Huskers’ starting center could be game-time decision; Coaches surprised by Tyjon Lindsey’s departure

Huskers’ starting center could be game-time decision; Coaches surprised by Tyjon Lindsey’s departure
Cole Conrad has started at center in each of Nebraska's first four games, but Tanner Farmer may get the nod there Saturday with Conrad nursing an injury. (RYAN SODERLIN/THE WORLD-HERALD)

LINCOLN — Who Nebraska starts at center this weekend at Wisconsin will likely be a game-time decision.

The situation is “not ideal,” offensive line coach Greg Austin said. Cole Conrad continues to recover from an injury suffered against Purdue, and he split reps with fellow senior Tanner Farmer on Wednesday.

Conrad has started all four games at center for the Huskers this fall while Farmer started the first three at right guard before Boe Wilson took over at that spot last weekend. Farmer finished out the game at center after Conrad went down.

“They’re kind of even-keel kids,” Austin said of the center candidates. “They don’t get all caught up in a bad play. They don’t let not-so-good plays affect the next play. They can calm everyone down. Both of them are loud. They can communicate well. Both of them are smart. So I have confidence in both of them.”

Conrad has been “hot and cold” this season, his coach said, and the veteran has done a “good, not a great” job of managing the position. But there have been no glaring missed calls either, he added.

The line continues to be a work in progress beyond the top six, Austin said. Redshirt freshmen Trent Hixson and Matt Sichterman are both “close,” but both need game action to keep improving. Tight finishes haven’t helped in that regard.

“We’ve been having to play the guys that we feel confident in in close games in making the right calls and executing the right technique,” Austin said. “… We need to get those (young) guys in and we need to get those guys those reps so that as they continue to get those reps, they get more confidence. And now as they get more confidence, we get more confidence that it works.”

No block, no rock

As Nebraska’s wide receivers room continues to evolve, offensive coordinator Troy Walters said Wednesday the Huskers still have the quality of pass catchers to make a difference on game days.

The most notable change was a “shocker” that came Tuesday when sophomore Tyjon Lindsey surprised coaches with his decision to transfer and preserve his redshirt eligibility after four games.

“He was getting better and better,” Walters said. “He was frustrated with the reps he was getting so he wanted to move on. So we’ve just got to focus on the guys that are here. We feel like we’ve got enough talent to win with the guys that are here and it gives other guys opportunities to go out there and make plays and help this team win.”

A more positive twist occurred last week, Walters said, when redshirt freshman walk-on Kade Warner rose up unexpectedly. Warner had been working in the slot, but Nebraska tried him on the outside out of necessity while freshman Andre Hunt nursed a knee injury. Warner consistently blocked well and made a few plays early in the week. He was practicing with the first team by Thursday and made his first career start Saturday against Purdue.

Warner’s jump is a reflection of a mantra in the receivers room: No block, no rock.

“(Edge blocking) is a huge part of our offense,” Walters said. “Most of the run game, we have perimeter passes off of it. So if you can’t hold up on the perimeter, you’re probably not going to play as much as you’d like to.”

Prize behind third door

Mario Verduzco has been clear that interceptions make him nearly physically ill.

But, once he’s over it and goes through the film with Adrian Martinez, each interception is moving the true freshman closer toward the quarterback Verduzco wants him to be.

“He takes the coaching really well, and we move on from there,” Verduzco said.

Take, for example, last week’s interception against Purdue. Verduzco broke it down like a game show. On Martinez’s first read, he opened up door one, where there was no prize. Then Martinez checked his second read — door number two — and there was no prize.

“Then (he went) back to door No. 1,” Verduzco said. “What, are you crazy? That’s essentially what he did, and that’s what caused the problem.”

So the lesson was simple. Check door No. 3 before you look back at No. 1.

“He understood that,” Verduzco said.

‘No moods’ allowed

Martinez has been a college quarterback for a little more than a month now. And Verduzco’s been pleased with the progress through four games.

He’s still figuring out two things, though, Verduzco said. That you can’t come to practice with a mood. Can’t be happy, can’t be bummed out.

“No moods,” Verduzco said. “Come to practice fired up excited and let’s go. That’s been awesome.”

The second thing is practicing like a champion, which Martinez is coming around to.

“If it’s a walk-through period or no sweat Thursday, to ensure that despite the fact it is a walk through, and it might be a slower pace, that every aspect and detail of what you’re doing is perfection. He’s learning how to do that.”

Another big dose of Devine?

