Steven M. Sipple: Huskers’ starting QB news could come this week; DiNardo sizes up race
Things I know, and things I think I know:
Big Ten Network analyst Gerry DiNardo took in Nebraska’s football practice Saturday as part of the network’s tour of preseason camps and came away impressed with the team’s sense of urgency and organized nature of the proceedings.
“It looks so much different -- more efficient and organized,” he said, alluding to the Mike Riley and Bo Pelini tenures in Lincoln.
That’s wonderful. But we have a pressing matter to discuss.
Who’s going to be the starting quarterback, Tristan Gebbia or Adrian Martinez?
“They have two guys. I don’t know what he’s going to do,” said DiNardo, referring to Husker head coach Scott Frost. “I mean, both would work in that system. They both can do what Scott wants them to do.”
It seems the conversation has shifted since the Red-White Spring Game in April, when true freshman Martinez captured fans’ imaginations in large part because of his speed and quickness. He felt like the clubhouse leader in the minds of many. But Gebbia, a redshirt freshman, is a heck of a competitor, too, and has had a strong summer.
Saturday night, I asked DiNardo if he saw distinct differences in the QBs’ way of operating.
“I guess you could say Martinez runs a little better and all that, but they don’t want to run their quarterback a bunch; they want to threaten the defense with the quarterback run,” said DiNardo, who made stops as a head coach at Vanderbilt (1991-94), LSU (1995-99) and Indiana (2002-04).
Statistics back his statement. In Frost’s five seasons as a play-caller, the high watermark for average carries for a quarterback came in 2014, when Marcus Mariota ran the ball nine times per game at Oregon.
“To me, the new trend is pass-first dual-threat quarterbacks,” DiNardo said. “That’s where the game’s going. That’s where the pros are going, and that’s what the kids want to do. A quarterback doesn’t want to be an option quarterback nowadays. J.T. Barrett didn’t want to be an option quarterback at Ohio State, but he was a better runner than he was passer. But quarterbacks don’t want to be that guy. Nobody wants to be Tommy Armstrong anymore.
“They want to throw the ball, and receivers want to catch it.”
Although Martinez’s running ability tantalizes, he fits into the pass-first dual-threat category.
“Whoever quarterbacks this team has to be able to throw the ball,” DiNardo said. “It’s not about running the option. Now, will they have option elements? Of course they will.”
Coaches tend to get swayed by speed. A fast quarterback is a provocative weapon. But Nebraska has no shortage of weapons at the skill positions. The Huskers mostly need a point guard who can operate efficiently and avoid the turnover bug.
Frost and quarterbacks coach Mario Verduzco have each said they prefer to pick one quarterback and stick with him, but the head coach admitted Friday the battle remained really close, going so far as to say “if we had to play a game today, both guys deserve to play. We’ll see how we manage it.”
Frost also said Nebraska would begin gearing practices toward preparation for Akron -- the Sept. 1 opponent -- on Friday or Saturday of this week. In other words, I’m betting we’ll know Friday the answer to our pressing question: Gebbia or Martinez?
I typically lean toward a runner. Martinez’s speed is intriguing.
Should be an interesting week, especially the latter part.
* DiNardo told me Nebraska’s offensive line, in terms of physical ability, is on-par with those he saw in practices at Michigan, Michigan State and Penn State. That’s decent company for the Huskers considering they ranked 120th nationally last season in rushing.
The Nittany Lions’ offensive line is ranked third in Athlon’s preseason unit rankings, and Sparty’s group is fourth, just ahead of the Huskers at fifth. The Wolverines’ line ranks 10th, which evokes memories of angry boos raining down at Michigan Stadium after Nebraska’s 17-13 win there in 2013. Michigan’s line was awful that year.
* Ohio State and Wisconsin’s lines are on another level physically than every other Big Ten team, DiNardo said. No surprise there.
* DiNardo’s main takeaway from watching Nebraska’s defense?
He really likes nose tackle Mick Stoltenberg, a 6-foot-5, 315-pound senior, and thinks the talent overall is OK.
“I mean, the timing of this thing for Scott Frost -- I think he’s terrific -- but he also has some karma or something,” DiNardo said. “The program’s struggled, but it’s just like Jeff Brohm. They had some good defenders at Purdue when he took over. The fact Nebraska’s running a (three-man) front and have Stoltenberg is so much better than if they were running a (four-man) front with Stoltenberg because he would’ve been over one of the guards and would’ve been on the backside of half the plays. Now, he’s over the center and right in the middle of things.”
Which is right where you want him, DiNardo said.
“He’s a ‘Going Jesse,’” the former coach said. “I mean, he is one hustling, tough, physical guy. They’re going to be OK on defense. Inside linebacker is probably the biggest problem, which everybody knows.”
I’m still going with cornerback as my biggest concern.
* One of my sources, who’s a frequent practice observer, says Nebraska senior Luke Gifford “is undoubtedly the team’s best outside linebacker.” In March of 2017, I approached Gifford for an interview and he hesitated because “I really haven’t done anything,” he said then. Beautiful.
* Best story of NU’s preseason camp? I’m going with senior Devine Ozigbo making a big impression on the new coaching staff. How many people saw that coming?