Tight ends emerge; Morning practices help
LINCOLN — Austin Allen and Kurt Rafdal exchanged a look last week when Nebraska offensive coaches introduced the call that would eventually produce the longest catch of Allen’s college career. This looked like fun.
The play called for Allen to look like a blocker for a few beats, then release down the sideline. The only Ohio State defender in the area Saturday — needing to choose to cover running back Devine Ozigbo or Allen — picked the former, freeing the 6-foot-8, 245-pound Aurora graduate for a 41-yard gain.
“We executed it all during the week all perfectly, so we knew it was probably going to be called in the game,” Allen said. “We did, and we executed it perfectly.”
Said position mate Jack Stoll: “You get a little smile on Monday when you see it on the call sheet. It’s great seeing Austin going out there and making some plays.”
Tight ends have been more involved in NU’s passing game of late, accounting for seven catches and 116 yards in the last two weeks. They had 14 grabs for 183 yards in the previous seven contests.
The top players at the position are all young. Stoll, a sophomore, leads the way with 14 catches for 170 yards and a touchdown. Rafdal, a redshirt freshman (four catches, 67 yards) and Allen (two, 54) are next, followed by true freshman Katerian Legrone (one, 8).
“We’re young, but trust level has grown a lot,” Allen said. “Coach (Scott Frost) has a lot of trust in his players; he’s going to ride or die with the guys that are on the field, guys that are on the team.”
Morning practices help
Nebraska is on its 10th straight week of practice and game prep. The team isn’t tired yet.
“We just go to work every day, and you don’t even think about (being tired) to be honest,” Stoll said. “It’s just strap it on, go out to work, have some fun. The hard part is going to class every day, to be honest.”
Part of the reason the grind of the season hasn’t set in yet is because the team is having fun, Stoll said. The other part, though, is morning practices. Stoll is in bed by 9:30 p.m. and up before the sun. And that routine has helped him recover, he said, and prepare for Nebraska’s 11 a.m. games.
“It took some getting used to, waking up early, but now it’s definitely helped us, especially getting up for some of these 11 a.m. games,” he said. “When we got a 6:30 wake-up call, you’re used to it throughout the week.”
Stoll also likes that throughout the afternoon, you can think about what you learned at practice, and watch film during the day.
“As opposed to sleeping and kind of forgetting it and then coming in in the morning to watch film,” he said.
Illinois run game a handful
Watch for the cutback.
That’s one warning Nebraska defensive coordinator Erik Chinander has for his Blackshirts as they prepare for Illinois running back Reggie Corbin, who is averaging more than 9 yards per carry and has 13 runs this season of 20 or more yards, which leads the Big Ten.
“You really got to get some hats to the ball,” Chinander said of Corbin, who torched Minnesota for 213 yards. “Take good angles on him.”
Illinois’ rush offense involves “a lot of triple option elements,” Chinander said. Illinois’ offense is similar to that of Rich Rodriguez, who piled up points and yards at West Virginia, Michigan and Arizona.
Illini quarterback AJ Bush — who spent 2½ years at Nebraska — is a deft runner, too. He has 472 rushing yards in seven games.
“The best thing he does is he can read it — he can make a quick decision — he can pull it, he can give it, he can pitch it and when he runs it himself, he’s very effective,” Chinander said of Bush.
Chinander didn’t recall much of a conversation with JoJo Domann. He asked the sophomore to play outside linebacker, and Domann agreed.
Domann had a big game against Ohio State — seven tackles, a sack and a forced fumble — and quickly became valuable as a wide-side hybrid linebacker/safety. Chinander said Domann is helpful against spread teams that deploy three wide receivers. Against more power-based teams such as Iowa, Wisconsin or Michigan State, Domann may have a different role.
“He’s physical enough out there and he’s really good in space,” Chinander said. “He’s a good tackler, he’s a good football player, he’s just kind of savvy. He’s one of those guys who can kind of wiggle into stuff and get in the zone he needs to get into.”
Defensive tune changing
When Chinander used to gather the defense on the sideline early in the season, he’d usually hear silence.
“Crickets,” he said. “It’s me talking to myself.”
But that’s changed. Now, there’s noise and excitement. After Nebraska botched the onside kick against Ohio State, for example, Chinander noted that half of his defense wanted to hold OSU to three points and the other half wanted to hold the Buckeyes to no points at all. NU indeed got a stop, turning over Ohio State on downs.
“Now they’re talking, ‘We need a turnover, we need a score on defense,’” Chinander said. “It’s becoming a real thing.”
With friends like these ...
Defensive linemen Carlos Davis, Khalil Davis and Freedom Akinmoladun knew Bush, the Illinois quarterback, fairly well when he played at Nebraska from 2014 through the 2016 training camp.
So they plan to say hello Saturday — in their own way.
“We’ll say hi to him when we tackle him,” Akinmoladun said.
“I’ll say to him when he’s on the ground and I’m on top of him,” Carlos Davis said. “I’ll give him a welcoming. ‘Welcome back. I’ve missed you.’”