If Nebraska running backs didn’t know the expectations of position coach Ryan Held, they got a lesson last week when NU junked its usual rotation of running backs for a heavy dose of Devine Ozigbo, now the Huskers’ No. 1 back.

“They see I’m not playing,” Held said Wednesday. “I’m going to play the guy that does it the right way, and you’re going to have to earn it.”

Junior Greg Bell — demoted for the Purdue game — has practiced better this week, Held said, after he “got in his feelings a little bit” when he learned Ozigbo was starting against the Boilermakers.

“When you feel sorry for yourself, you go out there and maybe don’t perform,” Held said. “You’re worrying about things you can’t control.”

Bell is reading his offensive line blocking well, Held said, but on a failed fourth-and-1 against Purdue — one of Bell’s two carries in the game — his footwork was off and his shoulders weren’t square enough to create a cutback play.

“Footwork failed him — stuff that we do every day in practice and pre-practice, when we preach, preach, preach,” Held said.

Along with Ozigbo and Bell, true freshman Maurice Washington will return to the lineup after missing the Purdue game with a virus.

“Maurice Washington brings a big-play element that our offense needs,” Held said. “He’s going to have his chance.”

Youngsters like their future

CJ Smith doesn’t think he committed a penalty in the first game of his collegiate career, even if he was flagged for a block in the back on NU’s punt return unit.

But Smith, a true freshman on the four-game-and-redshirt plan, conceded he was a little antsy as he ran out in front of 90,000 fans on Saturday.

“My first play,” Smith said. “I was a little nervous. After a couple of those I started to get the hang of it.”

Smith expects to travel on the road this season and play in three more games so the he can preserve his year of eligibility, pursuant to a new NCAA rule. Nebraska has three senior safeties — Tre Neal, Aaron Williams and Antonio Reed — so playing time at safety will be wide open next year, including for Smith and another true freshman, Cam’ron Jones, who is hurt and not playing this season.

“Me, Cam’ron Jones, Cam Taylor and Braxton Clark, we all talk about what it should look like next year,” Smith said, referring to NU’s two freshmen corners. “We’re looking forward to turning the program around.”

As for now, Smith is learning the playbook and sees Neal, a transfer from Central Florida, as his “big brother.”

Husker walk-on Kade Warner takes advantage of chance to show he’s more than ‘Kurt Warner’s son’

LINCOLN — When Nebraska receiver Kade Warner was a boy, he kept a fat book full of NFL player trading cards. He placed his favorite right in front, Cardinals star Larry Fitzgerald, a surefire future Hall of Famer.

“I try to model my game after him because of how well he uses his body, and his hands and his work ethic,” Warner said. “He’s always been close with my family.”

Kade’s dad threw passes to Fitzgerald for five seasons. He’s one of the premier grocery bags-to-riches stories in football history. He has a Super Bowl ring, his own bust in the NFL Hall of Fame and a TV job with NFL Network.

Kurt Warner casts a large shadow. Kade knows that.

“There are some perks, but, obviously, on everything you see, I’ll always be Kurt Warner’s son,” Kade said. “So I have a chip on my shoulder trying to get that part of my name — not erased — but to just be Kade Warner.”

Saturday, when Warner caught two passes in a surprise first start against Purdue, could be the beginning. And the sudden transfer of Tyjon Lindsey should only open more doors to playing time for the walk-on who — after getting injured in his first year at Nebraska — flew considerably under the radar in 2018. He backed up JD Spielman and Lindsey at the hybrid slot “R” position until opportunity knocked two days after NU’s 56-10 loss to Michigan.

Freshman Andre Hunt was banged up, and offensive coordinator Troy Walters — who doubles as NU’s receivers coach — was frustrated with the play of receivers outside of Spielman and Stanley Morgan.

So Walters moved Warner to an outside receiver spot for the week and told all his reserves he’d grade every snap, post the results and reward the best guy in practice with more playing time.

“I was really throwing him out there just to get through practice because we were short on numbers,” Walters said. “And he made plays. So we gave him a chance.”

Warner said Walters is “a man of his word.” Warner proved his coach right, too, with his play.

Nebraska’s offense is built on several things, including quick horizontal passes to receivers — mostly to Spielman thus far — that try to turn short throws into long gains. Bubble screens, smoke screens, swing passes — most teams run them and they need good perimeter blockers to work.

Walters has a saying: No block, no rock.

“If you can’t hold up on the perimeter, you’re not going to play as much as you’d like to,” Walters said. Warner can hold up and is willing to do the dirty work.

