Searching for Signs

The Nebraska Spring Game Had Lots of ‘Thud’ But Few Indications of the Finished Product

By Jansen Coburn

  • Synek runs away from a tackle attempt by Simon Otte. Synek both ran and threw for a touchdown in the spring game.
  • Florida State transfer quarterback Chubba Purdy connected on five passes for 63 yards.
  • Quarterback Heinrich Haarberg throws under pressure. Haarberg threw for one touchdown and was 4 for 7 for 78 total yards.
  • A slimmer Jaquez Yant looks to cut through a hole. Yant carried 11 times, but because of "thud" rules, the defense only had to touch him to end a play.
  • The 6-foot-5 Haarberg finds a receiver. His longest throw of the day went for 34 yards.
  • Sophomore tight end John Goodwin managed to hold onto this 33-yard reception.

Nearly 55,000 fans gathered at Memorial Stadium April 9 hoping to divine something – anything – from a spring scrimmage directed by new offensive coaches and headlined by new players recruited far and wide. What they got were “thud” drills, a few passes, some punts and up-and-comers playing at least a half of what resembled something other than touch football.

Signs of how it would all come together by fall were hard to find. And that was by design.

According to Texas transfer quarterback Casey Thompson – the presumed starter and one of the new players the fans came out to see – the goal of the day was to “just run the offense and get out of the game healthy.” Thompson, a junior, attempted four passes – completing 3 for 31 yards – and played two series.

He spent the rest of the day as chief cheerleader, which by all accounts, he did well.

“I try to be a leader and try to lead the guys and instill some confidence in the rest of the team and let them know that I have their back no matter what,” Thompson said.

The first half was played in thud mode – the players went full speed, but the whistle blew at first contact with a ball carrier. It was difficult to assess, conceded coach Scott Frost.

“We were being dreadfully simple,” he said.

The offensive line was without multiple players who started games in 2021, notably Turner Corcoran and Teddy Prochazka. The void left was evident as the defensive front seven got the better of the offensive line throughout the first half.

A noticeably bigger Garrett Nelson was a main agitator from his outside linebacker spot, recording multiple touch sacks. Massive nose tackle Nash Hutmacher (6-foot-4, 325 pounds) provided a strong push up the middle. The offensive line, while more disciplined, had problems with protection, but that may be a credit to the outside linebackers, Frost said.

“Those guys have really taken a giant leap forward in my opinion,” he said. “We had trouble blocking them today and hopefully that is a sign that they are playing good football as opposed to we did not protect well enough.” After the quick set of series for Thompson, sophomore Logan Smothers commanded the first-team offense, finishing 5 for 14 for 46 yards. He was “touch sacked” twice.
Florida State transfer Chubba Purdy, a redshirt freshman, played the second quarter after participating in only two practices at NU prior to the game. Purdy, showing quickness and field vision, had several nice throws on the run and was able to fit the ball into tight windows. He finished 5 for 10 for 63 yards.

Redshirt freshman Heinrich Haarberg came into the game in the second half and did a good job to evade pressure and made a couple nice throws. He finished 4 for 7 for 78 yards, a TD and an interception.

One of the more underappreciated performances at quarterback was that of walk-on Jarrett Synek, a redshirt freshman, who logged two touchdowns: one through the air on a 42-yard strike to Ty Hahn and another on the ground as he raced to the pylon and made a defender miss. He was 3 for 5 for 55 yards. Junior Matt Masker went 4 for 9 for 29 yards.

Much like the offensive line, the tight end position was down several key contributors, most notably Travis Vokolek, Thomas Fidone, Chris Hickman and Chancellor Brewington. Redshirt freshman AJ Rollins stepped up and made four grabs including a contested catch that was lobbed into double coverage. Redshirt freshman Nate Boerkircher had a couple of nice grabs and has been lauded by his coaches for his performance throughout spring ball. The receivers, on the other hand, had a relatively quiet day with Kamonte Grimes, LSU transfer Trey Palmer and Elliott Brown snaring two balls each.

Due to the lack of live tackling in the first half, assessing the performance at running back was especially difficult, but junior college transfer Anthony Grant showed flashes of his athleticism. He had a nice catch-and-run on a crossing route to convert on third down, but his best play came on a 60-yard touchdown run where he used a couple shifty moves to shake defenders in the backfield and won a footrace to the end zone.

Rahmir Johnson and Jaquez Yant had modest days, often being ruled down by contact in plunges up the middle rather than being tackled. “It is hard to tell whether some of those runs go when you are blowing it dead,” Frost said.

The second half offered a look at young players without the limitations of thud rules. That group was headlined by redshirt freshman walk-on Trevin Luben who quickly emerged as the leading rusher of the day in just two carries. He finished with eight carries for 91 yards. Isaiah Harris, Cooper Jewett and Aiden Young also impressed.

In the end, clues as to what Nebraska’s offense will look like in 2022 were few. Projected starters got limited reps. Playmaking ability was hindered by lack of live tackling. And Frost and Mark Whipple, the new offensive coordinator, were coy with their play-calling.

“We have seen 14 practices of guys doing what they need to do and the schemes that we are running today was just about showcasing some of that to the fans and finishing spring ball the right way,” Frost said.

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