Nebraska running backs coach Ryan Held acknowledges it’s been a challenging spring, in part because his group has been beset by injuries.
He’s been down to only two scholarship running backs in some practices.
However, “This last week and a half has been really good for us,” Held said after Wednesday’s practice. “We’re getting some guys back. Obviously, we have an unproven room. But we have talent in the room.”
He said his backs embrace competition, and the competition will continue during Saturday’s Red-White Spring Game at Memorial Stadium. All of Held’s backs will be available to participate other than USC transfer Markese Stepp and redshirt freshman Rahmir Johnson. Both players have missed either all or the vast majority of spring drills. Stepp underwent surgery for an undisclosed injury in early April and is expected to return to action in time for preseason camp in August. It’s unclear why Johnson has been sidelined.
On Saturday, Nebraska fans will get to lay eyes on redshirt freshman Ronald Thompkins as well as freshmen Marvin Scott, Sevion Morrison, Gabe Ervin and walk-on Jaquez Yant. Thompkins and Scott had limited roles last season.
Nebraska head coach Scott Frost said he’s looking for someone “to come out of the pack and be the lead dog.”
A native of Buford, Georgia, Ervin arrived on campus in January and has enjoyed a strong spring, according to coaches, while Yant also has turned heads.
“He’s 245 pounds, and when he gets that thing going downhill, it’s really rolling,” said Held, also mentioning walk-ons Cooper Jewett, Zach Weinmaster and Isaiah Harris.
“Obviously, we’ve got to have everybody we’ve recruited out there when it’s all said and done,” Held said. “I mean, injuries are part of the game. But we’ve had a good recovery of guys. We need to finish up strong on Saturday, then really get in the offseason and it needs to be ‘Rocky IV.’ I mean, we need to get in there and get after it, then be ready to go this fall.”
In the 1985 movie “Rocky IV,” Rocky Balboa takes on the fictional, 6-foot-6, 260-pound Ivan Drago of the Soviet Union. It was a major box-office success.
“I like the room,” Held continued. “But we don’t have anybody that’s returning with a whole bunch of experience other than spot play. Our guys are hungry. They know there are questions out there. What does the room look like? That’s motivation for us. That’s great. We need that. We’re not going to make any excuses. We have to get it done. We’ve got to take it day by day, keep competing and keep getting better.”
Young QBs impress: Frost was complimentary of the work freshmen quarterbacks Logan Smothers and Heinrich Haarberg have done this spring and the way they’re developing under quarterbacks coach Mario Verduzco.
“Steady improvement is how I would characterize it,” Frost said. “(Walk-on) Matt Masker continues to do good things. Logan Smothers just every single day got better and his control and command of the offense is improving and getting to a point where I feel great with him. Haarberg is a really talented kid that can run and throw. He was swimming a little bit at first, but he’s hungry to learn and he’s really improved throughout the spring. Mario has done a good job with that room and those guys have made a lot of progress.
“Still have a ways to go, but have made a ton of progress this spring.”
Smothers, in particular, has been reworking his throwing motion with Verduzco. That process actually began in January 2020.
“He’s working through a few mechanical things with Mario and has been for a while,” Frost said. “Really starting to see the benefits of that this spring. Honestly, when he doesn’t think about it — anytime you’re trying to alter something, you’re thinking about it and you get a little in your own head — but when he doesn’t think about it, he rips it great. We’ll keep working with him, but I expect by this fall it will be second nature for him.
“I was really impressed with the progress he made in all aspects of his game, but particularly in throwing it this spring.”
So, no QB transfer?: Frost went a step further Wednesday and suggested Nebraska could use its final two scholarship spots this offseason on transfers at positions other than quarterback, although he cautioned that all options are still on the table.
“We haven’t made any final decisions on that,” Frost said. “We’ve still got a couple spots that we’ll try to find anybody that we think can help our team the most. Right now I wouldn’t say it would probably be quarterback.”
Feist in the mix: NU defensive line coach Tony Tuioti said he feels good about a rotation of six players getting regular snaps. One of those six? Yutan native Colton Feist.
“I really like him. I really like how he’s grown up,” Tuioti said of the 6-foot-2, 280-pound sophomore. “He’s been really awesome. He’s improving since Day 1. Really excited about seeing his growth and development so far.”
Feist played in four games last season, his first action since joining Nebraska in 2018 after a standout career at Yutan High School.
While he didn’t have any tackles in 2020, Feist was able to set a foundation for this season.
“With the limited amount of reps that he’s gotten, he’s maximized those,” Tuioti said. “So he’s earned my trust to get more reps … He’s put himself in a position where I trust him. He only knows one speed, and that’s 100%. And I love that about Colton.”
No jitters: Austin Allen, a junior tight end, said he regards the Red-White Spring Game as “another practice, another opportunity to get better.”
But after the pandemic wiped out last year’s game, and then playing the 2020 season in empty stadiums, it’s going to feel great to have 30,000-plus fans in the stands Saturday, he said.
“It’s been too long since we’ve had fans in there,” the Aurora native said. “The fans are our 12th man. They make the experience of Nebraska football everything it is. We’ve got the greatest fans.”
He said the program needs the fan experience to help it hit on all cylinders.
“Especially for these young guys, so they see that aspect of it,” he said. “I think we have some recruits coming, too, so that’s going to be huge for them to see what Nebraska football should be.”
Watch now: Scott Frost, Damion Daniels address the media as Spring Game approaches
Check out full replays from Scott Frost and Damion Daniels addressing the media Wednesday at Memorial Stadium. Journal Star 🎥 by Gwyneth Roberts.
Scott Frost’s full comments on Thomas Fidone, who suffered a non-contact knee injury on “an unfortunate play, kind of a nothing play.”
Well, it doesn’t sound like it.
Nebraska defensive lineman Damion Daniels talks after practice on Wednesday, April 28, 2021.
Nebraska head football coach Scott Frost talks after practice on Wednesday, April 28, 2021.
One notable development? Only the second half of the Red-White Spring Game will feature live tackling.
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