Scott Frost stars at Nebraska spring game, but Adrian Martinez gives him a run for his money

Scott Frost stars at Nebraska spring game, but Adrian Martinez gives him a run for his money
Adrian Martinez dives at the pylon for his third rushing touchdown of the game. (Matt Dixon / World-Herald News Service)

LINCOLN — It started with a few cheers, but the applause grew as Nebraska coach Scott Frost briskly walked off the field after his first spring game. As he bounded toward the northwest tunnel of Memorial Stadium, many Husker fans stood and clapped. The cheers grew louder. Frost tipped the bill of his cap. Louder. He gave a thumbs up. Louder. A one-hand wave. Louder. Finally, just as he disappeared into the tunnel, Frost put up both hands in a wave. Louder still.

The star of the Red team’s 49-9 win over the White team didn’t play or call one snap. Instead, Frost stood behind the action, part coach, part spectator. He remembered the smell of the stadium — all the food he ate growing up. He shook the hands of many former Huskers around the field. He came home and a spring game record crowd of 86,818 welcomed him.

“It was a special day for me,” Frost said.

Frost had the spotlight. But the kid? The kid took it for a moment.

In a quarterback race still far from over, true freshman Adrian Martinez — the player Frost once flew in the middle of the night to recruit — arguably took the lead. He ran for 60 yards, threw for 114 and, most important, amassed four touchdowns.

Yes, Martinez wore a green jersey that told defenders “hands off.” He threw one bad pass that could have been intercepted. He moved the ball against backups. But he also didn’t look or sound like a guy who could have been going to prom.

“After the first snap, I think all the jitters kind of go away and you just go out and play,” Martinez said.

Said Frost: “The one thing that impresses me is his composure as an 18-year-old that could still be in high school to come out and do some good things.”

Frost didn’t tip his hand in the slightest on whether Martinez was ahead of Tristan Gebbia (125 passing yards, two touchdowns), Andrew Bunch (89 passing yards, one touchdown) or Noah Vedral (53 passing yards), but know this: Gebbia, Bunch and Vedral carried 14 times for a total of minus-9 yards. Martinez ran for more yards than any other Husker on Saturday.

The media and fans got their first glimpse of the 6-foot-2, 205-pound quarterback, who missed his senior season of high school football with a shoulder injury. Husker defenders already knew what he could do.

“He is fast,” said linebacker Mohamed Barry, who led all players with eight tackles. “Oh. My. God. He’s a fast man. That’s what y’all seen. I’ve seen it firsthand. You can be right there and he starts bending back — he’ll cut back and go back forward — and oh my God, he’s running like 4.3.”

“That’s been him all camp,” defensive tackle Carlos Davis said. “I hate chasing him.”

It’s safe to say freshman inside linebacker Andrew Ward didn’t enjoy that task either Saturday.

Ward was put in a bind on Martinez’s 23-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter. Martinez pulled the ball on a fake, ran to his right and stopped for split second. Ward had Martinez in a one-on-one tackling situation. In fact, all Ward had to do was touch Martinez and the play would have been called dead. Martinez bolted right past Ward and down the sideline, leaping to the end zone with the ball hitting the pylon.

“There’s an option for me to give the ball or keep it,” Martinez said. “I decided to keep the ball and then, from there, it was just kind of playing ball.”

Martinez also scored touchdowns on a 15-yard read option, a 6-yard quarterback draw and, after he had progressed through his first two reads, a 25-yard pass to a wide open Jaevon McQuitty. Martinez’s deft ball-handling — getting outside linebackers to bite hard on fakes before taking the ball out of a back’s belly — and sense of urgency with the play clock made coaches happy. NU’s offense frequently took snaps with 25 to 30 seconds still left on the 40-second play clock.

“(Martinez) made some great decisions on when to keep the ball,” offensive coordinator Troy Walters said. “When he gets out in space, man, he’s tough to bring down.”

Gebbia, a redshirt freshman, threw touchdown passes to Mike Williams (3 yards) and walk-on Kade Warner, who caught a short pass in the flat, eluded cornerback Tony Butler and ran for a 57-yard touchdown. It was the game’s longest play. Running back Wyatt Mazour had a 43-yard touchdown with the springing block being provided by left tackle Brenden Jaimes, who pancaked his defender.

Bunch, a walk-on junior, threw a 24-yard touchdown to Kurt Rafdal for the White team’s only touchdown and the game’s first score. Bunch also led a drive that ended in a second-quarter field goal, but the White team struggled afterward, committing three turnovers and gaining just 112 yards on its final 10 drives against the Red team, which featured more first- and second-team defenders. Outside linebacker Alex Davis notched three sacks and an interception.

