Nebraska offensive coordinator Matt Lubick and defensive coordinator Erik Chinander both emphasized how important this week is for the rest of the Huskers’ season.
A matchup against a beleaguered Penn State squad on Saturday will provide the Huskers a litmus test for their spot relative to the rest of the Big Ten.
Lubick and Chinander said at a Tuesday press conference that there would be team-wide competition at practice for playing time. Nearly every position appears to be up for grabs on a team still looking for their first win of the season after a 21-13 defeat to Northwestern last Saturday.
The biggest position yet to be answered is quarterback, where the starting job is open, according to Lubick. Junior Adrian Martinez and redshirt freshman Luke McCaffrey have both played meaningful snaps at quarterback in Nebraska’s first two games, but there isn’t a clear-cut starter yet going into Penn State..
It’s no secret what Lubick is looking for in order to make that decision. He wants to find one attribute that both haven’t shown yet this season.
“At the quarterback position, we look for consistency and making good decisions,” Lubick said. “Who’s throwing the ball on time, to the right guys but it comes down to who’s playing the most consistent.”
While McCaffrey and Martinez fight to lead the Husker offense, quarterback isn’t the only position that’s up for grabs this week.
“Right now, we have a lot of jobs that are up for grabs,” Lubick said. “This is an open competition week… Competition, I’m a big believer it makes you better.”
One offensive position, wide receiver, is where younger players have made steps forward to significant playing time. In particular, freshman wide receivers Marcus Fleming and Zavier Betts stood out against Northwestern, something Lubick was excited to see.
“First game jitters, every coach worries about that,” Lubick said. “We worry about the basic fundamentals, are we going to line up right, run the right route and they did that. In fact, they superseded expectations.”
Fleming led Nebraska in receiving with 75 yards on five catches while Betts had two catches for 17 yards. In addition to wide receiver, Lubick said that the offensive line could see some changes from last week.
Nebraska had to adjust its offensive line against Northwestern, as an injury to junior center Cam Jurgens caused some offensive line shuffling. The injury moved senior guard Matt Farniok to center, his first career start at the position, and inserted redshirt freshman guard Ethan Piper in Farniok’s place.
Piper transitioned from defensive line to offensive line in his redshirt year at Nebraska, and made his first career start against the Wildcats after just one season at the position.
“Coming here, I was on the defensive line and got switched over to the offensive line,” Piper said at Tuesday’s press conference. “ Those guys immediately embraced me and have been so good explaining the offense and being a role model to me.”
Piper said he felt he was prepared to play Northwestern after going up against the Husker defensive line every day in practice. He said that the Husker defensive line was one of the better units in the Big Ten based on size and strength.
Nebraska’s defensive line came in this season with some question marks about replacing three NFL-caliber players from last season, but has been one of the team’s strengths through two games. The defensive line, littered with young and old faces, has made Nebraska’s front seven much more respectable.
The front seven excelled against Northwestern despite being without senior linebacker Will Honas. Sophomore linebacker Luke Reimer made his first career start last Saturday and led the Huskers in tackles with 10.
Reimer’s performance last Saturday was one that did not surprise inside linebacker coach Barrett Ruud. It came despite Reimer playing nervous on the first drive, which according to Rudd was his worst performance of any drive of the game.
Reimer helps solidify Nebraska’s linebacker rotation with Honas’ return on the horizon. Reimer, senior linebacker Colin Miller and Honas round out a linebacker corps that Ruud has high expectations for.
“It’s always a good problem to have when you have a lot of good players to get on the field,” Ruud said at Tuesday’s press conference. “All three of those guys are really good football players...and I’m expecting that kind of inner competition to elevate their game even more.”
In the secondary, redshirt freshman safety Myles Farmer had two first-half interceptions last Saturday while replacing senior safety Deontai Williams.
The inspired performances from those two younger defensive players against the Wildcats has given the Husker defense more confidence in their depth. The Huskers want to give more young talent a chance to get on the field as the season progresses, according to Chinander.
“I’m not looking to bench people. I’m not looking to scare anybody but there’s a lot of young guys earning a lot of opportunities,” Chinander said. “They need reps and however you practice this week will determine how many reps those young guys get and how many those old guys get.”
Freshmen and sophomores stepped up and almost delivered Nebraska’s first win of the season. Despite falling short and being winless through two games, practices have turned up a notch, according to sophomore linebacker Garrett Nelson.
“There’s competition every practice,” Nelson said at Tuesday’s press conference. “You want to give it your all every practice. No spot is guaranteed, no matter how long you’ve been here.”