Feline takes spotlight at Husker scrimmage

LINCOLN — I’ll join every columnist in attendance Saturday in Lincoln in writing about Bo Pelini leading his team out of the pregame tunnel with his beloved cat in hand.

By the time this rolls not-so-hot off the press, the Nebraska head coach already has trended worldwide on Twitter in the latest salvo fired between Bo and his faux-self Saturday at Memorial Stadium in Lincoln.

Long story … But to rub it in, Bo held the cat high above his head before running on the field. Take that …

It’s really what this new era of Nebraska spring football has come to – more about the show and not so much the substance. Think of spring games gone by when there were Husker quarterback races and they would hinge on an April performance.

Bobby Newcombe once excited the crowd with a long touchdown run during a spring game that essentially vaulted him to the top spot heading into the fall of 1998. He later was overtaken by eventual Heisman Trophy winner Eric Crouch, and the rest is history.

Now, the spring game is about Jack Hoffman (a great, great cause), a football-throwing contest between Pelini and receiver Kenny Bell, three-on-one drills, announcing players involved in the drills along with their Twitter handles – (exactly what would Bob Devaney think about all the social media madness?), Husker cheerleaders calling plays (they’re pass-happy), and — yeah, that cat.

Rest assured, the Big Ten Network got its entertainment money’s worth Saturday. Football purists of old everywhere, however, must be turning in their graves as 61,772 in attendance lapped it all up like cold milk on a hot day (expect more cat puns to come).

With that out of the way — but sure to re-launch in a tweet near you — I’m struggling here to write the usual deep analysis of Husker football at the close of spring practice, mostly because I’m not there for practice like all the regular beat writers.

OK, you never can get a REAL read on what Nebraska football has going for it heading into the season a whole four months out.

Though I wasn’t a big fan of going away from a typical game format for this year’s scrimmage — or last year, for that matter — I came away convinced that a strictly defense-versus-offense setup this spring gave us a pretty good look at what this team might have (once the cat was sent on his or her merry way to enjoy a little kibble.)
Here are some solid observations, at least as solid as all the distractions allow us to make such observations:

— Every single quarterback saw the field Saturday, including Ryker Fyfe, Tommy Armstrong, Johnny Stanton, Tyson Broekemeier and Zach Darlington, and without a doubt every guy has the physical skills to lead the offense. All are solid passers and have good feet to run the zone read and/or option.

Not long ago you’d be hard-pressed to find two guys on the Nebraska roster who could lead the charge if the top guy went down, but that is no longer the case.

If I were to put together a depth chart at QB I’d say it was in this order: Armstrong first, with Fyfe and Stanton neck and neck, and to be continued on Darlington.

Darlington, the true freshman from Apopka, Fla., was clearly frustrated at times wearing the green, hands-off jersey. There were times he was touched for a “sack” while on the move trying to make a play. Coaches gave him one extra series at the end of the scrimmage, stressing the importance of getting as many reps as possible before summer.

No doubt if the kid can stay healthy he has all the makings of a future star. Still, looking at the position right now, I’d say Darlington is a guaranteed redshirt.

— In Ameer Abdullah’s absence we saw a heavy dose of Terrell Newby, Adam Taylor, Imani Cross and Jordan Nelson at I-back. Every guy brings a different style of play to the table, but, to me, Imani Cross has newfound quickness and acceleration.

Cross can still bang between the tackles but he showed some good agility and yes, speed, on a 39-yard touchdown run in the first half of the more than 100-play scrimmage. He averaged a whopping 16.7 yards per carry. In my never-to-be-humble opinion, Cross is No. 2, although as we’ve seen with running backs coach Ron Brown, he will go with the hot hand.

— On defense we saw Nathan Gerry at safety and not at linebacker where he started at times last season. He is for sure a hybrid-type player, someone you could play at both spots. He had the first score of the game with an interception in the spring game scoring system.

— Despite the loss of Avery Moss at defensive end, the Nebraska front four of Randy Gregory, Greg McMullen, Vincent Valentine and Maliek Collins certainly fits the mold of what you would want as a big, physical, athletic defensive line in the Big Ten, although Gregory saw limited action.

— While Michael Rose had a strong finish at middle linebacker in 2013, if Josh Banderas’ performance Saturday was any indication of how far he has come the spot will be wide open in the fall. Banderas was all over the field, including an interception late in the scrimmage.

— This upcoming season is a big one for senior-to-be Jamal Turner, who has yet to even come close to his potential.

In a three-on-one drill that included three defenders coming downfield on a punt, with the name of the game for the punt returner to avoid being touched, Turner did just that and accelerated smoothly up field.

On a pass play later in the game, Turner scored on a flag route and showed great speed. Nebraska coaches have to put Turner back there to field punts or kickoffs in the fall – do anything to give him touches.

And then there’s that cat …

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