LINCOLN — If nothing else the Nebraska spring game Saturday at Memorial Stadium in Lincoln was important for sake of a program reset. Though Nebraska football has been in this spot way too many times in the past 20 years, this feels different for a few key reasons.
This team appears to be in better physical condition and the effort on defense, in particular, seemed to be there from start to finish in the red team's 49-9 win. And yeah, the up-tempo nature of this new offense will be tough for defenses to handle, especially once a clear front-runner at quarterback emerges.
It's way too early to make grand proclamations about how good Scott Frost's first Nebraska team will be, only to say this offense will be the source of injecting new life into the program.
I'm not going to make this all that complicated, so here are some observations from what we saw on the field for the first time.
— This team has made noticeable improvements in conditioning. With all the talk about a more-demanding winter conditioning program and change in practice tempo installed, this group just appears more lean and agile than any Husker team we've seen in recent memory. As long as off-season and fall workouts continue on track, this team has a chance to be much better in the fourth quarter.
Last season, we saw a Nebraska team that was outplayed and just physically beaten in the second half of the biggest games on the schedule. Improvement in this area will pay dividends in those games that go down to the wire.
— Clearly the center of attention in this new Nebraska offense starts at the quarterback spot.
What we do know is the starter will be one of three guys — Andrew Bunch, Adrian Martinez or Tristan Gebbia. Transfer Noah Vedral won't be in the hunt as he'll sit out a season after following Frost to Nebraska from Central Florida.
Considering the new coaching staff's approach to rebuilding this program starts with intense competition at every position, this arguably is the first time in 20 seasons we have a real race at quarterback.
Just a few thoughts on each one of these players, keeping in mind this was just one scrimmage.
Right now Gebbia appears to be the most well-rounded athlete at the position, in terms of both running, passing and directing the offense. While ball skills are important, this coaching staff puts a real emphasis on having a signal caller with a firm grasp of the playbook and can make adjustments on the fly. Since Vedral ran this offense at UCF last season, he is leaps ahead in knowing the playbook, and he appeared more than comfortable on Saturday.
Without knowing the intricacies of this offense, it's hard from a reporter's perspective to see which guy is best on his feet, so to speak. Gebbia appears to be the best passer in the group, and he's athletic enough to make plays running although his 40 time doesn't jump out at you.
The true freshman Martinez is the best pure athlete in the group, although coaches tended to run the ball a bit more with him behind center. He has good arm strength, but his accuracy seemed to be an issue at times on Saturday. If coaches want a guy who can use for designed running plays, Martinez would be the guy.
As for Andrew Bunch, from what we saw of him on Saturday he's in the same mold as Gebbia — a guy who has a good arm and probably is a faster runner than Gebbia at this point.
This race won't be resolved until late in the fall, although I'd say right now it appears Gebbia and Martinez are the guys coaches are looking at most closely.
— At running back, transfer Greg Bell seemed to stand out as the guy who can break the big run and stretch the edge of defenses. Having said that, clearly all of the running backs have benefited from the off-season workouts. Mikale Wilbon, Jaylin Bradley and Devine Ozigbo all have the ability to carry the load in this offense and likely will all see carries.
The thing about Frost's offense is it won't be limited to running backs getting all the carries. On Saturday we saw receiver Tyjon Lindsey rip off a 28-yard run on a jet sweep, and it appears guys like Jaevon McQuitty and Mike Williams also will line up in the backfield at times. Then don't forget about receiver JD Spielman who sat out the scrimmage — he can flat out fly.
— Stop the presses, but the offensive line on Saturday didn't have guys jumping offsides or tackling defenders if they get beat on pass rush, and linemen had very little in the way of blatant holding calls.
Hey, at least that's progress.
— On defense, it was really difficult to gauge what we're seeing at this point. Again, what jumped out at me was how much better defensive lineman appeared to be moving around this spring. This defense was terrible last season and much of that had to do with guys not getting off blocks to any degree.
As a whole, Nebraska's defense showed decent pursuit and effort — chalk that up as an early improvement.
I was impressed by guys like defensive tackles Damian Daniels and Carlos Davis, who were consistently chasing running backs laterally and didn't show signs of fatigue. I think the key to this defense seeing a big jump in improvement next season will depend a lot on linebacker play.
At times, I thought guys like Dedrick Young, Mohamed Barry, Will Honas and Tyrin Ferguson were good and hunting down ball carriers.
To sum it up, this new start for Nebraska football is just that — a new beginning. Generally speaking, Frost and company have some skilled players to build around, but at some point one of the quarterbacks will need to separate from the pack for this team to be show improvement. That's a work in progress and the most important aspect of Frost's system.
As expected, this team had its share of sloppy play on Saturday. There was a total of four fumbles and two interceptions, although with a large number of players seeing action that was not a surprise.
Perhaps the most important issue between now and game one of the 2018 season, is how Nebraska develops leadership on this team.
We've heard a lot about how coaches are waiting for those guys to emerge. It's an intangible that will develop as players become more comfortable in the system.
Step one in this rebuild complete.