The Nebraska football team will return to work on Tuesday after taking a week off from spring drills. With the Red-White Game looming on April 15, Mike Riley and his staff have only 20 more days before the curtain lifts on one of the country’s best-attended spring games.
The roles and responsibilities immediately expand for Stanley Morgan, De’Mornay Pierson-El and even former walk-on Bryan Reimers as Nebraska must replace a trio of senior receivers who accounted for 297 career receptions and 32 touchdowns. Morgan appears ready for whatever comes next, standing out through a half-dozen spring practices after accumulating 58 catches and five TDs over his first two seasons. Pierson-El is trying to get back to his 2014 level, before injuries limited his effectiveness and game-changing threat. The situation is very similar at tight end, where Tyler Hoppes might have to lead an unproven bunch, even though Hoppes will go into his senior season with zero career receptions.
Much was made of the trio of signees in the 2017 recruiting class — and Jaevon McQuitty and Keyshawn Johnson Jr. have been on campus since January — but the here and now is returnees such as Gabe Rahn, JD Spielman, Keyan Williams, Zack Darlington and Conor Young. NU had thoughts of playing Spielman last season, and the 5-foot-9, 180-pounder has been showing well in spring drills. Rahn saw some snaps last season, and Williams and Young have been pushing to make their breakthroughs. Both McQuitty (shoulder) and Johnson (illness) have been limited this spring, but will be joined by highly touted Tyjon Lindsey as the freshmen see how they can help out. Matt Snyder is joining Hoppes as the top options at tight end, where NU is waiting to get Connor Ketter (back) healthy and has Jack Stoll and David Engelhaupt coming off redshirt years.
Gone at receiver are Jordan Westerkamp, Brandon Reilly and Alonzo Moore. Gone at tight end are Cethan Carter, Sam Cotton and Trey Foster. Thus the voids needing to be filled. NU is understandably excited about its trio of receiver signees — given their recruiting rankings — and the Huskers also will add tight ends Austin Allen and Kurt Rafdal before next season.
It’s a lot to put on Hoppes, but Nebraska needs at least one good option at tight end and Hoppes currently offers the skill set probably closest to that of Carter. Hoppes’ focus has been on improving his blocking, but the Husker staff does like his speed and route-running, so the Lincoln Southwest graduate now just has to show he can perform in game settings.
» Keyan Williams is the son of NU receivers coach Keith Williams, and started his career at Fresno State before sitting last fall as a transfer. Williams caught seven passes during the 2015 season for the Bulldogs.
» Pierson-El, Morgan and Reimers combined for 10 receptions in the Music City Bowl. The five by Pierson-El marked his season-high total.
» Darlington most likely reprises his role as the holder for Drew Brown on field goals and extra points. He moved from quarterback to receiver last spring.
» Hoppes wasn’t pursued as a preferred walk-on out of high school and played his freshman season at Wayne State.
» Also coming next season is walk-on receiver Kade Warner, the son of former Super Bowl MVP quarterback Kurt Warner.
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Two close to call. Quarterback Tanner Lee, right, appeared to be the front-runner for the starting job, connecting on 13 of 19 passes for 199 yards and three touchdowns, none better than a 30-yard touchdown pass to slot receiver JD Spielman. Close behind was Patrick O’Brien, who hit 11 of 17 passes for 134 yards and one touchdown and got the first snaps of the game with the Reds after winning a pregame coin flip in the locker room. Lee, O’Brien, Tristan Gebbia and Andrew Bunch combined for 702 yards passing, five touchdowns and one interception on the day.
2016: Nebraska walk-on Kyle Kasun’s interception of freshman quarterback Patrick O’Brien on the final play produced the six points in the scrimmage’s scoring system that gave the defense a 46-41 victory over the offense. The Huskers racked up 343 yards on 64 carries — with the quarterbacks accounting for 162 of those rushing yards.
2015: Nebraska coach Mike Riley's spring game debut featured 408 punting yards by Sam Foltz, a bizarre safety by quarterback Tommy Armstrong and plenty of growing pains. NU quarterbacks completed 34 of 68 pass attempts, but it ended with a Gatorade bath for Riley. “I loved that,” he said.
2014: Nebraska coach Bo Pelini kicked off the spring game by carrying a cat onto the field during the tunnel walk — a nod to Faux Pelini, his Twitter parody account. Red defeated White 55-46, behind running back Imani Cross, who had 100 yards and two touchdowns on six carries.
