LINCOLN — Nebraska players spent a little time in the snow Thursday before capping off what coach Scott Frost called the best week of practice — again — the Huskers have had this year.
“We rolled around in it a little bit,” Frost said, “then got our work done.”
Frost said he doesn’t anticipate temperatures — forecast to be around the low 30s by Saturday’s 11 a.m. kickoff against Illinois — to be much of a factor for how the Huskers operate. Coaches will, however, monitor the wind as a potential influence in the game.
The frigid weather will easily be the coldest Frost and his staff have ever coached in during their nearly three seasons together. While with UCF in Orlando, they played at Connecticut (51 degrees at kickoff) in November 2016 and against Temple (53 degrees) in Philadelphia in November 2017.
Before that, Frost called plays in the Oregon-Oregon State game late in 2015 that started in the low 30s. The Ducks won 52-42 that day while putting up 674 yards of total offense.
Frost said any conditions pale in comparison to the progress the Huskers continue to make.
“Things keep getting better,” Frost said. “Certainly not happy with how this whole season has gone, but I’m pretty happy with where things are right now.”
Frost facing familiar defense
Ever since Frost learned “Tampa 2” during his time in the NFL, the defense has been his scheme of choice.
The system looks like a Cover 2, operating out of a 4-3 set with two high safeties. The difference — as Frost learned as a defensive back with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 2003 — is using a middle linebacker who can drop into coverage or stop the run as needed. And it’s simple enough that everyone knows his role and assignment well.
Illinois employs that defense, led by coach Lovie Smith, who served as an assistant at Tampa from 1996-2000. With Smith calling the shots last week following the departure of his defensive coordinator, the Illini turned in their best performance of the season in a 55-31 win over Minnesota.
“When you play against a defense like that, a lot of times you just gotta make plays,” Frost said, “because there’s not as many things to identify on tape that are glaring issues.”
Frost listed a variety of Tampa-2 acquaintances he has, including current coaches like Mike Tomlin and Raheem Morris along with Herm Edwards and Rod Marinelli. Frost said Smith had done a good job adjusting the scheme to the college ranks, which include more run-pass option plays.
“That tree that Lovie was a huge part of means a lot to me,” Frost said.
Huskers excited to see old teammate AJ Bush, but they’ll wait to say hi until ‘he’s on the ground’
AJ Bush is a wanted man.
Nebraska linebacker Mohamed Barry would like to reconnect with the Illinois starting quarterback who also happens to be his former Husker teammate. Once upon a time, Bush was Barry’s player host on a recruiting trip to Lincoln, a pair of Georgia natives dreaming of college football glory.
“He brought me here, basically,” said Barry, who owns a team-best 82 tackles this season.
Many of Nebraska’s upperclassmen spoke all week of catching up with Bush. Senior center Tanner Farmer still calls him his “brother.” Running back Devine Ozigbo said he’s happy for the run-first quarterback’s success, which includes 1,396 total yards (472 rushing) and 10 touchdowns this season. Senior captain Jerald Foster once predicted that the guy he once blocked for in practices would go on to big things.
So popular was Bush that Illinois kept him from interview requests by Nebraska media because of the volume of inquiries.
“I wish him well,” cornerback Dicaprio Bootle said. “But on Saturday he’s gotta feel us.”
Bush didn’t stay at Nebraska, instead transferring to Iowa Western after spending the 2014 and 2015 campaigns as Tommy Armstrong’s backup. He was a reserve in 2017 at Virginia Tech, then came to Illinois as a graduate transfer and won the starting job over incumbent Cam Thomas and promising freshman Matt Robinson.
Now Bush is coming back to Memorial Stadium, a place where — as he recalled to Illinois media this week — he’s familiar with everything except the visitor locker room.
“I want to try and make it just another game,” Bush said. “I don’t want to put too much emphasis on it. I know it’s going to be exciting when I go back there and actually step off the plane.”
