Husker quarterback Andrew Bunch always prepares like a starter, and that may soon become reality

Husker quarterback Andrew Bunch always prepares like a starter, and that may soon become reality
Andrew Bunch, who led Nebraska's final drive against Colorado, is prepared to start if needed Saturday. "I approach it as if I’m the starter every week," Bunch said. (RYAN SODERLIN/THE WORLD-HERALD)

LINCOLN — Andrew Bunch is ready. He’s loose.

The sophomore walk-on said this week has still been pretty normal despite the looming possibility of his first start at a Division I program.

“I’ve prepared all week and I’m confident, and Coach has been everything to put me in a position to go win the game,” Bunch said Wednesday. “I don’t really wanna change too much the way I approach the game. I approach it as if I’m the starter every week.”

Starting quarterback Adrian Martinez didn’t practice again Wednesday. The door remains open for him to play, it seems, though that decision won’t come until Saturday.

That means Bunch is taking first-team reps this week. Even though Bunch walked on during the Mike Riley era, he feels good about the offense and comfortable with everything it asks the quarterback to do.

“I don’t have any problem with the tempo,” Bunch said. “The tempo, I’ve always thought, was probably the most fun part of the offense.”

Bunch left Scottsdale Community College after one season and walked on at Nebraska. Since then he’s seen Tanner Lee leave for the NFL, Patrick O’Brien and Tristan Gebbia transfer elsewhere, and Noah Vedral arrive from Central Florida but be denied a waiver to play immediately. Now there’s the injury to Martinez. Not the way he might’ve thought he’d get his first chance at playing time.

“I’ve always known I could compete,” Bunch said. “I’m a competitor, so that’s why I decided to try and play the highest level I could. So early on I knew I could compete, I just knew it was going to take some work.”

The coaches feel the same way.

“I don’t look at him as a walk-on,” quarterbacks coach Mario Verduzco said. “Andrew doesn’t look at himself as a walk-on.”

Bunch’s sheer number of practice repetitions, offensive coordinator Troy Walters said, plays a factor in that confidence. Bunch spent time with the No. 1 offense during training camp, and Nebraska’s practice style lends itself to backups getting a good number of reps.

“He knows what to do. He knows the offense. He knows what’s expected of him. He’s a sharp guy. He can beat you with his legs, and he has a good enough arm as well,” Walters said. “So we’re excited. He’s one of those guys, he’s going to prepare his butt off, and if his number’s called, he’s going to be ready to go.”

Though he hasn’t practiced this week, Walters said he’d still like to see Martinez get some work done Thursday and Friday.

“He’s progressing every day,” Walters said. “He’s out on the field progressing, he’s meeting with Coach (Verduzco), making sure he’s learning the game plan.”

If Martinez plays, Walters said the Huskers will be “smart” to make sure he emerges from the game healthy. Walters said NU has a plan if it needs another quarterback behind freshman walk-on Matt Masker, but he declined to disclose it.

“We’re having open tryouts after practice,” Walters joked.

Should Masker, who just finished his career at Kearney Catholic, need to play, Walters said NU would “tailor” its offense to Masker’s strengths.

Husker O-line has six-man rotation for now

LINCOLN — Nebraska played six offensive linemen Saturday, with 305-pound sophomore Boe Wilson rotating in along with the regular starters.

O-line coach Greg Austin said he’s not ready to identify who that seventh lineman might be before it’s necessary.

“Right now there’s six,” Austin said. “Not saying that I don’t have confidence in anybody else, because I do. It’s just I felt like those are the guys that needed to play on Saturday, and as we go throughout the year, as we get way more comfortable with more guys, and as the situation warrants, then we’ll put more guys out there.”

Wilson — 6-foot-3 from Lee’s Summit, Missouri — saw the field before and after the play that briefly knocked starting center Cole Conrad from the game in the first half.

“I’m excited about his progress,” Austin said of Wilson, calling him a sixth man of sorts. “He’s certainly a guy that we feel confident inside that he’ll step in and do his job and play at a high level.”

Austin said communication needs to improve against a feisty Troy defense that shows multiple looks. He also wants some short-yardage plays back that didn’t work against Colorado.

But overall, the coach said it wasn’t a bad debut for the veteran line. Now it needs to be better for whichever quarterback it might protect this weekend.

“In my opinion, nobody plays well when you lose,” Austin said. “The silver lining in it is we put on a lot of good film on Saturday, a lot of teachable moments, a lot of teach tape-worthy things we put on film. The mark of a good offensive line is how well you block movement. We thought we blocked movement really well.”

‘Winning grades’ for tight ends

A quick, two-touchdown hole affected how Nebraska deployed its tight ends as much as any position group Saturday. But position coach Sean Beckton said all three players who saw the field earned “winning grades.”

Starter Jack Stoll performed well, Beckton said, along with Austin Allen and Kurt Rafdal in limited duty. All three impressed throughout fall camp, as did true freshman Cameron Jurgens, who NU wants to insert into Saturday’s game against Troy if the situation allows.

“I like to try to work four guys into the rotation,” Beckton said. “I think they all have played in practice well throughout camp and they’ve gotten better every week. Hopefully this week those guys can go out there and do the same thing they did last week.”

Beckton said the two-tight end sets Nebraska occasionally ran against Colorado bring an added blocking element on the edges. The 6-foot-4 Stoll and 6-8 Allen created running lanes for ball carriers.

“One of the things we didn’t have at UCF was those big, physical guys that can really dominate the line of scrimmage,” Beckton said. “And those guys have done that thus far this season.”

The tight ends group Saturday combined for two catches — Rafdal’s 14-yarder and Stoll’s 4-yard snag.

