Nebraska shows some promising flashes -- with a few scary flashbacks
The most telling moment of Nebraska’s 2022 spring game was, of all things, a punt.
The 54,000 fans who showed up to Memorial Stadium let out whoops of joy that bordered on a roar when new punter Brian Buschini made his Nebraska debut by uncorking a 62-yard boomer. That it rolled into the end zone for a touchback — decidedly not the intended outcome — was of little consequence.
These people have seen some things, man. Snaps flying over heads. Every variety of kick getting blocked or shanked.
To see a football travel 62 glorious yards off someone’s foot was no doubt a thing of majesty after witnessing the misadventure that Nebraska’s special teams embarked on throughout 2021.
Scott Frost himself was quick to admit the cheers were warranted.
Frost: "I think the loudest applause all day was the bomb punt Brian (Buschini) hit. Rightfully so. I would've been clapping too if that wouldn't have been inappropriate.
"Kicking & punting we certainly hope we're better this year." #Huskers
— Dustin Schutte (@SchutteCFB) April 9, 2022
It’s also a reminder of how far Nebraska football — the once mighty and feared Big Red — has fallen into disrepair. Well-executed punts in the face of a minimal punt rush are a point of pride these days.
Unfortunately for Nebraska fans, there were also some brief but vivid reminders of that reality, too. For old times’ sake, there was a missed extra point and a badly pushed 42-yard field goal attempt.
The good news is those kicks were missed by kickers who will only be needed in case of emergency. Help is on the way in the form of Furman transfer Timmy Bleekrode, who will be in camp with the Cornhuskers come July.
And in a way, his absence served as a pretty good allegory for Nebraska’s spring game as a whole. This Huskers team, whatever it’s going to be, isn’t completely here just yet.
Offense still a work in progress
At multiple points during the Big Ten Network’s spring game broadcast, former Husker Damon Benning alluded to the fact Nebraska’s offense has been a step ahead of the defense for most of this spring.
That never appeared to be the case Saturday afternoon, save a spectacular 60-yard touchdown run by transfer running back Anthony Grant. And even Grant’s touchdown may have been aided and abetted by the fact no one was allowed to bring him to the ground.
The Cornhuskers looked every bit an offense debuting 4 new assistant coaches this spring, including a new coordinator.
There was precious little to tell about the presumptive first unit, which was by Frost’s design. Quarterback Casey Thompson was only 3 of 4 for 31 yards before his day ended. Trey Palmer, the ballyhooed transfer from LSU, had 2 catches for 11 yards.
Given the luck he had last season, Frost was wise to keep his presumptive best pieces in bubble wrap.
The Nebraska offense we see in Dublin, Ireland when the Huskers open the season against Northwestern will be decidedly better than the snippet we got Saturday.
There is, however, one concern that will likely nag until the end of summer.
Nebraska’s offensive line play against the first-string defense left quite a bit to be desired.
Buschini’s 62-yard punt came right after a false start and a sack put Thompson and the offense in an unmanageable third-and-19. On the following possession, Thompson was tackled for loss on the first play to set up a 2nd-and-17. When Chubba Purdy took over after Grant’s touchdown run, the first play of the drive resulted in a 5-yard loss.
Frost has repeatedly emphasized the importance of moving the chains this spring, and on too many occasions Saturday the Huskers moved them the wrong direction.
Maybe that’s a good thing for the defense?
Spring games are a classic glass half-full, glass half-empty exercise.
Is Nebraska’s offensive line going to struggle all the way into the season? Or is it possible we’re witnessing a defensive front that will exceed expectations?
Outside linebacker Garrett Nelson, who had 54 tackles (11.5 TFL) and 5 sacks in 2021, looks prepared to ascend to another level as a senior. He was credited with 2 sacks in the scrimmage.
Inside linebacker Nick Heinrich was also all over the field in his limited time on it. Henrich had 4 tackles, including 1 for loss, in 6 possessions.
There is a likelihood that the truth can be found somewhere in the middle.
Nebraska might improve a defense that was 10th in the Big Ten with 65 TFL and 12th with 20 sacks. And it’s possible the offensive line will be as susceptible to allowing sacks as the unit that finished 9th in the league with 29 last season. Or, Osborne forbid, even more susceptible.
But that’s far from a foregone conclusion. Offensive line coach Donovan Raiola is among those 4 new assistants tasked with revamping the Husker offense. And the thing about revamping is it takes a little time.
Nebraska has until Aug. 27 to show us where things really stand.