Bush said he doesn’t hold grudges, adding that he has nothing to be bitter about from his time at Nebraska. He loved his time there, he said, and expects to renew some old acquaintances. He even plans to get a visit from a young Husker fan to whom he’d given his cleats after a spring game.
But the Blackshirts aim to end the feel-good vibes soon after the 11 a.m. kickoff. Barry vowed to “make it known” to Bush that he’s close by. Defensive linemen — who often conduct interviews together — were brainstorming their own special greeting.
“I’ll say hi to him when he’s on the ground,” 325-pound junior Carlos Davis said. “When I’m on top of him, I’ll give him a welcoming.”
“Welcome back,” responded senior Freedom Akinmoladun.
Added Khalil Davis: “I’ve missed you.”
Nebraska coach Scott Frost said he doesn’t know much of Bush, who committed to Bo Pelini a few days before signing day in 2014, beyond film study. But there was plenty to see from the tape of last week’s game against Minnesota, when the left-hander completed 18 of 25 passes for 216 yards and two touchdowns to go along with 127 rushing yards and two more scores.
Bush never played in a game for Nebraska. But he’ll get a chance to be on the same Memorial Stadium field as his old friends after all.
“I’m happy that he’s finally going to be able to come back to this stadium,” Foster said. “It’s going to be funny, him being on the other side of the ball. … We really want to beat him, just so we can rub it in his face later.”
» Asked about quarterbacks coach Mario Verduzco being one of 53 individuals considered for the Broyles Award — given to the nation’s top assistant — Frost said Verduzco has long been deserving of the honor. It’s just more obvious this season with the way true freshman Adrian Martinez has been playing.
“I’ve seen him do unbelievable jobs with quarterbacks we’ve had in the past, obviously,” Frost said. “Then to get an 18-year-old playing the way that he’s playing speaks volumes about what Mario’s capable of doing. Any honor that he can get is well-deserved.”
» Nebraska expects Illinois to have plenty of fire when it comes to Lincoln. The Illini (4-5) are still in contention for a bowl game and are coming off their best game of the season.
“We got a challenge ahead of us and a week of preparation has been great to get ready for it,” Frost said.
» Sophomore left tackle Brenden Jaimes is “starting to find a little bit of nasty,” Frost said. The second-year starter measuring 6-foot-6 and 300 pounds has continued to improve throughout the fall.
“He’s got the talent, there was never any doubt about that,” Frost said. “I just wanted to see him be mean on the field. He’s started to do that, and every week it seems like that’s coming out of him more and more.”
Huskers land walk-on commitment from Kearney Catholic lineman Eli Richter
Kearney Catholic lineman Eli Richter announced Thursday that he will walk on with the Huskers.
“It’s always been a dream of mine to play at Nebraska growing up as a kid, and I love the coaching staff, strength and conditioning staff,” Richter said. “They bring a lot to the table with their energy, and the knowledge they have about football is extraordinary.”
Richter received a Nebraska walk-on offer on Oct. 4. He plays offense and defense for Kearney Catholic but is expected to begin as a defensive end at Nebraska.
“Everything about Nebraska is everything I could have asked for,” Richter said.
Richter, 6-foot-5 and 245 pounds, had 81 tackles and nine sacks in eight games this season.
He chose to walk on at Nebraska over scholarship offers from Division II schools Augustana, Sioux Falls and UNK.
“I just made pros and cons for all of them and came out with Nebraska,” Richter said.
Richter is the sixth Husker walk-on commit for the 2019 class. He joins Lincoln Southeast punter Grant Detlefsen, Millard West defensive lineman Matt Huser, Lincoln Southwest kicker Dylan Jorgensen, Lincoln High defensive back Cam Kleinschmidt, and Fillmore Central lineman Riley Moses.
Illinois at Nebraska
When: 11 a.m. Saturday
Where: Memorial Stadium, Lincoln
Radio: 103.1 FM