Most walk-ons are.

Warner isn’t sure why he didn’t get many scholarship offers out of Scottsdale (Ariz.) Desert Mountain High School, where he caught 35 career touchdowns. Maybe he wasn’t fast enough, but he wanted to play Power Five conference football.

He figured he’d just walk on at Arizona State, which is 15 minutes from his house, until he got a call from Blair Tushaus, a former Nebraska graduate assistant who played college ball at Arizona.

Tushaus told Warner to come on a visit to Nebraska. Warner did. See ya, Arizona State.

“I like the Big Ten a lot, the Big Ten environment,” Warner said.

He’s further from home, but his parents, Kurt and Brenda, made it to his first start, posting a picture on social media. When Kade goes home, he’s usually playing catch with his dad or one of the quarterbacks his dad is helping train.

“He is a vital part of me getting here, so I’ve got to respect that,” Kade said of Kurt. “I wouldn’t be here without him.”

Kade even had his dad’s card in the big book.

“He was in the back,” Kade said chuckling.

Huskers won’t accept Akron tickets, so check your email this week for Bethune-Cookman tickets

If you had tickets to watch Nebraska football play Akron on Sept. 1, you’ll need a new stub for the team’s replacement game with Bethune-Cookman on Oct. 27.

Nebraska Athletics is issuing replacement tickets for the replacement game. Most folks who held tickets for the season opener, which was canceled by rain, will be sent new tickets.

Sometime this week, season ticket holders will be sent a new print-at-home ticket for the Bethune-Cookman game via e-mail or, if they don’t have an e-mail registered, by mail. The same goes for those who bought single-game tickets through Nebraska Athletics and for fans who have season parking permits through the university.

Kickoff for the replacement game will be set six to 12 days before kickoff, as will TV info.

The Daytona Beach, Florida, school is guaranteed $800,000 for playing in Lincoln.

Nebraska won’t be offering exchanges or refunds for fans who can’t make the game. Those ticket-holders are encouraged to give replacement tickets to friends or family or resell them on website such as StubHub.

No new tickets will be released to the public since the Akron game was a sellout. If the opponent doesn’t sell its allotment, NU will follow its usual procedure for making the remainder available to the public.

For further information, visit Huskers.com or contact the Nebraska Athletics ticket office at 402-472-3111.

Barry Alvarez knows how to turn around a program. So here’s some advice for Scott Frost

Barry Alvarez knows how to turn around a program. He also knows it takes time.

Alvarez went just 1-10 in his first season as head coach at Wisconsin, and the Badgers followed that with two more losing seasons. Wisconsin finally broke through in 1993, going 10-1-1 with a Rose Bowl victory.

Alvarez was confident success would eventually come, but he said Wednesday on “The Bottom Line” that he didn’t know how long it would take.

It’s a problem now facing Scott Frost — like Alvarez, a Nebraska alumnus. You have to teach your players how to win again, Alvarez said.

“You just have to be persistent and not compromise,” Alvarez said. “Just be persistent with your players, and everybody has to understand exactly what you want. And you have to demand it, your coaches have to demand it. It’s not easy or everybody would do it.”

Recruiting is also important. Soon after he took the Wisconsin job, Alvarez identified the type of players he could consistently pull from local high schools — big offensive linemen — and built his style around them. Then he’d complement that with speedy skill players from out of state.

“That’s the key,” Alvarez said. “You’ve got to be able to get good players on campus and guys that know the style of play. You have to decide the style of play you want and get guys that fit that.”

Talent isn’t everything, though. Alvarez said it all goes back to buying in. It only takes one player who isn’t on board to hold the team back.

“All you need is one guy on the field that has a question mark,” Alvarez said, “and certainly they’re going to find him.”

Alvarez, now the Wisconsin athletic director, spent about 10 minutes Wednesday on TBL discussing the Badgers before Saturday’s battle with Nebraska. Watch the full video from his interview at the top of the page or read a transcript of select excerpts below:

Pretty special. Jake is playing now. His brother Joe played for us the last five years. It’s really been fun for me to watch them grow and come here and see the experience they’re having and the success they’re having on the field. I sit in my office and watch them practice, so it’s really good. … Joe didn’t want anybody to know I was his grandfather. He didn’t want anyone to think he got any special privileges, which he didn’t. (Jake’s) a totally different animal. He doesn’t care what anybody thinks. I’m very sensitive towards it. I try to keep my distance and let them have their space, but I’m really proud of them and it’s really fun for me to watch.

