LINCOLN — The rosters were stacked in favor of the Red team on Saturday, but backup running back Austin Rose didn’t seem to care.
“I was pretty happy with being on the White team, since we got to go against the first team, to really show what I could do and show I could compete with the No. 1s,” Rose said.
Rose had his moments, and the walk-on from Lincoln North Star finished with 38 yards on nine carries — despite taking a 14-yard loss — working for both teams. That included making linebackers Marcus Newby and Luke Gifford whiff in the open field, and shaking cornerback Lamar Jackson on a third-down reception to get past the first-down marker.
Rose smiled about those plays and also appreciated the work with the White team with Tre Bryant, Devine Ozigbo and Mikale Wilbon all on the Red.
“You get in a flow, you warm up a little bit, you get all loose and everything and you get excited with the fans screaming and all that,” he said.
Ozigbo finishes injured spring strong
Ozigbo felt as if he was standing still at times this spring. Literally and figuratively.
A back injury slowed the 6-foot, 230-pound junior running back in the practices leading up to spring break. He could see a hole or a block but couldn’t get there. Making cuts left or right led to him locking up.
As Ozigbo fought through his ailment, fellow running backs Wilbon and Bryant made more notable strides. But the Sachse, Texas, native finished strong Saturday with 49 rushing yards on seven carries and added two catches for 22 more. He said he’s dropped about five pounds since using spring break to recover.
Saturday’s scrimmage has him again feeling confident in his ability to help the running attack. He is the team’s top returner after churning out 412 yards on 97 carries last season.
“It definitely taught me a lot about myself,” Ozigbo said. “The first half of the spring I definitely didn’t have a good one — you know, my back was hurting. But after spring break, (I) came back when I was all healthy and things started going a lot better. So it was definitely a learning experience, definitely a spot to try and advance myself. It was a worse spring, but it finished pretty well so I’m happy about that.”
Now, corner Jones has a lot to say
Until after Saturday’s spring game, senior cornerback Chris Jones hadn’t talked to reporters at all this spring.
Don’t take that silence as dissatisfaction. Jones has a new defensive coordinator in Bob Diaco and a new position coach — his third — in Donte Williams. Jones likes both a lot.
“His coaching style is amazing,” Jones said of Diaco. “I love it. He’s going to get every guy to run to the ball, every play. It’s just that fire that we need — Coach Diaco has it. Him showing us that — I feel like it really helped us a lot.”
Williams, Jones said, has helped cornerbacks to trust one another and grow closer to one another. Jones said he’s more open to criticism — even from a freshman — as a result.
“We got better and closer — just in taking criticism and biting our tongues,” Jones said.
That professional style drew praise from Diaco last week. When asked to describe his work ethic, Jones said he likes to keep a tight focus on his job.
“I may have had a bad day all day — heard some bad news or something like that — but when it’s time to go out on that field, nothing else matters,” Jones said. “It’s just strictly about football. It’s about my teammates, it’s about us as a whole.”
Jones could be among NU’s top 2018 NFL draft prospects. He chose to return for his senior season despite having a decent chance of being drafted this season. He has a few areas he wants to improve in before he goes pro.
“The aspect I’ve improved the most is just being aggressive,” Jones said. “Just being aggressive as a corner, aggressive at tackling. Being aggressive to the ball, that’s one thing I can say I improved on that I really needed to improve on.”
Spielman hauls in ‘perfect ball’
One of the prettier plays on Saturday was a 30-yard touchdown pass from Tanner Lee to receiver JD Spielman on an up-and-out route in the second quarter.
It was one of four receptions for Spielman, but one that the redshirt freshman wasn’t expecting.
“I wasn’t even supposed to get the ball on that play,” Spielman said. “So when I did see the ball, I was like, ‘If he throws this to me, that must mean he knows exactly where he’s going to put it.’ He put it exactly where only I could get it. So that was just a perfect ball.”
Spielman and Keyan Williams battled this spring at the slot position. The two were targeted 13 times on Saturday, and combined for 10 receptions for 139 yards.
Linebacker Gifford breaks out
In a spring game full of quarterback scrutiny and a vanilla 4-3 defense far from what Nebraska will run this fall, Gifford stepped up as the only big non-offensive playmaker.
The junior from Lincoln Southeast forced and recovered a fumble after Keyshawn Johnson Jr. caught a 6-yard pass in the second quarter. On the next White drive, he made a one-handed interception of Tristan Gebbia on a throw intended for Johnson Jr. and returned it 24 yards to set up another Red score.
Wearing a brace on his left hand, which is still healing from a spring injury, the 6-foot-3, 235-pound linebacker said he’d never intercepted a ball with one hand before.
“That was God catching that for me,” Gifford said. “I told myself before the game if I got an opportunity for a pick that it was going to have to be one-handed. And it happened so fast I honestly didn’t even think about it and luckily it just stuck to me like glue. So I’ll roll with it.”