Nebraska Football: Lack of Development Fuels Nebraska’s NFL Draft Streak Being Snapped

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This year, Nebraska broke a 56-year streak of having at least one player selected in the NFL draft. After suffering through two consecutive 4-8 seasons, and having the memory of seeing streak after streak fall in the early 2000s, Nebraska fans had an uncomfortable sense of déjà vu at the end of the last round of this year’s draft, seeing players from such football powerhouses such as Valdosta State, Idaho, and Morgan State get selected over any Cornhuskers.

What made it worse for Nebraska is that two Omaha kids who didn’t end up as Huskers – North Dakota State’s Easton Stick went in the fifth round to the San Diego Los Angeles Chargers and Iowa’s Noah Fant went with the twentieth pick in the first round to the Denver Broncos.

After Iowa had four draft picks this year – including two tight ends in the first round – if there was evern any question about whether Iowa-Nebraska is a rivalry, you can put that to bed.

(Also, for no really good reason other than to pour fuel on the fire, here’s a great article by Brandon Vogel of Hail Varsity explaining how Iowa could have two first-round tight ends and still end a season no. 92 nationally in yards per play and no. 79 in pass yards per play).

Still, the fact remains that recently Iowa has done a much better job of getting Hawkeyes into the NFL than Nebraska, even though Nebraska is recruiting better talent. Take a look at the comparison of the last six years’ worth of recruiting rankings (from 247 Sports) and NFL draft picks (the rounds of each pick are in parenthesees.

Year NU Recruiting NU Draft Picks UI Recruiting UI Draft Picks
2019 18 0 40 4 (1, 1, 4, 4)
2018 23 1 (6) 39 3 (2, 2, 4)
2017 23 1 (5) 41 4 (3, 4, 5, 5)
2016 26 4 (3, 3, 4, 6) 47 1 (7)
2015 30 3 (2, 2, 5) 59 3 (1, 3, 4)
2014 35 3 (2, 3, 6) 58 4 (3, 3, 4, 4)

Please, don’t start with the whole thing about how recruiting rankings don’t matter. You’re wrong. So if Nebraska has been an average of 21.5 recruiting ranking spots better than Iowa over the last six years, why are so many more Hawkeyes hearing their names being called by Roger Goodell (or an orangutan) at the NFL Draft?

Three words. Development, development, development.

Iowa has a formula of drafting kids that fit their scheme and their culture, developing and improving them, and sending them to the NFL. It’s been amazingly effective in helping Iowa overachieve what their recruiting rankings say it should achieve. Wisconsin follows the same model.

Nebraska has struggled mightily in development. Bo Pelini had his share of NFL success, but that tailed off towards the end of his tenure. And even for a dope who wrote a near-tear-stained goodbye to Mike Riley, it’s hard not to see Nebraska’s recent NFL drought (no first-rounder since 2011, no second-day draftee since 2015, only two total in three years) as an indictment on Riley’s tenure in Lincoln.

Nebraska’s NFL pipeline was already slowed to a trickle almost immediately after Riley arrived. And when Scott Frost and his coaching staff took over, they had difficulty hiding their shock and contempt at the state of Nebraska’s physical and mental conditioning.

So, Husker Fan, you can look at this two ways. First, it should be a cold splash of reality as to the state of the program. As fans, we convince ourselves that glory is always just around the corner, just about to fall into our grasp.

Having Nebraska’s NFL streak snapped should be a stark reminder that while NU may have the recruited talent to compete and in at least in the B1G West, the shocking lack of talent development means Nebraska still has a big hole out of which to climb.

The silver lining? Nebraska’s current coaching staff understand the importance of development, and has a track record of taking far less heralded talent and sending them to the NFL. That’s the hook you hang your hope on for 2019 and beyond.

GBR, baby.

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Nebraska Football: Position-by-Position Breakdown of the Spring Game

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On Saturday, Nebraska had its final practice of the spring, and over 85,000 people happened to show up and watch. The Spring Game, won by the Red squad 24-13, gave Nebraska fans a booster shot of football to get them through the long hot summer before South Alabama Week arrives.

Sure, it looked like a game and it sounded like a game. But remember, it’s just practice, and just one practice at that. So the standard caveat of “don’t read too much into this” applies. Having said that, though, it’s all we’ve got to work with, so let’s take a look position-by-position and see what we’ve learned about Nebraska’s upcoming campaign.

Quarterback

Weirdly, it’s easy to forget about Adrian Martinez. Closing Time is not only consistently remarkable, but he is so mature and undramatic that he’s easy to think of as a known quantity. And in a time where Nebraska has so many other questions to answer, fans can be forgiven for filing the signal-caller away and thinking “we’re good, Adrian’s here.”

