It seemed like the first day of summer vacation. It was Day One of Nebraska football spring drills, a movable feast day on the Old Cornhusker Fan Almanac calendar. With the kickoff of fall season still six months away, it was a moment in time to relish.
In his on-field coaching debut as NU’s defensive coordinator, Bob Diaco unleashed his high-energy style on the Blackshirts. The early returns were encouraging. Diaco exuded intensity and set the tone for the day. Mike Riley certainly liked what he saw.
“I loved the enthusiasm,” said Riley, who showed more than his usual amount of urgency in firing two old friends over the past three months. "I think that his enthusiasm was a lot like the interview. That was not surprising to me. He has an enthusiasm in his teaching that is contagious.
“With a lot of newness, it certainly is exciting to get started with this group.”
It was a day to get your first glimpse of a small group of early-enrolling Husker freshmen. A lot of folks got a good initial impression of linebacker Avery Roberts, who certainly shows promise. Reporters discovered that Keyshawn Johnson Jr. had an appendectomy in December, and complications from that surgery will not allow him to participate in full-scale drills until at least after spring break. Johnson put himself as close to the passing drills as he could get, and he tossed footballs to receivers who didn’t get the pass from the four new quarterbacks in camp.
Tanner Lee and Patrick O’Brien formally started their battle to be starting quarterback, a competition that unofficially got underway last fall. They both look the part of a pro-style QB. Both showed off strong, accurate arms and the ability to hit receivers in stride. That should make a lot of folks happy. True freshman Tristan Gebbia looked at home in the offiense, but threw behind his receivers several times. It seems obvious that he will redshirt this fall. Meanwhile, juco sophomore transfer Andrew Bunch — at 6-foot-1 the shortest of the quartet — got his first taste of Danny Langsdorf’s offense.
It was immediately obvious that Lee and O’Brien both have plenty of tools to succeed.
The prevailing wisdom says the Huskers would be best served if a clear No. 1 emerges as early as possible. I don’t agree. I’d like to see this quarterback battle go deep into fall camp, like it did between Tommie Frazier and Brook Berringer in 1995, or between Jerry Tagge and Van Brownson in 1969.
It could go like 1995, when Frazier won a close battle, then started the entire season. Or Lee and O’Brien could end up like Tagge and Brownson, who never really settled until the second year of their battle. Brownson started as a sophomore (these were the days when freshmen were ineligible), but his ankle injury allowed Tagge to see most of the playing time, although Brownson returned to start the 44-14 win at Oklahoma and then the Sun Bowl victory over Georgia. In their junior year of 1970, Brownson seemed to have earned the starting job, completing 65 percent of his passes before ending his season prematurely with an elbow injury on Halloween in Boulder, Colorado. That allowed Tagge to move to the forefront. Tagge ended up leading the nation in passing percentage at 61.1 percent before scoring on the most famous quarterback sneak in Husker history to give NU its first national title.
It could be argued that Brownson could have led Nebraska to the national title in 1970, at least to the extent that Berringer did in 1994.
The best possible 2017 scenario at QB is that No. 1A pushes No. 1 all the way through the season, and is ready to succeed if No. 1 goes down with an injury.
For much of the day, I kept my eyes glued on the power source of the team — the offensive line. After all, the Fraziers and Tagges had impressive talent up front to lean on. Things frankly have not gone well in the o-line since the Illinois game last fall, but hopefully a new season will bring better results. There are several young, talented players coming up to join a solid core of returners who have accumulated more than 50 starts. Tanner Farmer impressed me with his flexibility. Those wrestling workouts appear to have done him good. Farmer, Jerald Foster and Nick Gates have the quickest feet. It looks like Michael Decker has the early edge at center. Why he didn’t play any meaningful snaps at center last fall is beyond me. Redshirt freshman John Rairdon was next in line at center. Guards Boe Wilson and Jalin Barnett were running on the second-string.
It doesn’t take much to make me happy on the first day of spring drills, so when all the o-linemen walked off the field apparently still 100 percent healthy, I smiled. What’s more, they moved laterally — seemingly quite well — in practice. These eyes may actually see pulling linemen once again in Memorial Stadium. That in itself would be a glorious sight, because no matter who lines up at quarterback, this team isn’t going much beyond .500 without a mobile, mean offensive line.
On the first day of summer vacation, your prospects seem limitless. So go ahead and feast on the possibilities. It’s up to Riley and his staff to turn possibilities into reality.
Formerly the sports editor at the North Platte Bulletin and a sportswriter/columnist for the North Platte Telegraph, Tad Stryker started writing for this website in 2008. You can e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Stryker is a freelance writer, favoring topics related to Nebraska history or Christianity. You can buy his recent book at this link.
Winter ends on schedule for Big Red fans
Diaco’s energy, healthy offensive line, launch of QB competition are highlights
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