A near-capacity crowd of 86,818 Nebraska football fans crammed into Memorial Stadium underneath gray skies in Lincoln Saturday afternoon to take in Scott Frost’s first Red-White scrimmage as the Cornhuskers’ head coach.
There was no special scoring system, no Oklahoma drills or any really special frills short of a student catching a punt that netted him $25,000. Still, it was a sight for sore Husker eyes to behold.
After years of coaches trying to reinvent the brand itself, Frost brought his own identity and that’s proven to be more than enough with one practice remaining in his first spring session as the Big Red’s head man. There were 139 plays run, 725 offensive yards amassed and though occasionally sloppy, we learned quite a bit about Frost’s first roster.
1. Quarterback is a legitimate three-horse race
Legitimate arguments can be made for Tristan Gebbia, Andrew Bunch or Adrian Martinez starting for the Huskers against Akron on Sept. 1. However, that decision is still well over the horizon. Nebraska’s quarterbacks will have to work with the strength and conditioning staff in addition to following any decrees from quarterbacks coach Mario Verduzco this summer if they want to come out on top.
Expectations do have to be tempered as the Red-White game was, in fact, a scrimmage. However, it’s hard not to be excited with Martinez’s efforts. The true freshman went 10-for-14, accounting for 114 yards and a touchdown through the air while also rushing 14 times for 74 yards and three scores.
The context important with those numbers is that the signal-callers were all wearing green non-contact jerseys. While tackling left quite a bit to be desired across the board, Martinez would’ve made defenders miss even if tackling was allowed. There’s a reason Frost began his recruitment of the Fresno, California, native immediately after UCF won the 2017 American Athletic Conference Championship Game.
However, Martinez is not without competition. Bunch showed that he can be extremely poised in the pocket and is a safe bet to run the offense efficiently. He’s not going to burn a defense on the ground like Martinez, but he’s good for picking up a first down when necessary. Gebbia’s somewhere in between.
While Gebbia’s experience is mostly based on being at the college level for an additional year compared to his teammates that may be enough to give him the edge for the starting job. However, it’s hard not to notice how confidently Martinez ran and how poised he was in the pocket considering he’s a true freshman.
Ultimately, Nebraska has quality quarterback depth and that’s not something the Huskers have been able to say for a while. It may not be worth trying to plug a graduate transfer in as doing so might upset what’s already being cultivated.
2. Frost’s offense is plug and play-friendly
Two of Nebraska’s biggest offensive playmakers didn’t participate on Saturday, but you wouldn’t know it without some research. Neither Stanley Morgan nor JD Spielman made an appearance due to illness, but the expected top two wide receivers didn’t have to for offensive fireworks to dazzle those in attendance. While the Huskers aren’t as crisp as they’d like to be in terms of execution, when they do click, they’re extremely dangerous.
Tyjon Lindsey showed that opposing defenses are going to have to account for him on every snap with a 28-yard scamper out of the familiar “Duck” position from Frost’s days at Oregon. Jaevon McQuitty effortlessly brought in a 25-yard touchdown dart by Martinez that looked like it could bust through the vast majority of opposing secondaries.
A slew of tight ends showed their potential as threats including the punishing Jack Stoll along with twin towers Kurt Rafdal and Austin Allen. The Big Red isn’t lacking in offensive talent. If Nebraska can find a true leader at the quarterback position, the Huskers may be able to put up points by the bushel.
3. You don’t have to be the best lineman, but it helps
We all know that when Frost was at Oregon, he ran an up-tempo offense and the depth chart was thick with speedy players. That transition is beginning at Nebraska, but we’re also starting to see some of the benefits that come with his system in regards to the offensive line.
While the unit has been praised for having the potential to become what’s ultimately desired by assistant coach Greg Austin and Frost himself, there are still issues with execution. Shotgun snaps remain a problem area, though that’s largely due to the absence of center Michal Decker this spring.
Regardless, there’s a sense that the big five up front simply are too confused for the staff’s liking overall. The good news is that you don’t have to be an all-everything hoss 100 percent of the time to be effective in this offense.
Whether or not what we saw during this iteration of the Red-White Game will carry over, we don’t know. However, it was interesting that Nebraska used swing passes and some other short throws to give Husker linemen a chance to reset if their heads started to spin.
However, left tackle Brendan Jaimes continues to show why he’ll likely have a decision to make about whether or not to head to the NFL early in the future. Frost will obviously target ideal linemen, but with a quarterback that can make quick reads and get the ball away in a prompt fashion, there’s time for those currently on the roster to learn and develop.
4. Diacomania is wearing off
The strain of trying to decipher just what the heck former defensive coordinator Bob Diaco wanted Nebraska’s defense to do is no more. Instead, these guys just want to play violently. It wasn’t much of a surprise that their tackling wasn’t very polished on Saturday.
This is obviously something that needs to be addressed and no doubt will be. However, players like Daishon Neal and Ole Miss transfer Breon Dixon flew around working their hardest to make plays. Many defensive linemen got their hands up in quarterbacks’ faces. This effort was something sorely lacking over the past several years and to see its resurgence over such a short time frame should be encouraging to Husker fans.
Neal is someone that both fans and pundits have been on the fence about. He’s always had the measurables to make an impact, but he never has... until now. He contributed four tackles, two sacks and recovered a fumble during Saturday’s scrimmage. Another extremely pleasant surprise was that of outside linebacker Alex Davis.
Davis is incredibly raw in terms of actually playing the game of football, but you wouldn’t know it if you watched him operate in front of the throng of fans amassed at the Big Red’s cathedral. Davis tied Neal in tackles, but tallied three sacks and intercepted a Noah Vedral pass.
To be blunt: There will definitely be some defensive growing pains in 2018. However, this roster is playing with pride and, dare I say, some actual swagger. They are clearly subscribing to the “no fear of failure” culture that Frost is working to instill. As a result, they just want to make plays and are going all out to do so.
When it’s all said and done, what did we truly take away from the 2018 edition of the Red-White Spring Game? For the first time in a very long time, Nebraska football fans have reason to hope for bigger and better things. Should they expect a national championship in year one of the Frost era? Of course not. Even a Big Ten West Division title may be too much.
However, whatever pride and determination this team has in it will be squeezed out of it by Frost. That’s a solid return once the spring session wraps up next week.