A spring game with a nontraditional format left nearly as many questions as answers, but it did serve to satisfy fans’ thirst for Husker football at the halfway point between last season and next, and perhaps to tamper down some expectations after an exciting offseason of comings and goings.
Perhaps the best way to make sense of Saturday’s action is to look at it group-by-group.
Here are position grades from Nebraska’s 2022 spring game:
There was perhaps something to be gained from the order in which quarterbacks appeared. Heralded junior quarterback Casey Thompson, a Texas transfer, took the field first, both out of the tunnel and on the first possession, followed by sophomore Logan Smothers and freshman Chubba Purdy on subsequent drives.
Thompson, the presumptive starter, played only two drives, while Smothers, last year’s backup, and Purdy, a Florida State transfer, finished the first half. The three went a combined 13-for-28 for 140 yards and did not get the opportunity to show much running ability as their designated green jerseys protected them from contact.
None stood out for better or worse, and their play reflected head coach Scott Frost’s sentiments entering the game about wanting to see more consistency from his quarterbacks, which is to be expected with 11 combined starts among the group. As a whole, the quarterbacks could have been afforded more time by the offensive line.
Purdy showed solid improvisational skills and mobility while Smothers had some good throws in a format that was not conducive for his strengths as a pure dual-threat quarterback.
The second half was managed by redshirt freshmen Heinrich Haarberg and Jarrett Synek and junior Matt Masker, the latter two walk-ons. That trio wore red jerseys meaning they could get hit, and tackling was allowed all over the field.
Running Backs: B+
The array of running backs who got touches (10 total) reflected the Huskers’ depth at the position, yet over half of the group’s contributors on this day in April are not among the group expected to compete in the fall.
The main group of competitors for the lead back role — junior transfer Anthony Grant and sophomores Rahmir Johnson and Jaquez Yant — switched off in the first half. They weren’t able to get a ton of momentum going partially because they largely weren’t allowed to break tackles with plays being whistled dead to avoid contact. Johnson carried six times for 14 yards, Yant 11 times for 29 yards and Grant left the biggest impression with a 60-yard touchdown.
The Huskers amassed 375 rush yards, most of which came in the second half as the game opened up. The gaudy numbers are in part a product of variations of the Nebraska offense being on the field the whole game with the offense versus defense format instead of two balanced teams. Several new contributors emerged — redshirt freshmen Trevin Luben (who led the way with 91 yards), Isaiah Harris, Matthew Schuster, Beau Psencik and Aiden Young and sophomore Cooper Jewett, all of whom are walk-ons. Junior Markese Stepp, a regular face last season, also saw a couple of carries in the second half.
The problem is, it is highly unlikely that any of those walk-ons who accounted for most of the yards will see much time in 2022. In addition to the four scholarship backs who played, freshman Gabe Ervin Jr. is set to return from injury by fall camp and be joined by fellow scholarship players in Texas A&M transfer Deondre Jackson and incoming freshmen Ajay Allen and Emmett Johnson.
Nebraska’s top receiver group did not do much to back up the praise and hype it garnered in the offseason. But as far as the passing game is concerned, it’s important to remember that Frost and offensive coordinator Mark Whipple mentioned earlier in the week that they would not divulge much of the new playbook.
Expected starters in junior wide receiver Trey Palmer and senior wide receiver Omar Manning did not show much, and New Mexico State-transfer junior wide receiver Isaiah Garcia-Castaneda did not play. Perhaps most notable was redshirt freshman Kamonte Grimes, who had a 34-yard touchdown grab. The big-bodied receiver could find himself in the two-deep come fall. Redshirt freshman wide receiver Ty Hahn backed up coaches’ comments about his improvements with a 42-yard touchdown.
With arguably the top four tight ends all out with injury, there were also some young contributors among that group who helped their stock. Redshirt freshman tight end Nate Boerkircher had two catches for 18 yards, but most impressive among a slew of Nebraska-natives was redshirt freshman tight end AJ Rollins, who led the team with four catches for 39 yards including an impressive red zone snag in traffic delivered by Purdy.
