Photo by Nate Olsen/Nebraska Communications

Huskers Begin Fall Camp With Emphasis On Finishing

By NU Athletic Communications

By Brian Rosenthal / Huskers.com

Officially, Nebraska held its first practice Sunday for the 2017 football season.

In reality, though, the Huskers have been preparing all summer for these next five weeks of fall camp.

Perhaps that’s why third-year coach Mike Riley noted Day One came and went in a “crisp, nice fashion.”

This team is ready, thanks to some grueling summertime workouts.

“I thought we had some outstanding buy-in from guys, top to bottom,” senior linebacker Chris Weber said. “Coming in each day, putting their head down and just going to work. We had some tough workouts, and it would be easy for guys to complain or not get up for that, and I didn’t feel we had any of that. I felt like guys wanted to get better, and that’s the environment we need.”

Sure, Nebraska has such workouts every summer. And at the beginning of every fall camp, players arrive in tip-top shape.

But many Huskers noted how the strength and conditioning staff cranked up these summertime workouts and tweaked the routine with one goal in mind – finishing.

No longer did players show up for 6 a.m. workouts and go home by midmorning. They had to stick around for afternoon running, too.

“It could be 98 outside and we’d be out there doing a grueling workout,” Weber said. “We were really focused on finishing. That’s something I think we need to get better at in being a better football team.

“You were dog tired and you had to do it, and you had to do it well.”

Junior nose tackle Mick Stoltenberg said the team’s overall stamina is better than in recent years.

“It’s also about playing for each other,” Stoltenberg said. “I feel the unity is tighter now than it ever has been. I feel guys really playing for each other, really holding each other accountable, taking care of each other, giving each other advice.”

Stoltenberg said the defense, in particular, enters fall camp strongly motivated after lopsided losses to Iowa and Tennessee to close last season.

“We didn't accomplish what we wanted to accomplish last season,” he said. “Obviously, there were things that happened in some games last season when we got beat pretty bad. That’s something I think about every day when I come into work. I think it's important we think about that stuff. It’s motivation. It really is.”

Players practiced in shorts, jerseys and helmets on Sunday, and will progress to pads later in the week, per NCAA rules.

Riley liked the tempo of the offense and, in particular, liked what he saw from running backs Tre Bryant, Devine Ozigbo and Mikale Wilbon.

“I was impressed with the backs. I think they’re all in good shape,” Riley said. “It appeared to me like it was all kind of workmanlike with those backs. They went in, did their job, they looked good. They’re all physically prepared at I think probably the highest levels of their lives. I think they’re all ready to go.”

Riley also noted he had some glimpses of true freshman running back Jaylin Bradley and was impressed with what he saw from the Bellevue West High School graduate.

“That room is rising, as far as what we could get out of them,” Riley said.

Among the biggest questions of fall camp will be how coaches go about replacing senior cornerback Chris Jones, who’s out 4-6 months after undergoing knee surgery. Sophomore Eric Lee Jr. and redshirted freshman Dicaprio Bootle split the majority of snaps with the No. 1 offense on Sunday, opposite sophomore starter Lamar Jackson.

“I think probably as we go forward with the corners, they’re all young,” Riley said Sunday. “Their experience isn’t big but they are talented and smart. What we’ll just be looking for immediately is being sound. Just being real smart. That’s going to be the way they give everybody the trust they need to play, is that they understand their assignments, they understand what they have to take away at their position, and that they are really sound down the field.”

Riley remains very hesitant to move senior Joshua Kalu back to cornerback after he successfully made the transition to safety in the spring.

“We understand we have a little bit of versatility there,” Riley said. “His experience at corner is good. We have been excited about his fit at safety, what he brings in that area. We like that look and we are hesitant to move it. We feel with three guys right now, Lamar, Eric Lee and Bootle, we will have those guys and see who else breaks into it that are sound, smart football players.”

One notable position move Riley confirmed was junior Peyton Newell playing nose tackle behind Stoltenberg.

“It’s a late thought and a good idea,” Riley said. “We’ll continue to look at that. There will be movement, naturally, according to situations.”

In addition, Riley said Khalil Davis could play either inside or out along the defensive line.

When Nebraska continues practice on Monday, Riley expects to have senior receiver De’Mornay Pierson-El back with the team. Pierson-El missed Saturday’s Fan Day and the first day of practice because he attended his sister’s wedding.

And when the entire team reconvenes, the focus will again turn to finishing strong, whether it be a drill, a workout, or, in the long run, a season.

“In order to put it together and be a great team in the Big Ten,” Weber said, “you have to be able to finish in everything you do – finish the four-quarter games, play through the long, grueling Big Ten season to be able to finish well. It carries over into all of that.”

Reach Brian at brosenthal@huskers.com or follow him on Twitter @GBRosenthal.

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