5 position battles to watch for the Huskers
How valuable can it be for a college football player to receive a fresh evaluation? Just ask Shaquem Griffin.
When Scott Frost and his staff took over at Central Florida two years ago, Griffin was buried on the depth chart at safety. It wasn’t long into spring practices that the staff decided he would be a better fit at outside linebacker.
Now Griffin is preparing to be drafted by an NFL team after consecutive standout seasons and an All-America honor. Frost and his assistants wear Nebraska polos these days and are about to embark on their first on-field interactions with their latest group of inherited players. The first spring practice is set for Friday before workouts begin in earnest March 27 as the Huskers return from spring break. Here’s a look at five position battles to keep a close eye on this spring. The winners could leave lasting impacts during next season and beyond.
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The most obvious and sure-to-be-discussed competition is a three-man race among a redshirt freshman, a 2017 backup and the No. 1 handpicked incoming recruit of Nebraska’s new coach.
While Frost’s attacks at UCF and Oregon have featured fleet-of-foot QBs, the coach has reiterated recently that the position requires effective runners — and not necessarily blazing sprinters — who can also read defenses and make consistent throws.
Exactly who best checks off those boxes remains to be seen. Tristan Gebbia, at 6-foot-3 and 185 pounds, impressed in last year’s spring game and drew rave reviews from teammates and the previous staff as a football “gym rat.” Patrick O’Brien appeared in three games last season, completing 18 of 30 passes with one interception.
True freshman Adrian Martinez sat out all of his last high school season recovering from shoulder surgery but is reportedly 100 percent healthy and ready to compete after joining Nebraska this winter. As a junior at Clovis West in Fresno, California, he rushed for 1,462 yards and 14 touchdowns.
This room has no shortage of interesting options. And all of them come with questions.
Junior Tre Bryant was a strong rusher for two games, averaging 5.9 yards per carry before missing the rest of the fall with a knee injury. What’s his health status now? Two other incumbents had their moments but were less than stellar in now-seniors Mikale Wilbon (379 yards, 4.3 per carry) and Devine Ozigbo (493, 3.8). Do they fit what Frost and Co. want to do on offense?
The new attack will ask backs to be comfortable lining up to take handoffs as well as moving out wider as receivers.
Of the returning players, sophomore Jaylin Bradley may best fit the bill. The speedy standout from Bellevue West saw action in seven games last year, averaging just 3.9 yards per carry but flashing an ability to get the edge and make something happen as a pass catcher (four receptions for 38 yards).
Touted newcomers Greg Bell and Miles Jones will have a say in the proceedings as well.
Frost has said Nebraska will play the best five offensive linemen regardless of position going forward. Coaches will only a see a few who have played important minutes at tackle in college.
Sophomore Brenden Jaimes is the resident veteran after starting the final nine games at right tackle last year. Sophomore Matt Farniok also started a pair of games there before breaking a bone in his wrist and manning right guard upon his return.
The void left by Nick Gates opens up left tackle for the first time in two years. Junior Christian Gaylord was the backup most of last season.
A pair of redshirt freshmen to follow are Lincoln East grad Chris Walker and Cincinnati product Matt Sichterman. Both are projected as tackles at the college level.
Inside linebacker features six scholarship players who bring a variety of skill sets.
Leading tackler Chris Weber graduates to open one interior spot in the 3-4 defense, while senior Dedrick Young (80 tackles in 12 games) is NU’s top returning stopper.
Junior college transfer Will Honas picked Nebraska over Iowa and Wisconsin and has drawn major praise from Husker coaches for his no-nonsense, hard-hitting attitude. Can he take over right away to justify the hype? Junior Mo Barry (38 tackles in 12 games) may be one of the biggest beneficiaries of defensive coordinator Erik Chinander’s risk-taking scheme, and his development will also be a key storyline.
Antonio Reed and Aaron Williams are Nebraska’s only upperclassman scholarship safeties. The discussion begins with the two seniors, at least for now.
Williams (48 tackles in nine games) was a reliable performer when nagging injuries didn’t keep him off the field. Reed (42 tackles in 10 games) also missed time with a knee injury, though the 6-2, 210-pound veteran is versatile enough to potentially move closer to the line of scrimmage as an outside linebacker or a nickelback.
Coaches brought juco transfer Deontai Williams into the mix as well. Defensive backs coach Travis Fisher said last month the 6-1, 200-pound bruiser is “probably going to get kicked out of college football the way that he hits. I’m not joking. This guy’s dangerous. You’re going to really love him.”