Mikale Wilbon is one Cornhusker who could use a strong performance on Saturday
Before Nebraska football’s spring session began, I reviewed what to watch for on offense and defense. Interviews and interactions with coaches and players have served as the measuring stick for the team’s development since head coach Scott Frost made the unsurprising decision to keep the actual work behind closed doors. There’s no need to add to already mounting pressure and hype, after all.
However, with the Red-White Spring Game this Saturday, fans, media and college football analysts alike are finally going to see what this team can do with double-digit practices under its belt. Coming full circle, here are the now-tweaked storylines that everyone watching the action in Memorial Stadium should keep an eye on.
1. Quarterback progression
Let’s get the obvious one out of the way first.
Obviously, all eyes are going to be on Noah Vedral, Tristan Gebbia, Adrian Martinez and Andrew Bunch. Plenty of fans and pundits alike are getting on the Bunch bandwagon as it’s been reported that he’s shown the most immediate progress of any new quarterback in Frost’s system in terms of looking downfield, making reads and determining when it’s time to pick up yardage on the ground by himself.
Gebbia is known as a film room fanatic, but whether or not he can match Bunch’s awareness at this point is unknown. Martinez is very talented, but he didn’t play a game during his senior season, his throwing shoulder still isn’t 100 percent and he’s naturally raw. That’s not an enviable situation to be in as a true freshman.
The wild card is Vedral, who followed Frost as a transfer from UCF. Should his submitted waiver to play immediately get approved by the NCAA, he immediately becomes the veteran signal-caller of this group and has an edge to start against Akron on Sept. 1 thanks to already being familiar with what Frost wants his quarterbacks to do.
Gebbia and Martinez will take snaps with the Red team while Vedral and Bunch lead the White squad.
2. Mikale Wilbon’s role on offense
Three running backs have already staked their claim for plenty of playing time this season – Greg Bell, Devine Ozigbo and Jaylin Bradley. Wilbon’s future as a Cornhusker is up in the air at this point.
Running backs coach Ryan Held claims that the flip of a coin determined the splitting up of backs for the scrimmage. If that’s the case, that coin must have some curiosity regarding his charges. Bell, the likely candidate to start in the fall, will suit up for the Reds along with Wilbon while Ozigbo and Bradley will be on the Whites.
It wouldn’t be a shock to see Wilbon get more carries than Bell when the White offense is on the field so that he might have a shot at proving he belongs on the roster. It’s important to remember that UCF utilized quarterbacks, running backs and wide receivers on the ground under Frost.
The fourth-most productive running back who tallied yardage in 2017 was freshman Greg McCrae, and he was only the Knights’ sixth-best rusher with 151 yards and two touchdowns.
If we see more than a bit of Ben Miles, Bo Kitrell and Wyatt Mazour for the Whites, Wilbon might not be long for the program and even if we do, his stock doesn’t appear high right now.
3. Defensive front seven penetration
We’ll be able to kill two birds with one stone here. The offensive line will get a chance to see how it stacks up against defensive coordinator Erik Chinander’s aggressive scheme while Nebraska’s front seven will have the opportunity to show off any improvement in shedding blocks and displaying proper tackling form.
The center position appears to be the weak point of the offensive line due to no real stability thanks to Michael Decker being on the sideline. He’s been joined by Cole Conrad on occasion, leaving Hunter Miller to pick up the slack. Watch for Chinander to attack the interior early and often to give the offensive front five – and thusly the entire unit – a proper challenge.
Be sure to check out how linebackers attack as well. The norm was to see them attack the outside over the past couple of years. Don’t be shocked if they work to slice through interior gaps under Chinander.
4. Takeaway improvement
Suffice it to say that defensive backs coach Travis Fisher isn’t exactly pleased with Nebraska’s defensive backs through spring practice.
“Not enough hands are getting on the ball. We’re getting our share of PBUs (pass breakups), but those don’t win ball games. We need turnovers. We need picks. Right now we don’t have enough picks in the secondary,” Fisher said following Nebraska’s April 14 practice.
While it won’t be a shock to see Husker defensive backs play close to receivers with an emphasis on physical tackling, Frost’s “No Fear of Failure” culture should be on display as defensive backs look to make their position coach and coordinator much happier. Between quarterback coach Mario Verduzco and his defensive counterparts, someone’s going to be upset.
The best-case scenario is that both sides have teaching moments on tape with plenty to encourage and be excited about.
5. Plenty of players seeing action whether Frost wants it that way or not
As this writer can attest, some nasty bugs have been going around lately and the Nebraska football team is not immune. Wide receiver JD Spielman was among a number of players who weren’t active for last Saturday’s practice as a virus appears to have permeated the Huskers’ locker room.
"We have some guys with bad fevers and a lot of guys sick," Frost recently reported.
Which players will actually participate in Saturday’s spring game versus only dressing is a major question mark and could very well come down to game-time decisions. While the Big Red roster has plenty of pride on the line and won’t want to stay on the sidelines due to illness, risking injury during a scrimmage – sold out though it may be – isn’t worth it.
(Scott Frost photo courtesy of Nebraska Athletics)