LINCOLN — Enjoy your spring break? Are your NCAA tournament brackets busted in pieces yet?
In Nebraska, where the second weekend of an NCAA tournament remains a hard-to-reach goal for teams inside the state — if not Nebraska native Dana Altman — it’s back to spring football.
The first of the Huskers’ workouts were productive in terms of putting in the backbone of Bob Diaco’s new 3-4 defense and setting quarterbacks Tanner Lee and Patrick O’Brien on a path to passing enlightenment and efficiency. By my sports writer’s eye, Lee had a slight edge, but both looked sharp and will compete through the April 15 spring game and perhaps well into fall camp.
Quarterback is but one question remaining for the second half of spring practice, which starts again Tuesday.
» How do those offensive and defensive lines look? It’s accurate, and a little easy, to say both of the lines are probably 18 months away — that is, the 2018 season — from having the kind of seasoning, experience, coaching continuity and player development to meet the highest expectations. If one of the lines, especially the offensive line, arrives 12 months ahead of schedule, all the better. The units went at it pretty good in the first half of spring with the offensive line getting good push on the left side from tackle Nick Gates and guard Jerald Foster. Sophomore Michael Decker leads in the battle for center. On the defensive line, each of NU’s three presumed starters — nose Mick Stoltenberg and ends Freedom Akinmoladun and Carlos Davis — has decent service time built up in the trenches. Their backups don’t yet.
» How much progress can the new outside linebackers make in a few more weeks? If there’s a question mark on the defense, it’s this spot, in part because it’s new to Husker players. Marcus Newby, Luke Gifford, Alex Davis and Sedrick King have received the most snaps to this point.
When they’re out of position, Diaco hasn’t hesitated to tell them. Nebraska will need a good pass rush from Davis/King.
» If Nebraska has three solid receivers — Stanley Morgan, De’Mornay Pierson-El and Bryan Reimers — can coach Keith Williams locate three more clear options by the end of spring? Top candidates include Keyan Williams, JD Spielman, Zack Darlington, Conor Young and Gabe Rahn. Other than Rahn, none has played a significant down as a Nebraska receiver. Williams and Spielman are Nos. 1 and 2 in the slot spot.
» Is the running back corps sneaky good after fans didn’t expect much this spring? You’ve heard the rumblings and reporters have seen some good things from guys like Mikale Wilbon and even walk-ons Wyatt Mazour and Austin Rose. Devine Ozigbo’s bound to have some role — perhaps the old Imani Cross power back role — and Tre Bryant has game-breaking burst. This bunch tends to get far less hype than the receivers since its position coach, Reggie Davis, is a quiet guy. But don’t sleep on the backs.
» How big of a crowd does Nebraska draw for its spring game and will it be NU’s biggest recruiting weekend ever? NU has sold more than 55,000 tickets, according to its Twitter account, and, as long as the weather cooperates, thousands more will walk up on game day. A crowd of more than 70,000 seems possible. And, yes, it could be Nebraska’s biggest and best spring game recruiting event. It’s always hard to tell, since unofficial visits are on the player’s dime — next year, you could see spring game visits become official visits — but NU appears primed to draw at least 20 guys, and probably more, headlined by IMG Academy cornerback Brendan Radley-Hiles, who played at Calabasas (California) High with current Huskers Tristan Gebbia and Keyshawn Johnson Jr. last season.
Five stats (very random, mid-spring edition)
11: Commits already for the Big Ten’s highest-rated recruiting class for 2018, Penn State. The Nittany Lions are getting a big, fortuitous bounce from their Big Ten title, five years after the program cratered in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky scandal.
0: Times since joining the Big Ten that Nebraska’s defense has allowed an average of less than 5 yards per play in a season. The lowest average was 5.20 in 2011. Twenty-six Big Ten defenses have allowed less than 5 yards per play since 2011; Wisconsin had five of those defenses.
3: Times since joining the Big Ten that Nebraska’s offense averaged more than 6 yards per play. Those years — 2012, 2014 and 2015. Just 17 Big Ten teams have done so since 2011: two — the 2011 Wisconsin offense and the 2012 Ohio State offense — averaged more than 7 yards per play.
Seventh: Nebraska’s Big Ten ranking in turnover margin last season. Despite having its best turnover margin (plus five) since 2009, NU still only finished middle of the pack in its own league. The Huskers’ average finish since joining the Big Ten is right around 10th (9.67, but that includes years when it was a 12-team league and NU couldn’t do worse than 12th).
224: Yards allowed to opposing punt returners. That ranked 105th nationally and was a contributing factor to Bruce Read’s departure from Nebraska. The punt game was a hot mess. Diaco will do better in part because just about anything would be better than last season.
» Oregon doesn’t open spring practice until April 5, or after the Ducks play in the Final Four. Oregon’s football program is likely to undergo a major shift, as Willie Taggart takes over for Mark Helfrich, who was begat by Chip Kelly, who was different from just about every college football coach on the planet in terms of belief systems and practice methodologies. Taggart comes from the Harbaugh School — he played for dad, Jack, at Western Kentucky, and coached with Jim at Stanford — so expect lots of changes to how Oregon does its business. Taggart has suggested he might lift the veil of Oregon’s practice secrecy, for one thing. The Ducks have a quarterback — Justin Herbert was pretty good as a freshman — and a top-shelf defensive coordinator in Jim Leavitt. I’ve watched Taggart at Western Kentucky and South Florida, his two head coaching stops. He’s good. Oregon will be better in 2017.
Rainy days, which may mean indoor practices.
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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.