“I feel like we gained a lot of ground,” Davis said of the defense. “You can see the energy of the team and everybody was bonding. It’s a beautiful thing.”

Unity has been one theme of Nebraska’s spring practice. The word even showed up in Nebraska’s Tunnel Walk video, which shed its usual “Sirius” theme song for a cover of the Beatles’ “Come Together.” It was an unmistakable reference to Frost, the former Husker quarterback who’s come home to resurrect a program that has suffered two losing seasons in its past three.

Frost inherited a winless Central Florida program and rescued that team — 0-12 to 13-0 — in just two seasons. Fans wouldn’t mind him pulling a similar magic act in Lincoln.

“Nothing happens overnight, or at a flip of a switch, but you can just feel it coalesce and coming together,” Frost said. “And I think it’ll happen faster here from a culture standpoint — because the guys are so hungry to do it — but the rest of it is still going to take time and we’ll see when it all comes together and pops.”

The entire operation needs a quarterback. Frost has a reputation for developing them — McKenzie Milton at UCF and Marcus Mariota at Oregon. Martinez, who flipped from Tennessee to Nebraska before the early signing period, seems built in their mold.

“I think we’ve made a lot of strides in a lot of different areas — in the weight room, obviously on the field, and then just coming together a little bit more as a team,” Martinez said. “And for me personally, the guys getting to know me and kind of forming that bond. I think it’s been a solid spring.”

A few minutes later, the 18-year-old side of Martinez came out as he rode a scooter through the postgame media scrum. He was moving quickly — though maybe not as quickly as on some of his runs.

“He’s explosive, man,” said Barry, who was happy to gush. “He’s going to be something nice to watch when he gets his chance.”

Nebraska breaks spring game attendance record for Scott Frost’s debut

LINCOLN — Nebraska set a spring game attendance record when 86,818 fans packed into Memorial Stadium on Saturday morning. It was the largest crowd in Nebraska history for spring games, and the eighth highest-attended spring game nationally in modern history.

Nebraska’s spring game sold out in 25 hours when tickets went on sale in February.

The new Nebraska mark breaks the record set in 2008, Bo Pelini’s first spring game. Memorial Stadium housed 80,149 fans for that game.

Since 2008, more than 700,000 fans have attended a Husker spring game.

Led by Greg Bell, Nebraska running backs showcase ‘exciting’ depth in spring game

LINCOLN — Greg Bell is a man of few words. Mikale Wilbon has lately been one of even fewer, opting not to speak with the media during spring practices.

Both running backs let their play do the talking at the spring game Saturday, showing off a variety of skills that have them among the lead contenders for major roles in Nebraska’s offense in a few months.

Bell, a 6-foot, 200-pound San Diego-area product and junior college transfer from Arizona Western, busted a pair of long gains on receptions, taking one from Tristan Gebbia for 22 yards and another from Adrian Martinez for 19. And while he didn’t find the end zone, he lived up to his nickname “The Eel,” quickly sliding through small spaces and gaining 54 yards on eight carries.

“I think I showed what I can do to the fans and everybody that was watching,” Bell said. “It was crazy because I ain’t never played in front of that many people. It was good to go out there and ball out.”

Bell mostly split snaps with Wilbon, the 5-9, 200-pound senior from Chicago who was NU’s second-leading rusher last season. Wilbon was far more efficient Saturday, carrying 10 times for 55 yards (5.4 average), than in 2017 (4.3), though he didn’t catch a pass. A 17-yard scamper in the second quarter set up the Red team on a drive that ended in Martinez’s lone touchdown pass.

“They’re moving me around,” Wilbon said. “I’m starting in the backfield, going to the slot. Starting in the slot, going to the backfield. It’s real fun. That’s all I can really say. The only thing that I gotta get used to is just not huddling and how fast it goes.”

Wilbon and offensive coordinator Troy Walters said the back’s weight will be a key factor in where he fits this fall. Wilbon said he added 15 pounds of muscle in the offseason but needs to “get in football shape instead of just weight-room shape.”

Walters wants to see Wilbon reach the point where he can stay on the field for 10 straight plays and run the ball for most of them. If that happens, the coach believes the upperclassman can still be a valuable weapon.

“He’s focused. He kind of reminds me of Marshawn Lynch out there,” Walters said. “Even today he had that look like, ‘Man, this is business. It’s not a scrimmage — this is a game.’ He ran hard. He’s tough to bring down. He’ll continue to get better.”