2013: Team Jack stole the show. Midway through the fourth quarter, Husker quarterback Taylor Martinez handed off to 7-year-old Jack Hoffman — a pediatric brain cancer patient who became close friends with former Husker Rex Burkhead — for a 69-yard touchdown. Both sidelines emptied to converge on Jack, who was raised to the shoulders of a couple of players. The play was named USA Today’s “Best Emotional Moment of 2013″ and awarded the ESPY for best sports moment.
2012: Fans take shelter in the concourse at Memorial Stadium to avoid the rain. Nebraska chose not to play the 2012 spring game when a severe thunderstorm blew through the area about 90 minutes before kickoff. It was the only spring game canceled in NU's 65-year history of the scrimmage.
2011: After missing a field goal attempt for White seconds before, Brett Maher kicked the game-winner for Red, giving them a 32-29 win. True freshman Jamal Turner racked up 228 all-purpose yards on just seven touches.
2010: The Taylor & Cody show. Taylor Martinez (pictured) passed for two scores and added nine carries for 60 yards. Cody Green’s highlight was a 72-yard touchdown throw to Will Henry that showed off his arm. He finished 7 of 15, passing for 155 yards for White, but Red won 21-16.
2009: Quarterback Zac Lee finished the game with 214 yards and three touchdowns and directed Red to a 31-17 win. He completed 15 of his 18 attempts, hardly looking rattled in front of 77,670 Husker fans who had been waiting all spring, maybe somewhat anxiously, for a chance to see the team’s new leader in action.
2008: I-back Marcus Mendoza eyes the end zone, but is pushed out of bounds by Mathew May of Imperial, Neb. Mendoza gained 33 yards on seven carries in Red's 24-14 win. The Bo Pelini era began with a school-record 80,149 fans in attendance.
2007: NU quarterbacks Sam Keller and Joe Ganz combined to complete 21 of 31 passes for 350 yards against No. 2 and No. 3 defensive players. Keller and Ganz led Red to a 38-0 win. “The coaching staff obviously has a handle on this (deciding on a No. 1),” Keller said after the game.
2006: Cody Glenn, No. 34, tries to run against White Team defenders, including Phillip Dillard, No. 38, and Kevin Luhrs, No. 89. Glenn finished with 98 yards on 16 carries. Red defeated White, 35-7, racking up 28 first downs and 219 rushing yards compared to two first downs and -10 for White.
2005: Nebraska quarterback Zac Taylor is greeted by fans as he enters the field. Taylor, a transfer from Butler County (Kan.) Community College, finished 20 of 27 for 357 yards and three touchdowns, leading White to a 42-14 victory. Taylor’s 357 passing yards, and the 606 combined passing yards by White and Red, set spring game records.
2004: White's Brandon Rigoni and Tyler Fisher break up a pass intended for Ross Pilkington. New coach Bill Callahan unveiled a new pass-happy attack and set multiple spring game passing records, including attempts, completions, yards and touchdowns. Husker quarterback Joe Dailey threw 49 times for Red, completing 29 for 241 yards and four touchdowns in 35-6 victory. “I had a good time,’’ Dailey said. “It was a great day. I think there’s more to come. This is the very tip of the iceberg.’’
2003: White's Joel Jackson catches a pass and is tackled by Mark Brungardt, left, and Stewart Bradley. Defense was the theme of the day in Red's 13-0 win, led by new defensive coordinator Bo Pelini. NU defenders recorded six interceptions and three sacks, despite lining up in just one front. "I just chose to hold back," said Pelini. "It wasn't about beating the offense. All we wanted to do is have our guys lined up in a base defense and play hard."
2002: Red's Ira Cooper blocks Sam Koch's punt in the second quarter. The blocked punt set up Red's first touchdown in their 17-7 win. Junior-college transfer linebacker Demorrio Williams made a game-high 13 tackles for White, while Red's Dahrran Diedrick averaged 8.0 yards a carry en route to 96 yards and a touchdown.
2001: Thunder Collins had 55 yards on 13 carries for White, but defense ruled the day in Red's 16-7 win. The Red and White defenses combined for 16 sacks and limited the offenses to a combined 426 yards. "We feel like we made progress this spring," NU defensive coordinator Craig Bohl said.
2000: Red Team quarterback Joe Chrisman tries to escape from DeJuan Groce and the White Team defense. Eric Crouch and Jammal Lord sat out the spring game with injuries, leaving the Huskers with three inexperienced quarterbacks. White rallied for two fourth-quarter touchdowns, the last one coming on a 46-yard pass from converted split end Brett Lindstrom to Ryan Ommert with 2:24 remaining, tying Red 21-21. The no-decision marked the first time since 1950 that the game ended in a tie.