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Nebraska’s next few days are key before season opener

Murmurs turned to hollers as Nebraska players ducked under a rolling steel door and laid eyes on their new locker room for the first time Monday.

Quarterback Jeff Sims clasped his hands in front of his grinning face and let out a long whoop during a 49-second video released by the team. Some Huskers captured the moment on their phones. Others smiled or simply stood and soaked in the futuristic setup set to serve as their bodacious football home.

One screen showed a running countdown to the first game at Minnesota — 10 days, 10 hours, 41 minutes and 14 seconds at one point during the morning tour. Individual lockers feature jerseys and helmets on display under a screen showing each player’s face, name and hometown. That wall intersects at an angle with another that has a door that opens to reveal personal shelving space for clothes and small equipment.

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“I love it, man,” freshman receiver Jeremiah Charles said.

“Loving the new facility,” added receiver Billy Kemp. “Appreciate all the hard work.”

And running back Anthony Grant, who shot video of an expansive pool area and room dotted with hot tubs below flat-screen televisions in the new facility: “We ain’t playing at Nebraska. I promise you we ain’t playing at Nebraska.”

The field trip of sorts came on the first day of classes for the Huskers and UNL, part of a fluid stretch for Nebraska that isn’t quite training camp and isn’t quite game week. Full-on prep work for the Gophers will begin Friday ahead of the Aug. 31 season opener in Minneapolis.

That the primetime bout on Fox happens on a Thursday means a fourth straight year of Nebraska starting the season on the road under unusual circumstances. The 2020 pandemic campaign began in late October at Ohio State with only cardboard cutouts on site. A week-zero tilt at Illinois in 2021. A trans-Atlantic flight to Ireland last August.

Now the Matt Rhule era begins on a weeknight against a team that has beaten Nebraska by exactly one touchdown each of the last three years.

The last time the Huskers played a regular-season game on a Thursday was quarterback Taylor Martinez’s breakout at Kansas State in 2010. The last time Nebraska opened on a Thursday — or any non-Saturday — was at Oklahoma State in 1995.

The Huskers took Sunday and Monday off in the latest mile marker of the upcoming campaign. One more deep breath before a three-month grind.

“They’ll get a chance to kind of recover now,” Rhule said Saturday. “We’ve gone really hard — for some of them, it’s the hardest they’ve probably ever done. And it’s good.”

The first-year Nebraska coach said there’s still much to do before full focus turns to the Gophers. The team will practice Tuesday and Wednesday before a “mock game” Thursday night that will test the Huskers more mentally than physically.

That time under the lights will influence the last bits of a depth chart NU figures to debut Friday.

The kicker competition, for one — Rhule said freshman Tristan Alvano worked with the top group Saturday after veteran Timmy Bleekrode had done so for much of camp.

Kick returners, the secondary and defensive line may be among other areas whose pecking order could use more clarification.

“That Thursday night mock game is important to me,” Rhule said. “I like to get out on the field under the lights — obviously we’re playing a night game. Guys have been tired, they’ve been going to class, they’ve been doing homework. Just kind of see who performs.”

The early part of the week could also affect who is awarded a Blackshirt — those names will be revealed when NU starts game prep, Rhule said. The same with who else earns a coveted single-digit jersey number with Nos. 6, 8 and 9 still available. Nebraska will also announce one more walk-on going on scholarship after safety and special teams contributor Phalen Sanford got the good news last week.

Rhule said he values timing the onset of opponent preparation “perfectly” so player excitement hasn’t waned by game day. The next few days might not be standard or fit the in-season routine of what’s to come, but they’re too precious to waste on anything other than getting better.

Said Rhule: “Really, that Friday will be truly, ‘Hey, hang everything up. We’re in game week.’”

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