Stryker: Spring game not exactly a day for the quarterbacks
After a year of pandemic-induced isolation, it appeared that life was returning to the Haymarket. At least, it looked like the early stages of reinvigoration.
Once they made their way into the stadium and spread out, the crowd of 36,406 looked more like a skimpy layer of red frosting on a sugar cookie than the iconic Red Sea that paints Memorial Stadium on Saturday afternoons in the fall. The crowd came in below its 50% capacity limit and fell well short of the 47,000-plus, who showed up for Alabama’s spring game the week before, but they filled parking lots, bars and restaurants, bringing signs of life to downtown Lincoln.
Meanwhile, on the field, Jacquez Yant looked like the running back most likely to make a significant impact on the Husker offense this fall, with Gabe Ervin and Marvin Scott a notch behind. In fact, if you isolate all newcomers to the program, Yant has proven the most so far in a stable of young Husker running backs looking to make a good impression with Southern Cal transfer Markese Stepp sidelined by a foot injury most of the spring.
Omar Manning looks impressive lining up at wide receiver, but on Saturday, he did very little to announce his arrival, catching just three passes for 24 yards on short routes. Oliver Martin (five catches for 47) and Samori Toure (three catches for 47) were a bit more productive.
From where I sat, very little of the Nebraska passing game looked sharp, regardless of who was throwing the ball. Certainly, a 25-mph south wind didn’t help matters any, but Adrian Martinez didn’t quite look like a fourth-year starter with the ability to rip the second-team defense to shreds. He went 12-for-20 with one interception and missed a few open receivers. Most notable was a botched connection with a curiously decelerating Manning as he crossed the back of the end zone in the second quarter, which came not long after Manning dropped a slightly underthrown 40-yard pass from Martinez. The Huskers were as ineffective on screen passes in the spring game as they have been against Big Ten opponents the past two seasons.
Was it a sign? Spring game highlights (or lowlights) can be misleading, but Martinez and Manning had opportunities to light up this scrimmage, and they simply didn’t do it.
Zavier Betts was almost invisible Saturday, never getting any separation. He was pushed around by Waverly freshman defensive back Mason Nieman, who resides deep on the depth chart. Nieman outfought Betts to knock down a look-in pass from Haarberg at the 2-yard line in third quarter.
Looks like it’s time to lean on the power run game, because if you want good pre-summer news on offense, look to Yant, and an improving offensive line. A redshirt freshman, Yant appeared to have a plan, and the plan was getting yards after contact. He rushed for 63 yards and a touchdown on nine carries. Redshirt freshman Scott and true freshman Ervin have more all-around skills, but didn’t do any one thing extremely well, although Scott led all rushers with 75 yards on 11 carries after breaking a 39-yard second-quarter run. Yant may not be the entire answer at running back, but he could be an effective short-yardage back.
After losing Will Honas and Thomas Fidone for at least part of the upcoming season to knee injuries in April, thankfully nobody else — especially running backs — limped off the field on the first day of May. In fact, the Huskers apparently ended the scrimmage without another serious injury, always the major objective of any spring football game.
One of the main spring storylines was whether Scott Frost and Mario Verduzco have a legitimate backup quarterback on the roster. It looks like they have a couple of decent options in Logan Smothers and Heinrich Haarberg.
Smothers showed nimble feet, quick decision making and an improved passing arm. He threw a 23-yard touchdown pass to Brody Belt, but his best pass was an 18-yarder over the middle to Belt that he threw on a line at about the nine-minute mark of the fourth quarter. Meanwhile, Haarberg struggled much of the afternoon, and with seconds remaining, had completed only seven of 21 passes with an interception.
Smothers had a strong fourth quarter and appeared to have moved decisively ahead of Haarberg in the battle for second-string QB. Haarberg, who at times can look like a young Brook Berringer, has plenty of athleticism and a bigger arm, but he was flustered and off target most of the day. Then came the last two plays of the scrimmage and Haarberg’s two best passes of the day, both to O’Neill native Wyatt Liewer. Their 40-yard connection apparently ended the scrimmage at the Red team’s 25-yard line, but when Frost decided to give the White team one untimed down, Haarberg made the most of it, finding Liewer in the end zone to give the Whites a 21-20 win.
All signs point to the need for Cam Taylor-Britt, JoJo Domann and a solid defensive line to shine this fall. The Huskers showed me very little to change the notion that they must lean heavily on their defense this fall.
A longtime Husker fan, sportswriter and history buff, Tad Stryker started writing for this website in 2008. You can email him at firstname.lastname@example.org