On Wisconsin running back Jonathan Taylor:

He’s a very good player. He’ll have a great career here. He’s over 100 yards every game again this season. To say he’s the best, I don’t know that. We’ll take a look at his career when it’s over, but he’ll be one of them, and we’ve had a lot of great ones.

On expanding the College Football Playoff:

I know there’s a long-term contract on four is the number, but I can live with six and having Nos. 1 and 2 draw a bye and have the other ones play in. I could live with that. Adjust the season just a little bit. You’d really only play one more game. I wouldn’t want to go any further than that. I don’t want the season to get any longer. These guys, by the time they play 12 games and then 13 for a conference championship, and then have to play two more for a national championship, anybody who’s played in that national championship game, they’re zapped. They couldn’t go any further. You’ve got to keep the kids in mind also.

On nine conference games:

I was one of the athletic directors that voted that in. I can’t complain about the TV contract that we signed. I don’t think anybody in our league, I think we’re all happy with the TV contract, and that’s one of the reasons. And also, one of the criteria in the playoff is strength of schedule, and by playing nine games, we felt that that would be very important and obviously it hasn’t gone that way.

On entertainment recommendations in Madison:

If you come to Madison, you’ve gotta get down on State Street and around the square. The square is right around the state capitol. Walking right down State Street, there are a lot of places you can get brats. It’s walking distance to the stadium. It’s right on the peninsula. From the state capitol right on to campus, that area is must-see.

On whether he expects a lively atmosphere Saturday:

I would think so. Our fans are pretty good. Nebraska always seems to follow really well. I would anticipate our people being excited and anxious for the game. We’ve been voted one of the best atmospheres in college football and I’d be surprised if it wasn’t that way Saturday.

Fans can vote to send Husker commit Garrett Snodgrass to the Under Armour All-America Game

Garrett Snodgrass has a chance to play in the Under Armour All-America Game, but he needs help from fans.

The Husker commit from York is one of 32 high school players entered in a bracket-style contest that will award two spots to the prestigious high school football all-star game. In each round, players will go head-to-head and the recipient of the most votes will advance. The final two left standing will get the roster spots.

Snodgrass’ first-round opponent is Keeanu Benton, a three-star Wisconsin commit. Click here to see the full bracket and vote.

Snodgrass, a member of The World-Herald’s Super Six, committed to Nebraska in November. He’s a consensus three-star prospect ranked No. 759 overall by the 247Sports composite. He’s ranked as an athlete by the major recruiting services and likely projects to linebacker or tight end on the next level.

Snodgrass is one of five in-state players committed to Nebraska’s 2019 recruiting class, joining Nick Henrich (Omaha Burke), Chris Hickman (Omaha Burke), Garrett Nelson (Scottsbluff) and Ethan Piper (Norfolk Catholic).

Snodgrass is the only Nebraskan in the Under Armour contest. Nobody from this state has played in the Under Armour game, which was first held in 2008.

Quick hits

» Walters said recent transfers across college football are an unintended byproduct of the new redshirt rule, which allows players to appear in up to four games while still preserving their redshirt eligibility. Nebraska is being strategic with how it approaches the change.

“We have certain guys in mind we want to get a redshirt out of,” Walters said. “We still want them to play in those four games and get the experience so that next year they’re even better.”

» Walters and Wisconsin defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard got to know each other at the ceremony for last year’s Broyles Award, which goes to the country’s top assistant coach. Both were finalists.

Walters said Leonhard’s unit is a reflection of Wisconsin’s overall discipline and talent and will challenge the Huskers.

“We know where they’re going to line up,” Walters said. “It’s just a matter of us executing, doing our jobs and not making the dumb mistakes and having the penalties and the turnovers. If we do that, then we give ourselves a chance to win.”

» Tight end production spiked against Purdue, with Jack Stoll and Kurt Rafdal combining for five catches and 60 yards after the group totaled four grabs for 53 yards in the previous three games. Assistant coach Sean Beckton said the difference is simply being in situations where tight ends receive targets.

“It all depends on what type of look we’re getting on defense,” Beckton said. “Early in the season, it just hadn’t worked out to where we were the first or second option on something where the ball was thrown to us. Last week we had some opportunities to get the ball thrown to us and those guys made plays for us.”

Nebraska at Wisconsin

When: 6:30 p.m. Saturday (Pregame: 1:30 p.m.)

Where: Camp Randall Stadium, Madison

Radio: 103.1 FM

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