Nebraska finished the first half of spring practice Thursday with a lengthy workout that culminated in a long, live red zone session where the top offenses worked against the top defenses.
The Husker defenses got the better of the matchup. Cornerbacks Dicaprio Bootle and Eric Lee had interceptions, while safety JoJo Domann should have had a pick six had he not dropped it. He still had another one anyway on a wheel route.
“They made great plays,” Nebraska coach Mike Riley said. “I thought Chris Jones was outstanding. Joshua Kalu. Bootle made an interception in the red zone. … Not so good quarterbacking and offensively in that way. Those windows get tight and guys are making some plays.”
Quarterbacks Tanner Lee and Patrick O’Brien both threw interceptions.
“I thought before today both were really good,” NU offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf said. “I thought today both tried to force too many throws. It was the first day of the red zone stuff, so it’s obviously tighter windows. We’ve got to make the adjustment.”
Of the two quarterbacks, Lee — working with the No. 1 offense against the No. 1 defense — looked slightly better. He tossed a perfect pass to Keyan Williams on a crossing pattern for a touchdown, and had a solid rollout touchdown pass to De’Mornay Pierson-El. He overthrew fullback Luke McNitt in the end zone, but otherwise was relatively on target with his throws. O’Brien made one really bad choice — he floated a ball to the corner of the end zone that was a certain interception.
Langsdorf said it’s been a good challenge for the offense to work against the new 3-4 defense, as defensive coordinator Bob Diaco is good at disguising coverage schemes.
“They’ve been really good in the back end showing something and then playing something else,” Langsdorf said. “(Quarterbacks) got to make the adjustments on the fly. And that goes with the receivers, too. They’ve got to be able to convert some routes.”
Spring break for the Huskers
Nebraska wrapped up its sixth practice Thursday. The seventh won’t occur until March 28 with university students going on spring break for the next week.
Langsdorf said he’s been part of spring workouts that have begun after the break, and those teams have had to “crank it out” toward the end. This time off, he said, affords coaches the chance to reflect on what they’ve seen so far and make plans for the rest of the offseason.
The offensive coordinator added that he hopes the Huskers use the vacation wisely.
“I think the biggest thing is just getting some rest,” Langsdorf said. “We obviously don’t need to read about them on the beach and partying all week. But I think it’s good for them to both mentally and physically take a little break.
“It’s been a good grind through the winter program and first six practices. We’ve been going pretty hard. I think that just the rest will help them bounce back and kind of recharge and get ready to finish out spring.”
Two tight end leaders
Tyler Hoppes and Matt Snyder have the look of front-runners as Nebraska continues to evaluate its tight end situation, Langsdorf said Thursday.
Seven players are listed at the position this spring while freshmen Austin Allen and Kurt Rafdal will join the fray in the fall. No one in that group has caught a pass in a college game.
The competition goes on without senior and Norfolk Catholic graduate Connor Ketter, who is sitting out with a back injury.
“Missing Connor Ketter hurt us a little bit – we’d have loved to get him a lot of work, and hopefully we’ll get him back as soon as we can,” Langsdorf said. “But I think those two tight ends have shown the best so far. (They) just need constant improvement blocking. I think their strengths are probably catching the ball, so we just have to get the blocking part of it improved. If we can do that, they’ll be fine.”
Wilbon on the rise
Running back Mikale Wilbon is making a move in the three-back logjam, according to running backs coach Reggie Davis.
“He’s been really good — he’s most focused that I’ve seen him,” Davis said. “He has the least amount of mental errors of anyone in our room. His focus is on another level. That’s really, really good to see.”
The 5-foot-9, 195-pound Wilbon, from Chicago, has shown flashes of excellence — a screen pass against BYU in 2015, a 32-yard run at Northwestern — but he only has 24 career carries over two seasons. In previous interviews, Davis has indicated that it’s not talent that holds back Wilbon, but grasping the offense.
Now, in year three of Riley’s system, it appears Wilbon has done so.
“You see all the stuff you knew he had,” Davis said. “You’re seeing the quickness, you’re seeing the speed, you’re seeing his ability to even pick up guys in protection and block. He’s been doing a really good job in pass protection. You’re seeing all the aspects of the position.”
Davis said he’s been pleased with Tre Bryant, as well. Devine Ozgibo “is starting to look like his old self,” Davis said. Also in the mix at running back — at least for playing time — are in-state walk-ons Austin Rose (Lincoln North Star) and Wyatt Mazour (Boone Central).
“Austin Rose is a really patient runner — does a really good job in our zone game — and he’s a strong young man,” Davis said. “And Wyatt is extremely quick, has good speed and has good hands.”
Mazour caught a touchdown pass in the red zone portion of the practice. Rose, meanwhile, ran for a touchdown, making a Husker defender miss at the second level.
Bryant working for steady production
Langsdorf touched on Bryant, saying he’s looking for more consistency from the sophomore during spring workouts.
Bryant played in 12 of 13 games last fall, rushing 43 times for 179 yards and a touchdown while adding eight catches for 56 yards and a score. He also led the team with 23 kickoff returns (averaging 22.1 yards per return).
“When you’re a freshman, I think playing in the Big Ten (will) wear on you a little bit,” Langsdorf said. “So the young guys, I wouldn’t say they hit a lull at all, but it’s a long season. It’s a lot of work and I think they just have to be energized and come ready to play every day. That’s something that we’re working with him on is just the daily consistency.”
Friendly competition in backfield
Ozigbo, Wilbon and Bryant have tried to gain separation from each other at running back — and the NU staff has looked for somebody to get it — but Wilbon said he would characterize the current competition as healthy.
“We’re all friends,” Wilbon said. “We’re all cool. We’re teammates at the end of the day. It’s still competition, but it’s still teammates. We still want to win, so it’s whoever gets the job done.”
A void was left by the departure of Terrell Newby, who was the backfield leader the last two seasons and studied under Ameer Abdullah the two before.
“I feel like when Terrell was here it just made everybody better, just because he was another guy who could do it all and he was adding pressure to everybody else,” Wilbon said. “It was just more competition, and it just really pushed all the backs to do better.”