Nebraska offense ‘blessed and fortunate’ for health so far this season
LINCOLN — Greg Austin interrupted a question Wednesday about health and decided to have a little fun with it.
“I’m feeling really good; I’m feeling frickin’ phenomenal,” said the offensive line coach, who was listed as 6-foot-1, 295-pounds during his Husker playing days in the mid-2000s. “I know you were asking about me; thanks for asking about me. My knees are in a good place.”
Austin isn’t the superstitious type, but he knows NU has navigated the injury bug better than most teams this fall. The Huskers — prepping for an 11th straight week after losing their bye week to the weather-related makeup game — have had four offensive linemen start every contest. The only change on the line came when Cole Conrad suffered a leg injury against Purdue. Tanner Farmer moved to center and Boe Wilson came in at right guard and have stuck for the last six games.
“We’re blessed and fortunate to have the same guys,” Austin said. “Really no catastrophic things have happened. A nick and a bruise here or there, but for the most part guys are pretty healthy.”
Senior left guard Jerald Foster said Monday he still feels fresh one year after limping around late last season. Safety Antonio Reed said he’s also better physically despite leaving the Illinois game with a minor leg injury. Multiple players credited head football trainer Mark Mayer along with strength and conditioning coach Zach Duval for the turnaround.
The only other ailment that caused an offensive player to miss a start was quarterback Adrian Martinez, whose leg was twisted in a pileup against Colorado. On defense, lineman Mick Stoltenberg missed multiple games with an ongoing knee injury while other Huskers to deal with nagging injuries have included Reed (shoulder) and linebacker Tyrin Ferguson.
“When you’re not as big and strong as you can be or as big and strong as other teams, you get beat up and get hurt,” coach Scott Frost said Monday. “We gained a lot of ground in that area with Zach working with guys for a year. We’ve stayed healthier than most teams, and I think most of that has to do with the strength and conditioning staff.”
Nebraska might be out one of its top receivers this weekend. Sophomore JD Spielman was nicked up against Illinois. He’s been limited in practice this week, offensive coordinator Troy Walters said.
“He’s day-to-day,” Walters said. “We’ll see what he can do.”
Spielman has 66 catches for 818 yards this season and eight touchdowns.
The good thing, Walters said, is Spielman knows the offense well enough and doesn’t need practice.
“So we’ll make sure that he’s healthy and we’ll just see,” Walters said.
Former pupil doing well at UCF
When Central Florida’s McKenzie Milton finished eighth in the Heisman Trophy race last year, he received a letter from the Heisman Trophy Trust congratulating him for the recognition.
Mario Verduzco — who coached Milton at UCF last season — still has a copy of the Heisman letter.
He showed it to Nebraska’s quarterbacks this year.
“It was awesome,” Verduzco said. “We gave him the original, but I kept a copy for myself.”
Milton could be even higher on Heisman ballots this season if UCF can complete a second straight undefeated regular season. The Knights get a visit from ESPN’s “College Gameday” on Saturday and will host Cincinnati in a primetime game.
Verduzco is responsible for recruiting the lightly-regarded Milton to UCF.
“There weren’t very many people looking at McKenzie Milton when he was coming out of high school,” he said.
Preparing for final home game
Reed recalled Wednesday how amazed he was to be on the Memorial Stadium turf for the 2015 season opener against BYU. What a blessing, he thought, to be doing something he loved at a place like this.
The Memphis, Tennessee, native has played 44 games since then — starting seven, including against Colorado and Northwestern this year — during a college career he said he wouldn’t change. The senior safety gets one more chance in front of the home crowd Saturday against Michigan State.
“Probably every high point is whenever I step between the lines,” Reed said. “I just love playing the game. Whenever I step between the lines, it’s like it’s not just me, I’m playing for everybody else to my left and my right. That affects me more than anything.”
Reed intercepted the second pass of his career against Northwestern and had a season-best seven tackles in the near upset of Ohio State. Despite fighting a few minor injuries this fall and weathering the offseason coaching transition, he said he never considered quitting or transferring.
He wanted to be someone younger players could point to for how to put in the work on a daily basis.
“I know some people say you can’t lead by example and you have to talk to lead,” Reed said. “But I think my leading by example has shown more than anything throughout the offseason and coming into the season this year.”
Austin said the challenge against Michigan State’s top-ranked rush defense will be “trench warfare.”
“They do a great job of playing the blocks,” the offensive line coach said. “They play just tremendous team defense, gosh. It’s not like they’re so multiple where you can’t figure out where everybody’s going to be, but they do such a good job of keeping that gap discipline.”
Reed said one factor in the defense intercepting more balls lately has been better engagement from the Husker sideline. Teammates are now vocalizing when a pass is coming.
“As a DB, you never know when the ball is exactly coming unless you’re playing with the receiver,” Reed said. “If you have your brothers helping you, then it makes the game a lot easier.”
Reed — a senior along with Aaron Williams and Tre Neal — was asked which players will rise in the secondary next season. He named sophomores Deontai Williams and Marquel Dismuke along with true freshman Cam Taylor.