Bouncing back from drops

Receivers Stanley Morgan and JD Spielman were frustrated by their drops, Walters said, and Morgan stayed late this week working on catching the ball.

“The best of us drop balls,” Walters said. “It’s what you do afterwards.”

Morgan dropped a touchdown pass Saturday against Colorado. On the play, Walters said Martinez threw the ball toward the middle of the field because “that was the more open zone.” It brought Morgan closer to Spielman, who was running close to him when the ball arrived. The ball popped out of Morgan’s arms and into Spielman’s hands, though Spielman couldn’t grab it.

“That’s a play (Morgan) knows he can make, and needs to make,” Walters said. “He was frustrated after the game, and he’s done a great job bouncing back this week, staying extra.”

Quick hits

» Running backs coach Ryan Held agreed with Scott Frost that Greg Bell was running tight on his 45-yard run Saturday. Held said Bell was working so hard on the run that he looked like “a 95-year-old man.”

» Look for Miles Jones to play this week after sitting out the Colorado game. Held said Jones had an issue with his eye last week that kept him out of practice, which limited his exposure to the game plan.

» Troy’s defenders are “all over the place,” Walters said, and Nebraska will have to do a good job identifying where Trojan defenders are on the field.

Everything Husker fans need to know about the Troy Trojans

A preview of Troy, the first Sun Belt opponent of the Scott Frost era.

* * *

2018 record: 1-1

Offensive yards per play: 5.45 (T-89th nationally)

Defensive yards per play: 5.86 (94th)

Turnover margin: Plus-1 (T-42nd)

Penalty yards per game: 38 (T-18th)

Coach

Neal Brown (fourth season, 26-14 at Troy)

He may be close to a Power Five call-up after winning the Sun Belt Conference — and, more notably, upsetting LSU — in 2017. Brown led the Trojans to an 11-2 season, his second straight with double-digit wins.

The 38-year-old Brown — a college receiver at Kentucky and UMass — was a position coach at Troy from 2006-09. He served as offensive coordinator at Texas Tech under Tommy Tuberville (2010-12) and Kentucky under Mark Stoops (2013-14). Brown got the Troy job when longtime coach Larry Blakeney retired in 2014. Brown, one of the hotter coaching commodities out there, has quickly made the Trojans a threat.

Offense

Type: Multiple spread

Coordinators: Matt Moore, Sean Reagan

Troy’s offense is fast, fun to watch and diverse — especially in the run game. Bits and pieces of what Nebraska likes to do can be seen in what Troy does, and Brown oversees the design of the operation.

At least this season, quarterback Kaleb Barker is more of a mobile run threat. Troy uses a variety of formations — split backs in the shotgun, and even some diamond — to juice the run game and typically runs two or three wide receiver sweeps/pitch passes per game. Jabir Daughtry-Frye (5-foot-7, 173 pounds) and B.J. Smith (5-9, 203) are the main backs, and Barker carries his share, too.

In the passing game, senior receiver Deondre Douglas is a key go-to and already has 10 catches for 128 yards this season. Douglas can be a dangerous runner on the sweep play, too.

Troy does like to go extra fast at times and incorporates most of the spread offense staples like quick tunnel screens and swing passes to backs in the flat. Nebraska should know this offense well.

Defense

Type: 3-4/Multiple

Coordinator: Vic Koenning

Always beware the veteran coordinator on a Group of Five team. Koenning is a former Wyoming head coach and defensive coordinator at Clemson, Kansas State and Illinois. He shaped Troy into a top-25 defense last season as the Trojans gave up just 18.5 points per game.

Boise State’s 56 points in the season opener must have been an eye-opener, but Troy’s undersized, fast defense should not be underestimated.

Linebacker Tron Folsom — two interceptions already this year, a team-leading 80 tackles last year — is a stud, as are inside linebacker Justin Whisenhunt and “bandit” Hunter Reese. They’re not big guys — Reese is 6-1, 224 — but they can move. The defensive line is undersized, but Troy compensates with a variety of looks, stunts and blitzes that come with Koenning’s experience.

This defense, while beatable, is about as good as Northern Illinois’ coming into Lincoln last season.

Player to watch

Kaleb Barker, quarterback: He won the competition over Sawyer Smith, but not convincingly enough as Smith got playing time against Boise. Barker is undersized and does not possess a big arm, but he’s shifty and quick. If Nebraska’s defenders are out of their gaps on a pressure or pass rush, Barker can get out and make a play. He’s also starting his first big road game. If Memorial Stadium can rattle anyone on the schedule, it may be this guy.

They said it

“I think Nebraska has one of the top venues in all of college football. They are one of the top football programs in all of college football historically, and I think they are one of the top brands. Glad our coaches and staff get a chance to experience that. “ Brown on playing the Huskers

“They’ve got linebackers who will play out over the receiver, they have corners who will play safety, safeties who will play linebacker, they’re all over the place. They do what they do well. We’ve got to do a good job of identifying each guy and where they line up, and then it just comes to being physical and finishing blocks.” Nebraska offensive coordinator Troy Walters on the versatility of Troy’s defense.

Three stats

20: Tackles for loss in two games this season for Troy. The Trojans’ defense likes to take chances and reset the line of scrimmage. Catching them in mistakes — and making them pay — will be important, because they’ll force the issue with NU’s offense.

62.7 percent: Opponent completion rate against Troy’s defense. If there’s an area Nebraska might be able to hit a few big plays, it’s in the passing game. Boise State did with Brett Rypien. Troy will commit enough pass rushers that it leaves defensive backs in man coverage. NU has to win those matchups.

9-0: Nebraska’s record against Sun Belt teams. That includes a 4-0 record against Troy. This version of Troy may be one of the most dangerous Sun Belt teams the Huskers have faced.

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