the team flounder each week.
I’m not a coach, but I love that Whipple talks so often in detail. It’s about remembering and knowing what it wants, from deepening Smothers’ drops to explaining, without prompting, the useful use of big tight ends in the red zone.
There’s bravado and confidence in him but, after years of circular statements and cover from offensive coordinators and quarterbacks coach Mario Verduzco, it’s a welcome change. Whipple doesn’t seem to be looking over his shoulder.
Can John Cook coach more than one sport a year?
If you moved volleyball to the spring! Seriously, Cook has mentored several coaches on campus and, in another era, may have been NU’s athletic director. Cook is happy Trev Alberts is AD and for good reason — the role has become less about coaching support and more about navigating a rapidly changing financial landscape in college sports.
Will the Huskers bring back the two-stripe pants (please shrink the stripes a bit) and the black shoes?
The look provided a pleasant surprise in NU’s 23-16 loss to Oklahoma when the Huskers came out wearing red pants and white stripes. Frost switched to no stripes when he came to NU, as Nebraska had worn stripeless pants between 1995 and 2001, then wore them again in 2003 after the year-long gusset/fat stripe look in 2002. Bill Callahan brought back stripes in 2004. I’m pro-stripes.
Can the Athletic Department salvage a media rights package similar to the failed deal?
If not, would Nebraska have pulled out of this deal?