LINCOLN, Neb. — Nebraska is two weeks into a transformative spring practice that includes a quarterback battle, a brand-new defense, position switches, and a ton of new faces.
After watching a few practices, and talking with some coaches and players, here’s who we think looks good, who looks great, and who has surprised us through these first two weeks.
Who looks good
Tanner Lee, QB
The redshirt junior looked great until the final practice on Thursday. Both quarterbacks (Lee and redshirt freshman Patrick O’Brien) really struggled in the red-zone drill. Thus far, they have split first-team snaps and are in an extremely competitive battle for the starting position. Though it’s perceived that Lee is the front-runner, the race is closer than some might think. Lee’s looked solid on throws 10 yards or longer but hasn’t been as consistent on the shorter throws. Overall, he looks much more polished than previous Nebraska quarterbacks at this point in the offseason.
Patrick O’Brien, QB
O’Brien’s had a very good spring, though we’re not sure it’s been much better than Lee’s. Both have impressed, but both struggle in certain areas. With Lee, it’s in the short game. With O’Brien, it seems to be the longer throws. From 5-to-10 yards, O’Brien is money. Further than that, it gets a little dicey. Like Lee, O’Brien looks much more comfortable throwing in the pocket than previous quarterbacks, and seems to have a good grasp of the offense.
The defensive line
Though Nebraska’s offensive line has struggled the past 12 months, the defensive line of junior Mick Stoltenberg, sophomore Khalil Davis and junior Freedom Akinmoladun looks fantastic. The only reason they’re not in the “great” column is the difficulty in distinguishing if the O-line is struggling or D-line is punishing. Regardless, the front three have done a great job filling run gaps, communicating, switching and blitzing. It’s been impressive.
Who looks great
Stanley Morgan Jr., WR
Maybe the most impressive guy on the team two weeks in. We’re really not sure we’ve seen him drop a catch. Every great throw from Lee or O’Brien downfield is usually to Morgan, who has been amazing catching the ball in traffic. We’ve seen Morgan make one-handed grabs, win jump balls and even burn a corner or two. With Nebraska’s lack of depth at wide receiver, it’s good news that Morgan is progressing from secondary to primary receiver so quickly.
Mick Stoltenberg, DL
Stoltenberg has put on weight, and it shows. He’s moving around offensive linemen, attacking gaps with force and … liking his new weight, which is about 305 pounds. Stoltenberg seems to be adapting well to the nose tackle position, and is a vocal leader of the defensive line. A very good start for the new Blackshirts up front.
Chris Jones, CB
Jones is turning into a lockdown cornerback. His battles with Morgan are great, and it’s about 50-50 on who wins them. Jones has intercepted nearly every quarterback at some point this spring, and is playing with supreme confidence. He and cornerbacks coach Donte Williams talk often at practice, and Jones seems to be adapting well to being the face of the secondary.
Who has surprised
Joshua Kalu & Lamar Jackson, DBs
Thursday was a brand-new look at defensive back for Nebraska. Defensive coordinator Bob Diaco and safeties coach Bob Elliott moved Joshua Kalu, a starting cornerback last season, to safety. Kalu was actually recruited to Nebraska as a safety, so he’s familiar with the spot. In turn, sophomore corner Lamar Jackson took Kalu’s spot in the starting rotation. This move actually makes sense for a couple of reasons:
- The starting battle between safeties Antonio Reed and Kieron Williams didn’t seem to be going well, and the coaches definitely need another name to throw in that spot. Kalu is an obvious choice.
- It gets Jackson on the field.
Jackson was Nebraska’s highest-rated recruit in the 2016 class and is a talent you just have to get on the field. A move from Kalu to safety puts Jackson on the field, and fills a potential weakness at safety. It will be interesting to watch if this actually works out.
Tanner Lee … running with the ball
Maybe the most surprising thing of spring practice so far has been watching Lee tuck it and run. It was just once, and it was because the pocket broke down, but Lee scampered for about 7 yards for a first down. Quarterbacks run from time to time, that will happen. But seeing a quarterback not named Tommy Armstrong take off down field was a pretty new scene at practice. We don’t expect to see it again.