By Brian Rosenthal / Huskers.com
You probably recall at the beginning of spring football practices, when Nebraska coach Mike Riley said he would use coin flips to determine whether Patrick O’Brien or Tanner Lee, in a spirited, dead-on quarterback battle, would take the first snap of each practice.
That concept has worked so well that Riley is flipping coins for other position battles, too, as Nebraska enters the final week of its spring season.
The idea, of course, is to create serious competition without giving any indication of a leader for the No. 1 spot.
For example, in Saturday’s situational scrimmage on a beautiful, warm day at Memorial Stadium, junior Cole Conrad, primarily a tackle, took snaps at center, where he’s rotating with sophomore Michael Decker.
“We actually flipped a coin,” Riley said.
Riley labeled it “real competition” throughout the offensive line unit.
“When you do this like this, it obviously just puts an exclamation point the fact there is competition right here,” Riley told some two-dozen reporters after spring practice No. 12, and one week before the Red-White Spring Game. “One guy that might have had an edge has to work to keep the edge, the other guy sees opportunity. To me, there’s nothing bad about that.”
Oh, and what about the competition at quarterback, anyway?
Yep, still flipping a coin there, too.
“Let’s just play this thing out and let the kids play like it is,” Riley said, noting he’s keeping any thoughts on the race to himself. “They’re both on an edge. They both know it’s competition. They both are getting even turns, they’re both working with the 1s and 2s. That sounds good to me. I like that.”
“Tre’s a good example of a guy that has grown and shows that growth,” Riley said, “just in how he carries himself and the confidence he has.”
Bryant had a couple of touchdown runs from 14 yards – one up the middle, one off right guard. Wilbon had a 13-yard rush, his longest of the day, on a stretch play to the left.
“That competition between those guys is really close right now,” Riley said. “And Devine (Ozigbo) is doing well, but I think those other two … it’s pretty close.”
Riley stressed the importance of Nebraska finding “some good consistency and toughness and mentality running the ball,” something the Huskers couldn’t muster in their final two games of last season.
That’s why coaches are creating the competition along the offensive line, in need of a confidence boost, Riley said.
“I think we have to be very, very concerned and thoughtful about our growth, and make sure that’s happening,” Riley said. “I think we need confidence, and I also think we need to be mentally tougher. The combination of those two things is going to be really important to the growth of that group.
“We continually look and evaluate not only positions … but we also have a conversation over who are the five best football players. If we think there is a situation like that, where we might be missing the next-best player after four, then we create that competition.”
That gave others opportunities to make plays, and Gabe Rahn and Conor Young obliged. Rahn made a leaping grab along the sideline and stayed in bounds for a reception, and Lee completed a long pass over the middle to Young, who busted free for a big gain, although officials, per coaches’ instructions, blew the play dead after contact. Two plays before, Lee narrowly overthrew an open De'Mornay Pierson-El on a deep post route.
Redshirt freshman JD Spielman also stood out. On another play blown dead, the speedy Spielman had broken loose for a big gain after a catch in the slot position.
“JD’s an all-around football player,” Riley said. “If we were really making a decision on some of that stuff and had free reign with it, he’d be on every special teams unit, too. He’s an all-around good football player.”
Veterans made plays, too, of course. Pierson-El, looking more and more like the player he was a true freshman, before injury, caught a perfect pass from O’Brien on a post corner route and scored on a 23-yard touchdown reception.
The Blackshirts had their say in the scrimmage, too.
On the second play of the day, a third-and-1 play on a situational second-down drill, safety Joshua Kalu blew up a backwards pass in the backfield that would’ve been a turnover had officials, by coach’s instruction, not blown the play dead.
On a situational series that began at the offense’s 2-yard line, sophomore lineman Carlos Davis burst through and sacked O’Brien for a safety. The defensive line in general, with senior Mick Stoltenberg in the middle of the 3-4 look, brought pressure throughout the scrimmage.
Lamar Jackson had a nice, one-handed pass breakup on a fourth-down play, and Eric Lee Jr., playing nickel back, had a series of nice plays late in the scrimmage. He had a near-interception of O’Brien, forced an incompletion with tight coverage on the next play, and earlier forced an incompletion, thrown by Lee, on a pass into the end zone.
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