Nebraska spring game: What we learned

LINCOLN, Neb. – Nebraska concluded spring practice with its annual Red-White game, played Saturday at Memorial Stadium before a crowd of 76,881 that wowed first-year coach Mike Riley.

“The whole setup was phenomenal," Riley said. "I don’t think you can do it justice with a description."

The Red team, powered by the first-team offensive and defensive units, beat the White team 24-15.

Returning starter Tommy Armstrong Jr. completed 6 of 12 passes for 77 yards in the victorious effort, which featured a basic approach on both sides of the ball.

Here are five observations from the scrimmage:

  1. It’s Armstrong and everyone else. As long as he doesn’t repeat in a real game the move to take a knee in the end zone on the final play of the first half – yes, that’s a safety – Armstrong likely needs not worry about a serious challenge to his position as the No. 1 quarterback. Armstrong moved the top offense with efficiency on its opening drive and again in the third quarter, hitting De'Mornay Pierson-El for a 32-yard touchdown strike. Behind Armstrong, redshirt freshman Zack Darlington completed 7 of 11 passes for 70 yards, showing good presence in the pocket and a nice arm. Classmate A.J. Bush, who generated plenty of buzz this spring, was largely ineffective. Ryker Fyfe enjoyed a few nice moments and Johnny Stanton generated little offense in limited time late in the scrimmage. Tyson Broekemeier, a walk-on senior, enjoyed a nice fourth quarter. “The best way to describe all the quarterbacks is they made some plays,” Riley said, “and they all missed some plays.”

  2. Fear the defensive line. These guys were the real deal last year and the group looks equally good or better, despite the loss of Randy Gregory, as it enters the next phase of this offseason. Defensive tackles Maliek Collins and Vincent Valentine consistently penetrated the backup offensive line on Saturday. On the edge, Greg McMullen and Jack Gangwish form a solid duo, and converted tight end Freedom Akinmoladun offers impressive athleticism in pass-rush situations. Same with fellow freshman Sedrick King. The top unit harassed Bush, twice converging on him for sacks – one of which was negated by a Gangwish penalty.

  3. Pierson-El handles a heavy load. We saw this coming from the early days after Riley’s hiring in December. The coach is always quick to mention Pierson-El in assessing the Huskers’ returning offensive talent – and for good reason. Pierson-El brings much to the table in Riley’s offense. He was primarily a punt-return threat as a freshman, ranking second nationally with a 17.5-yard average. Look for much more in 2015. Saturday offered a preview as Pierson-El took two jet-sweep handoffs for a total of 39 yards and caught a pair of short passes in addition to the touchdown from Armstrong. Pierson-El also took a punt 46 yards, aided by confusion over whether it was a live return. That won’t happen in the fall, but the Huskers will get creative in getting him touches.

  4. Youngsters in the secondary improve. Nate Gerry, the Huskers’ top returning safety, suffered a knee injury last week that will sideline him from most activity until June. Top cornerback Daniel Davie missed Saturday with an ankle injury. Enter the young defensive backs, led on Saturday by redshirt freshman cornerback Trai Mosley, who intercepted Bush, and true freshman Aaron Williams at safety and nickel. Sophomore safety Kieron Williams had a few nice moments, including an open-field takedown of Armstrong. Even after the return of Davie and Gerry, the Huskers might need contributions from young defensive backs, including corners Eric Lee and Avery Anderson, who, like Williams, enrolled early in January. Secondary coach Brian Stewart appears to have tutored them well this spring.

  5. Some clarity at I-back. Junior Terrell Newby looks like the top guy. He got the start with Red team Saturday and ran well on the opening drive. Newby finished with a game-best 55 yards on seven carries, leaving early with an ankle injury. Sophomore Adam Taylor, yet to play in college, rushed for 35 yards and scored a touchdown from 8 yards out on the first drive. Newby and Taylor provide versatility, while senior Imani Cross brings the power. Redshirt freshman Mikale Wilbon, who gained 42 yards on six carries, showed nice quickness. As a group, they’ll allow for many options.