Spring Competition Sharpening Husker Quarterbacks
So, you want to know who’s the frontrunner in the race to win the Nebraska starting quarterback job, huh?
Oh, sure, first-year head coach Scott Frost, theoretically, could make a depth chart, and announce it. Frost could pull aside the four candidates, along with ineligible transfer Noah Vedral, and say who’s likely to start the Sept. 1 opener against Akron.
Yeah, he could.
But why go and spoil their fun?
“We had a competition day today, and it’s intense,” redshirted freshman Tristan Gebbia said. “It’s guys flying around and trying to make plays. It’s been really, really fun.”
Sophomore walk-on Andrew Bunch described a practice setting something like recess, or over high school lunch hour, when a group of good friends gets together and tosses the ball around to see who’s the best.
It doesn’t feel like it’s “you against everybody,” Bunch said.
“We’re all chasing the same goal,” Bunch said. “Everybody’s competitive at this level, so there’s never going to be an easy day. We all push each other, and I think that’s good for the entire group.”
That, of course, is why Frost will let this strong, friendly competition play itself out over the coming months.
Oh, and perhaps because Frost and his staff, including quarterbacks coach Mario Verduzco, really don’t know who’s the frontrunner eight practices into spring football.
Yes, reporters have asked Frost that very question multiple times, and he smiled and laughed it off when asked again Tuesday.
“We’ve got a long way to go, but there are definitely some guys that have performed well, and those guys are going to continue to get more reps,” Frost said. “We’ve just got to keep letting it sort itself out.”
Frost did say that for the first time Tuesday, coaches are making sure those players beginning to separate themselves from the pack are getting more reps. Again, he didn’t name names. But rest assured, when Frost says the frontrunners will get equal reps, he means they’ll get equal reps. It’s not lip service.
“The more reps you get, the better you’re going to become at the offense,” Bunch said. “Since the practice is so fast, it gives you an opportunity to give everybody so many reps. You don’t have to sit people out and just give certain people reps. Everybody is getting the same experience.”
Frost offered positive words for all five quarterbacks competing this spring – Bunch (pictured above), Gebbia, freshman Adrian Martinez, sophomore Patrick O’Brien, and Vedral. All quarterbacks were available to the media Tuesday for the first time this spring, and all but O’Brien did interviews.
“Pat can really throw it,” Frost said, “and is doing a good job learning it.”
The player most ahead of the learning curve, naturally, is Vedral, a Nebraska native who spent his freshman season under Frost at Central Florida and must sit out the coming season as a transfer. He arrived in January.
Gebbia said having Vedral around is like having a graduate assistant on staff.
“He’s run the system; he knows what’s going on,” Gebbia said. “If I’ve got a question and Coach Verdu is out there on the field, I’ll be like, ‘Hey, Noah, what’s going on here?’ And he’ll help me out.”
Gebbia, from Calabasas, California, came to Nebraska to play in a pro-style system under the previous coaching staff. Yet Frost is pleased with Gebbia’s running ability, too.
“Geb’s got good speed,” Frost said. “I think more than speed, it’s getting him bigger and stronger so he can take the hits and do those types of things. We’re going to ask the guys to carry the ball some, and there’s big guys in this league.”
Gebbia said he’s not heard chatter about his slim frame – he’s 6-foot-1, 185 pounds – being a concern in terms of absorbing hits. In any case, he said he’s benefitted from the offseason lifting and conditioning.
“I don’t know how much I’ve gained, but I feel really good,” Gebbia said. “I feel like I can handle the pounding. There’s a lot of good teams in the Big Ten and across the country. We’ve got really good guys up front, and I think they’ll do a good job of protecting me.”
His high school coaches didn’t ask Gebbia to run much, but when he did, he felt he generally gained decent chunks of yards.
“When I had to run, I was able do,” Gebbia said. “I’d kind of want to do that gain, hopefully just get the ball in the playmaker’s hands and let him make a play, and if I have to go out there and make a play, I guess I will, too.”
The change of offensive systems didn’t deter Gebbia (picured above) in the least. Not once did he consider transferring.
“Nebraska’s my home now. I love it here. Everything about it is great,” Gebbia said. “The people here have been really good to me. I heard great things about Coach Frost coming in. Obviously, he won all those coaching awards and stuff.
“That was tough, too, to be like, ‘Na, I’m not staying for this.’ This is a special moment in time, and I couldn’t leave my teammates. Those are my guys.”
Bunch couldn’t leave either. He joined Nebraska last season as a walk-on because he’d always wanted to be a Husker and follow in the footsteps of his father, David, who also played here as a walk-on.
“It’s been a dream,” Bunch said. “It’s been amazing.”
He only sees things getting better, too.
“I think everybody in the country wants to play for Coach Frost, so if he’s coming here, then I’m not leaving,” he said. “To have a staff like that walk right into your building, there’s no reason to leave.”
Bunch, from Thompson Stations, Tennessee, played a season at Scottsdale Community College in Arizona before transferring and sitting out last season. His only scholarship interests, he said, came from schools in the Ohio Valley and Mid-America Conference.
“Andrew, for one, he’s a great kid, great to be around,” Frost said. “He’s really gone to work learning it, has the ability to process information quickly and make good decisions.”
On the field, Bunch is more athletic than Frost expected.
“When he takes off running, he can make some things happen,” Frost said. “He’s been a pleasant surprise for me.”
Bunch said he’s used to being locked in at all times on an up-tempo offense.
“That’s all we used to do at my high school in Tennessee,” he said. “We just ran tempo all day, so it just feels natural.”
Although he’s a walk-on, and proud to be a walk-on, Bunch said, he feels as though he’s a scholarship player, involved as much as any other quarterback competing for the starting position.
Martinez confirmed as much by singling out an outstanding, difficult pass Bunch completed in practice on Tuesday.
“All of us were right there, because we were excited for him,” Martinez said. “It goes both ways. It goes for all of us. It’s a cool environment to be in, because I want to perform my best and I wish them the best.”
Martinez (pictured above) is the youngest of the group, a true freshman getting a head start by enrolling in January. Recruited to Nebraska by Frost, the 6-2, 205-pound Martinez is competing for the first time since his junior season of high school. He had shoulder surgery last April and missed his entire senior season.
“I asked him today, and he thought his arm was at about 90 percent,” Frost said. “I don’t quite see, maybe, the steam on the ball sometimes that I saw on tape, but he’s getting it there, he’s accurate. So he’s looking good. I think he can continue to improve as he works with Mario and gets that last 10 percent.”
Asked about the quarterback competition and each player’s attributes, Martinez smiled and said it’s hard to go through every player.
“We can all sling the ball pretty well,” Martinez said. “I think that raises my level of play and makes me want to be better, really.”
Again, it’s about competition, a big reason we won’t know who’s first under center anytime soon.
“It builds character. It builds team unity,” Gebbia said. “Especially if you’ve got a group of guys like us that all compete and work hard. We just push each other, and we’re still great friends.”
Reach Brian at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @GBRosenthal.