But Bell was the one Walters brought up when asked who stood out to him from the game. The newcomer checked off the boxes coaches are looking for — running through tackles, getting yards after contact, catching the ball — and did it with the same smoothness and speed he has shown in previous spring workouts.

Coach Scott Frost also said Bell is well on his way to what the Huskers envision him being.

“Greg’s got a gear that is pretty special. I think he’s got good vision,” Frost said. “He’s got to get lined up a little faster, be a little more urgent sometimes but he does some special things when the ball is in his hands.”

Also for the Red team, junior Wyatt Mazour broke a 43-yard touchdown run in the third quarter and finished with 52 yards on four carries. Senior Devine Ozigbo led the way for the White team with 22 yards on 10 carries and 23 yards on two catches. Sophomore Jaylin Bradley ran seven times for 18 yards.

The running back room will grow next season with the addition of true freshmen Miles Jones and, potentially, Maurice Washington. Junior Tre Bryant (knee) will also be a factor if he is healthy.

“I think we’re gonna have some depth at the running back position, so that’s exciting,” Walters said. “Once defenses get tired, we can put another guy in and kind of wear them down. So, all in all, I thought they played well.”

Nebraska pass rush makes big turnaround after last season’s struggles

LINCOLN — A season ago, Nebraska finished last in the Big Ten in sacks. On Saturday, with a brand new defense, the Blackshirts had eight.

Whether you can fully count them considering the quarterbacks were off-limits to tacklers is up for debate. Unless you’re defensive coordinator Erik Chinander. He’ll take them any way he can.

“Any sack is good,” Chinander said. “I felt like there was a couple (more) they should’ve called.”

The Huskers struggled to find a good pass rusher a season ago, finishing the season with just 14 sacks; the leader was Ben Stille with 3.5. On Saturday, five players got in on the action.

Alex Davis led at players with three sacks for the Red team. The White team had five, including from Jacob Weinmaster, Breon Dixon, DaiShon Neal and Fyn Anderson. There were also a combined 23 tackles for loss.

What was so encouraging about the sack number, Chinander said, was it wasn’t usually just one guy beating another.

“You can obviously see when someone breaks through and generally, what I’m looking for is one guy just beats ’em, would he miss a tackle? I don’t know. Maybe,” he said. “But when I see that pocket collapse, that’s when I know we have something going. That’s when I know they understand rush lanes. That’s when I know they understand being physical, and the ability to rush the passer.”

Stille, a rising sophomore defensive end, said the collective pass rush has been a main focus this spring.

“Getting sacks is definitely a whole D-line goal. It’s not one person,” Stille said. “One person with a move is just going to flush the quarterback, so we’re working on rushing as a whole unit. And we did well at that, collapsing the pocket on the quarterback.”

Chinander said he understands keeping quarterbacks healthy and putting on those green jerseys. But his defense might not be so nice to opposing quarterbacks this fall.

Nebraska spring game attracts recruits from all over the country

Nebraska hosted a wide variety of prospects Saturday for its Red-White spring game, though none committed during or directly after the game.

Waverly-Shell Rock (Iowa) defensive end Mosai Newsom made his third trip to NU in the last several months. Newsom spent time with Nebraska’s 2019 in-state commits — Ethan PiperGarrett Snodgrass and Garrett Nelson. Newsom is considered to be leaning toward the Huskers.

One of the nation’s top junior college programs, Garden City (Kansas) Community College, had several prospects on hand for Saturday’s Red-White spring game.

Among other prospects, NU will be looking at running backs Charles West — who rushed for 972 yards and eight touchdowns last season — and Dedrick Mills, who rushed for 771 at Georgia Tech in 2016 before being dismissed from the program in August 2017. Mills carried the ball just seven times for Garden City last year before breaking his collarbone.

NU’s top target out of Garden City, tackle Bamidele Olaseni, did not come on the trip. The Huskers will likely check on him later. Quarterback Tylin Oden, who transferred from Rutgers, was also in attendance.

Garden City coach Jeff Sims was in Lincoln but, by NCAA rule, he can’t bring the players or pay for them to come. So the players drove themselves up in a caravan of several cars while Sims drove separately.

Sims is close to NU outside linebackers coach Jovan Dewitt. Both of them coached at Florida Atlantic for former Nebraska defensive coordinator Carl Pelini. Sims helped guide Lavonte David, Yoshi Hardrick, Brandon Kinnie and Stanley Jean-Baptiste to NU.

