LINCOLN — No one has yet established himself as Nebraska’s leader at running back. And the latest workout was disappointing for the entire position group from a focus standpoint.
Those were the consensus takeaways from Thursday’s practice by offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf and running backs coach Reggie Davis as players filed out of the Hawks Championship Center. Most other evaluations remain up in the air as the Huskers competed in pads for the first time this spring.
Running backs are more comfortable, Langsdorf said. He also sees them doing better in areas like quarterback protection, footwork running the ball and hitting holes faster.
“That’s a pretty even group,” Langsdorf said. “We’re trying to have one of those guys kind of break away also. We like them for different reasons, but we want a guy that will be kind of an all-around player and will kind of break away from the pack. That’s what we’re looking for.”
The top contenders are junior Devine Ozigbo (97 carries for 412 yards, five touchdowns), sophomore Tre Bryant (43 for 172, one) and junior Mikale Wilbon (15 for 89). All saw some action in the passing game last fall as well.
Davis said the group had energy Thursday, though a lack of focus put a damper on the afternoon.
“The first two days were pretty good,” Davis said. “Today felt like we took a step back, so we got a lot of things to clean up. But they’ll bounce back.”
Running backs were given target weights and body-fat percentages to aim for in the offseason, Davis said, and “a lot of them hit it or came real close.” Bryant “has put on some good weight” after measuring 200 pounds last year while Ozigbo — listed at 230 last year — has “leaned down.”
When asked about Bryant, Davis said a full season of action has helped the back more than sitting out would have.
“If he’d have redshirted and just been at practice, I don’t think he’d be in the same place that he is right now,” Davis said. “I don’t think anything is new to him. I think he’s used to the speed, the calls, all of it. It’s all normal for him now. It’s not new. So I think just the familiarity of the college game is what he gained.
“There’s not as much going through his head right now. He’s thinking more about football than he is about just doing the right thing on the field. He’ll be better.”
Wideouts catching on
Nebraska coaches are still waiting to see the best of Jaevon McQuitty. But what they have witnessed from the freshman early enrollee has still been encouraging.
The 6-foot, 195-pound wide receiver from Columbia, Missouri, continues to be limited in practice while recovering from offseason shoulder surgery. He didn’t wear pads Thursday nor has he been aggressively defended while he heals.
“He’s been hurt, but he looks good on air, for whatever that’s worth,” wideouts coach Keith Williams said. “He catches the ball well, he’s attentive, he’s into it, he’s learning offense as quick as he can. He does look good running around and catching the ball. He’s fluid catching the ball — he’s sure-handed — so that part looks good.”
Junior receiver Stanley Morgan said the curiosity from his younger teammate has been relentless.
“Jaevon asks me questions all day, all day long,” Morgan said. “He’s a guy that’s ready to learn. I’m out there tired, he’s still asking me questions.”
Williams also spoke of the evolution of junior Bryan Reimers into a more prominent pass catcher. When asked who might follow Reimers’ path from walk-on to scholarship player, the coach singled out sophomore Conor Young from Cozad.
It helps Young, Williams said, to have seen what it takes from the likes of Reimers, Gabe Rahn and Brandon Reilly.
“He’s a good player. He’s got talent,” Williams said of Young. “He’s starting to get comfortable. He knows the offense — it means something to him. He comes to work every day focused.”
TE Hoppes shows promise
Senior walk-on Tyler Hoppes might be the tight end making the most of an opportunity as Nebraska looks to replace Cethan Carter, Sam Cotton and Trey Foster.
Langsdorf said Hoppes “has an edge there” with some previous time on the field, and good work so far through three spring practices.
“Tyler Hoppes can run well. He runs nice routes,” Langsdorf said. “He’s blocking on the line of scrimmage well. He’s done a nice job of pass protection. So I’ve been impressed with him to this point. We just need a little more depth in that group.”
Hoppes played in 10 games last season, mostly on special teams but with some offensive snaps. The Academic All-Big Ten pick from Lincoln Southwest started his career at Wayne State in 2013 before transferring.
“I’ve been improving on my blocking,” Hoppes said. “That’s what I’ve really been trying to do. My route-running, I’m still trying to improve that, too, but the biggest thing was the blocking.”
Langsdorf said redshirt freshman Matt Snyder, a touted recruit from San Ramon, California, also has looked good. NU has some athletic young tight ends, Langsdorf said, but “they’ve got a little ways to go in knowing what to do.”
Decker excited for chance
Offensive line coach Mike Cavanaugh said Michael Decker is excited about his opportunity and has matured over the last two seasons, but Decker and John Raridon will remain among those shooting for the No. 1 job at center.
“We’ve got to have one of those guys step up and take control — be a field general, make all the right calls, be a good solid player,” Cavanaugh said. “That’s what we’re looking for.”
Nebraska needs to replace Dylan Utter, and center is the only line position where the Huskers don’t have a returnee with starting experience.
“The guy that’s there has got to be a smart guy,” Cavanaugh said. “We’ve had Ryne (Reeves) in the past and then Utter, and Utter was there because he was a smart guy.”
Riley’s special perspective
Head coach Mike Riley got an invitation this week: to be a guest speaker at the “Our Nebraska” series, a weeklong event on the University of Nebraska-Lincoln campus hosted by UNL’s Diversity Council.
The theme this year was “Empowering Every Story,” and Riley talked Thursday night inside Memorial Stadium. He said after practice he was asked to speak about his experiences as a coach and player with racial diversity. Riley played on the first team at Alabama that included two African-Americans.
“It was a big deal,” Riley said of his time at Alabama. “It was surreal how you were actually there. It was just amazing. I told somebody that, somebody heard and they asked me to do a Q&A.”
Riley said he was fortunate to be involved with sports because it brought him in contact with people with so many different backgrounds and perspectives.
“I think the locker room is the most beautiful thing in the world. I do,” Riley said. “And Nebraska — we’re truly America’s team. We’ve got guys from everywhere. The Cowboys think they’re America’s team? We are.”