Finally, a question Scott Frost liked.
It was all of nine minutes into his post-practice session with reporters Saturday when someone asked how it felt to be on the field with fans in the Memorial Stadium stands.
There were 36,406 of them on this day, a gorgeous one: 82 degrees, sunshine, footballs flying, pads popping, normalcy returning in our world.
“I don’t know who needed that the most, us to have the fans in there cheering for us, or the fans themselves, or the city of Lincoln,” said Frost, the fourth-year Nebraska head coach who pushed hard for college football to be played last season during a pandemic, only to have the Huskers finish 3-5.
The cold and desolate nature of the 2020 season gave way to warmth and good feeling for the 2021 Red-White Spring Game. Nebraska athletic director Bill Moos said he became emotional, even teared up a bit, seeing all the smiling folks in the Haymarket in the hours before the scrimmage.
“The stadium wasn’t full,” Frost said, “but man, there was a lot of people in there. The sooner we get back to normal, the better for everybody. Man, that was a good first step in the right direction.”
The big goal for the day, he said, was for his team to stay healthy, and there didn’t appear to be any major injuries from the scrimmage.
Yes, this felt healthy, pretty much all of it. For all of us.
Frost, though, wasn’t exactly all smiles in the postmortem. He barely smiled at all. He had a serious tone that perhaps brought appropriate balance to the day. After all, he’s in the winning business, and he’s only 12-20 as the man in charge of a storied program trying to find its footing. You can almost hear the gravity of the coming autumn in Frost’s voice. That’s OK, too. It should be that way, even on a day we celebrated being back together, if in a limited capacity.
Frost surely hoped his team would deliver quality football Saturday. He surely hoped it would give the adoring fans a good show. I would say, mission accomplished. Frost has a pretty strong team. Yes, there are holes for his staff to manage. Virtually every team has holes on the roster. But Frost has a team that looks capable of competing for first place in the Big Ten West Division. He has a team that looks capable of winning eight games, maybe nine if Lady Luck enters the picture in a grand way and Adrian Martinez stays healthy.
That was my takeaway from the spring in general, and from Saturday in particular.
Ah, but we’re talking about a thin line — razor thin — that separates discernible progress from another losing season.
Yeah, it’s scary. But there’s legit reason for hope.
As Frost has said, the receiver corps looks deeper and flat-out better even without Wan’Dale Robinson in the fold. Gabe Ervin (12 carries for 57 yards) looks like a quality addition at running back, and perhaps the favorite to emerge as the starter. Yes, he’s a freshman who arrived on campus only a few months ago. But Frost says he has a mature approach to his work. Looks that way.
And tell me you’re not intrigued with freshman walk-on running back Jaquez Yant (9, 63). If the 6-foot-2, 245-pounder tunes up the finer points of playing the position, he’ll be a factor in more than just short-yardage situations.
Meanwhile, Martinez, the fourth-year starting quarterback, flashed the speed Frost has been telling us about and was 12-for-20 passing for 127 yards, with a largely inconsequential interception near the end of the first half.
Frost was pleased with his reserve quarterbacks, most notably freshmen Logan Smothers and Heinrich Haarberg. Their athleticism is very apparent. Yes, they’re raw. Haarberg was just 9-for-23 passing for 121 yards with a pick. Smothers was 8-for-13 for 76 and found a groove late in the day. They’re learning. Neither has established himself as the top backup, Frost said.
But Frost once again said he doesn’t plan to look to the transfer portal for Martinez’s backup. Stay tuned on that.
“I said on the radio I’m glad I wasn’t playing quarterback today because you have to throw a tight spiral into that wind to get it to go where you want,” Frost said of a strong breeze from the south. “Mine would’ve been fluttering over to York County somewhere.”
Martinez had “a really good spring,” Frost said. The coach said the California kid limited his mistakes.
“If he can get through games and just be who he is and not have the three or four bad plays that hurt you, he has a chance to accomplish whatever he wants to,” said Frost, who tends to play down the significance of spring games.
“You guys have to write stories about what happened today, I understand that,” he said. “What happened all spring is more important to us.”
The defense was strong almost all spring, and the first-string guys flexed in a big way Saturday, providing the impetus to holding the White Team to only 19 yards of total offense, including just 1 yard rushing.
Erik Chinander’s crew has the goods to keep Nebraska in striking distance of any team not named Oklahoma or Ohio State, and I’m not convinced you can rule out the Blackshirts giving those teams fits.
We also should mention that Frost has done an excellent job of improving talent in the trenches on both sides of the ball.
“There was one day this spring the defense whipped the offense’s tail, and the rest of the time it was a really good back and forth,” he said. “I don’t even know who to root for in those things. I want to see some guys get some sacks, but I don’t want to see guys get sacked. I want to see guys make catches, but I don’t want to see guys give up catches.”
So, conflicting emotions. That partly defined the day in general.
Nebraska fans wanted to see good football. There was a serious aspect.
Then there was the joy aspect. The fact we watched football in a large group, albeit in compliance with health guidelines and such, made the day feel like a colossal “W.”
Photos: All of the sights from the return of the Red-White Spring Game at Memorial Stadium
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