Other prospects who made the visit:

>> Dayton (Ohio) Archbishop Alter running back John Bivens, a four-star according to 247Sports.

> A whole host of 2019 and 2020 prospects from Deerfield Beach (Florida) High School — including four-star outside linebacker Ge’mon Eaford.

>> Consensus three-star safety Jayden Russell from St. Thomas Aquinas High School in Overland Park, Kansas. Russell, who has offers from Iowa, Kansas and Kansas State, among other schools, does not yet have an NU offer.

>> Denver Cherry Creek offensive lineman Michael Lynn, who has offers from Arizona State and Colorado State, among other schools.

>> Tulsa (Oklahoma) Booker T. Washington cornerback Demarco Jones, a consensus three-star who’s committed to Oklahoma State. Jones came with high school teammate and current Husker running back commit Thomas Grayson.

Defensive coordinator Erik Chinander says tackling has ‘gotten better and better’

LINCOLN — Defensive coordinator Erik Chinander said the Red defense — which held the White team to nine points and just 217 yards — “played pretty well” and “shot our guns” when it came to tackling, which, for the first week-and-a-half of camp “was awful.”

“It’s gotten better and better and better,” Chinander said.

Now Chinander wants the defense to “win games” this summer in the weight room with strength and conditioning coach Zach Duval.

“Getting faster, getting bigger, getting stronger,” Chinander said, adding that NU defenders need to get more confident. “You see guys all hunched over and then all of the sudden they start walking around campus (with their backs straight) once they see what they look like this summer.”

Chinander said the pressure on the quarterbacks — the defenses notched eight sacks total — was good, especially in collapsing the pocket. Chinander picked out sophomore defensive end Ben Stille as a guy who knocked down several passes.

McQuitty makes public debut a memorable one

Jaevon McQuitty had to wait just a little longer for his big moment.

The redshirt freshman receiver from Columbia, Missouri, toiled on the sidelines last spring recovering from shoulder surgery as an early enrollee. A knee injury suffered during a blocking drill in the fall derailed his first season.

“It’s been tough,” McQuitty said. “It’s been a lot of long days and long nights. But you know, I’m just ready to show everybody now.”

On the first play Saturday, the 6-foot, 195-pound receiver rose up to snag a 37-yard pass from Tristan Gebbia as the Memorial Stadium crowd roared. But an illegal formation penalty nullified the gain.

“I thought I jumped offsides, but it wasn’t me,” McQuitty said. “I wasn’t mad because everybody messes up. But we just gotta keep going from that point.”

The wideout finished the day with three catches for 33 yards. His highlight play came in the second quarter, when Adrian Martinez found him open at the front of the end zone for a 25-yard touchdown.

McQuitty said senior Stanley Morgan has been on him lately, making sure he’s blocking and tracking the ball well. His biggest adjustments under the new staff continue to be getting into shape and thinking fast on the run.

He believes he has yet to brush his potential, which is why he had a quick answer to a question about whether he turned a corner this spring.

“I’m still on a straightaway,” McQuitty said. “I ain’t even hit a corner yet. I’m still just working every day. I got a long way to go. A long way.”

Walters reaching celebrity status

Offensive coordinator Troy Walters knows his boss and friend, coach Scott Frost, is a celebrity in this state. He knows the kind of weight Frost carries. Walters knows because he’s already experienced a sliver of that celebrity himself.

Walters describes himself as a “low-key” guy, so it took him aback last weekend when he was sitting in his car, at a stoplight, and a man in the car in front of him opened his door.

“The gentleman got out, walked back and I rolled down my (window) thinking, like ‘did I do anything wrong?’ ” Walters said. “And he said, ‘I just want to congratulate you, I want to wish you the best of luck, we’re glad you’re here.’ Then he walked back to his car and drove off. That just shows you how special — how important — Nebraska football is.”

Multiply the attention Walters gets by 10. That’s Frost — on a light day.

“Even before he decided to take the job, we knew, him going back, there’d be a lot of weight on his shoulders,” Walters said. “We told him — we assured him — we’ll be all right. We got your back. We’re going to recruit the heck out of the country. We’re going to teach and coach our players. We’re going to do the same things that we did at (Central Florida). You don’t have to worry about it. We knew the passion of the fan base.”

Chinander pleased with turnovers

Chinander wanted one thing for the spring game: turnovers.

His wish was granted. Nebraska — in total — had four takeaways. Two picks, two fumbles.

“It was good to see the effort on those, good to see the drill work carry over,” Chinander said. “Always want a couple more, selfishly, but they did a good job.”