There were some drops, and it would have been helpful to see more from the top group, but some big plays did finally come in the second half as the game’s stakes lowered with all the starters out even as the score drew nearer.
Offensive Line: D
The pass blocking was the culprit for many of the offense’s early struggles as a young defense repeatedly broke through the offensive line. One could argue that was a product of perhaps the two best linemen — sophomore tackles Teddy Prochazka and Turner Corcoran — out with injury, but the counter to that would be that the defensive line was also thin with injuries.
The run blocking was a little more encouraging, but junior Nouredin Nouili’s practice comments about the line coming off the ball better were not entirely validated by the performance. Still, Grant broke off a big run and the ball started moving in the second half which was encouraging.
This unit looks to have a way to go in the next four-and-a-half months if it wants to be markedly improved from last year’s group. One other note — senior Trent Hixson started with the first team offense, which may or may not be an indicator that he’s ahead of sophomore Ethan Piper for the starting center job right now.
Defensive Line: B+
The front line played a key role in the defense’s spring game victory. They repeatedly got through and created pressure on the quarterbacks or swallowed blockers and allowed the linebackers to make plays. They also mostly stifled Johnson and Yant, perhaps in part due to the first half no-tackling rule that counted a touch as a tackle. However, they got around the blockers and to the ball or allowed the linebackers to.
Even more impressive, they did so despite missing several key players. Nobody stood out in particular, but several young players who will be relied upon next year contributed including Nash Hutmacher, Jailen Weaver, Ru’Quan Buckley and Mosai Newsom, all sophomores or younger by eligibility.
The second line of the defense made several big plays, including notching all three sacks — two from junior outside linebacker Garrett Nelson and one from redshirt freshman outside linebacker Jimari Butler. Nine of the top 10 tacklers came from the position group including the leading tackler in sophomore inside linebacker Grant Tagge (8 tackles). True freshman inside linebacker Ernest Hausmann had seven tackles and one for a loss, and senior inside linebacker Eteva Mauga-Clements had five tackles with one for loss and a pass breakup.
When tackling was introduced in the second half and defenders needed to do more than just touch a ball carrier to mark them down, the offense understandably had more success on the ground. The top defenders did stay in longer, but it was dizzying to keep track of which first-stringers were lined up on offense and defense. Still, the defense ended with the better performance, and the linebackers made many of the big plays to get it there.
Defensive Backs: A-
The lack of offensive production early could be attributed about as much to the secondary as the disjointed passing game. This position group also produced the game-winning play. An array of faces saw time. The group saw six different quarterbacks and did not allow any of them to catch on in a significant way, holding the offense to a combined 24-of-49 on pass attempts.
It was a reassuring performance as much as a spring game can be for a group that lost three of its four starters. No questions were really answered about who will fill those spots. Even though he likely won’t be among them, senior defensive back Darius Moore, a walk-on by way of Iowa Western Community College, snagged the game’s only interception and perhaps the play of the game late in the fourth quarter to give the defense the win.
Special Teams: D-
The most dire of Husker position groups carried over from 2021, and the coaching staff will be trying desperately to shed most of the special teams issues come fall. Sophomore punter Brian Buschini uncorked a 63-yard punt to start the game, inciting a roar from the crowd. He was up-and-down after that, ending with a 40.2-yard average.
Junior kicker Chase Contreraz, part of the revolving door of contributors last season, made his first field goal attempt, a 26-yarder, before missing a 42-yarder in the second quarter. Sophomore Gabe Heins missed an extra point, giving Husker fans a cruel sense of deja vu from 2021. Several Huskers attempted extra points, making the rest, including sophomore kickoff specialist Brendan Franke.
Furman-transfer Timmy Bleekrode, one of the few scholarship kickers, will not arrive in Lincoln until the summer. With two missed kicks, including an extra point, this was not the expected or hoped-for improvement.