Williams shakes off jitters

Junior college transfer Mike Williams caught three passes for 18 yards and one touchdown. Williams, who played at Georgia Southern and East Mississippi Community College before Nebraska, said it took him a bit to shake the jitters.

“At the beginning, yeah, because I’ve never played in front of like 90,000 people so at the beginning it was pretty jittery,” Williams said. “But I got a hold of it.”

Neal exhibits offseason improvement

DaiShon Neal had two sacks, two tackles for loss and four total tackles on Saturday. He said afterwards he believes this spring of growth came at the right time.

“I finally got to come out of a shadow and get to show what I can really do,” Neal, an Omaha Central grad, said. “Got coaches that believe in me, I changed my body around, so I’m in much better shape and I like where I’m headed with myself just keep working hard every day and go out there and put on the best performance I can.”

Frost said he’s seen rapid growth in Neal this offseason.

“I think he got a lot better in the winter, getting stronger and getting leaner and he’s got the body type we’re looking for at that position,” Frost said. “We just need him to be productive. A lot of guys on our team weren’t in good enough shape, still aren’t in good enough shape for the pace we want to play at but DaiShon certainly has the talents and the gifts to be a good player for us and make plays.”

Quick hits

» Walters said Nebraska has set a tone coming out of the spring game, which represented the 13th spring workout for the Huskers.

“I think we established a standard with this game,” Walters said. “I think guys know what to expect and know how we want things done.”

» The defensive line was the first unit on the field, going through drills more than two hours before the 11 a.m. start. Assistant coach Mike Dawson wore enough blocking pads to look like a hockey goalie while giving instruction to players.

» Martinez has a fan in McQuitty, who hauled in a pass from the freshman for a 25-yard touchdown in the second quarter.

“Adrian’s going to be good,” McQuitty said. “I seen a leader out of him today. He was real vocal on the field.”

» Nebraska had no live punt and kickoff returns during the game.

» Electronic dance music and rap music played throughout the spring game, helping to simulate the beat on the field.

» Instead of the usual “Sirius” music for the Tunnel Walk, a cover version of The Beatles’ “Come Together” played as the team took the field.

» NU had several offsides penalties. Guy Thomas, a redshirt freshman, and Breon Dixon, a transfer from Mississippi, had two each.

» Frost and the Huskers walked out of the tunnel to a new song. That song was a cover of The Beatles’ “Come Together,” by Gary Clark Jr. & Junkie XL. The cover is from the “Justice League” soundtrack.

» Former Husker quarterback Patrick O’Brien attended the spring game. O’Brien, who announced earlier this month he will be transferring after two and a half years with the school, wore his No. 12 jersey and talked with former Husker Zack Darlington during warm ups.

» Every point scored in the spring game was scored by someone who did not play during the 2017 season.

Nebraska kickers Barret Pickering and Cole Frahm far from perfect as battle continues

LINCOLN — Cole Frahm had his chance in front of a sellout crowd. He missed it wide right.

The walk-on redshirt freshman from Omaha Burke has been engaged in a kicker competition with scholarship true freshman Barret Pickering all spring, and that didn’t change Saturday despite misfiring on a 30-yard field goal in the first quarter. But the perceived underdog — who made an extra point in his only other attempt — left Memorial Stadium knowing he didn’t live up to his ability.

“I think it definitely was a missed opportunity for me,” said Frahm, who admitted nerves got the best of him on the field goal. “I wish I would have performed better, but we’ll come back in the summer and see what we can do.”

Pickering – a recruit of the previous coaching staff from Birmingham, Alabama — went 7 for 7 on extra points but missed a 27-yard field goal on the penultimate play of the game. In that moment, he said, it’s on him to make the kick even if the unit had some trouble with the snap and the hold.

“It’s all right,” Pickering said. “We’ll get it fixed for the season. I’m just going to keep doing my best out there and we’ll see what happens come August.”

Frahm called the kicking competition “pretty close,” adding “I think we’re both pretty even in every way.” Pickering also said he doesn’t have a strong feeling of a pecking order as players brace for summer workouts. He’ll be spending more time in the weight room looking to add height and length to his kicks, though he already feels comfortable connecting from 50-plus yards.

Pickering said he’s aware of the legacy Nebraska has at his position, most recently bolstered by four-year starter Drew Brown.

“It’s definitely some big shoes to fill,” Pickering said. “But I feel like if I do my best and play well, that hopefully I’ll be able to take care of following in those footsteps.”

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