That’s not wrong, of course. But it makes it easy to forget just how good 2AM is. Check out his touchdown throw here (starting at 0:51) and you’ll see what I mean. Martinez rolls to his left, uses his acceleration to evade a defender, then on the run against his body delivers a perfect 21-yard strike to a well-covered Jaron Woodyard.

It was a remarkable feat, but it feels like the play was somewhat lost in the shuffle only because we seem inured to Martinez’s consistent displays of awesome. (And that’s not even taking into account Woodyard’s amazing hoodie he wore under his pads!) We shouldn’t. Martinez is the most talented offensive player that’s worn scarlet-and-cream since Ameer Abdullah, and that’s just seeing him as a freshman. I maintain that he’s the second coming of Russell Wilson, and Nebraska fans should not take that for granted.

Behind Martinez, Noah Vedral looked smooth and confident, much different than the tentative and rusty version of himself we saw against Bethune-Cookman last year. Clearly, not being bounced between Nebraska and UCF and being able to settle into his role has made a difference. Andrew Bunch also looked solid and smooth, clearly benefitting from a year in the program.

Running Back

Keep in mind that there are four players (incoming freshmen Ronald Thompkins and Rahmir Johnson, transfer Dedrick Mills, and sophomore Maurice Washington) that didn’t play in the Spring Game this year. So the guys we saw on Saturday have a steep hill to climb just to make the two-deep.

Having said that, Jaylin Bradley looked good, with great lateral movement and decisiveness. Brody Belt and Wyatt Mazour were both very effective in the roles they were given. And Miles Jones got a good look on the White squad, although he still looks more effective as a pass-catcher rather than a running back.

Wide Receiver

Much like with running back, it’s hard to judge what we saw with the absence of incoming freshman Wan’Dale Robinson and junior JD Spielman. A number of players had opportunities to make a splash, and really didn’t. Woodyard looked good with his touchdown grab (and his hoodie!) but also missed a reception on the sideline. Andre Hunt seemed to get more into the game in the second half, and certainly has the frame to be the X receiver Nebraska is looking for. Jaime Nance had a few opportunities to show off his speed but was largely contained. And Kade Warner got loose again for a big play early in the game – do not be surprised if Warner ends up as a starter once we get to South Alabama week.

Tight End

A sneaky strength of the team. Projected starter Jack Stoll was unable to participate, so we got to see a lot of Austin Allen, Kurt Rafdal, and Katerian LeGrone. All three – although more Allen and LeGrone in this game – demonstrated the type of mismatches that these massive pass-catchers can present to a defense. Having an offensive difference-maker at tight end has been a unicorn Nebraska has hunted for many years – but 2019 might be the year it bears fruit.

Offensive Line

It looks like the tackles for Nebraska’s offensive line are pretty well set, with Brendon Jaimes and Matt Farniok installed on the ends. It’s in the middle that the questions arise. Walkons Boe Wilson and Trent Hixson look to be in pole position at guard, while the center position looks up in the air with competition between converted tight end Cameron Juergens, walkon AJ Forbes, and redshirt freshman Will Farniok in the mix.

“In the air” might be a poor choice of words for the center competition, as a number of the shotgun snaps were errant enough that the quarterbacks had to show off their athletic ability to keep the ball off the ground and avoid a disaster. Center in specific, and offensive line in general, is the biggest question about Nebraska going into 2019.

Defensive Line

The strength of the 2019 squad, at least at this point. Nebraska’s defensive line – particularly at nose tackle – finally look the part of a Big Ten defensive line. The Daniels brothers (Darrion and Damion) and the Davis brothers (Khalil and Carlos) look ready to be far more stout against the run and generate an interior pass rush. Add in Ben Stille, and newly-added junior college transfer Jahkeem Green, and the defensive line could go from a disappointment in 2018 to a strength in 2019.

Linebacker

At inside linebacker, Mohammed Barry may well be the best player on the defensive squad. The depth behind him, though, is what is of concern. Collin Miller looked the part next to him, with Nebraska needing to count on a return to health from Will Honas and a contribution from true freshman Jackson Hannah for 2019.

At outside linebacker, JoJo Domann looks to be settled in to his role, and with some additional depth at safety it may be that he can settle there. Alex Davis looked the role as a pass rusher and athletic coverage weapon – but he did at last year’s Spring Game, so a word of caution still needs to be heard. Quayshon Alexander and Breon Dixon also showed flashes, which may help provide depth.

Secondary

Nebraska’s starting cornerbacks, Lamar Jackson and Dicaprio Bootle, are pretty well set. Cam Taylor will likely be the third cornerback up next season, with incoming freshmen like Noa Pola-Gates and Myles Farmer likely to get their first look at corner.

At safety, Deontai Williams looked to be the best athlete of the crew last season, and if he’s learned the defense then he could be the breakout Blackshirt of 2019. Marquel Dismuke looked comfortable at the other safety position, with Cam’ron Jones and C.J. Smith pushing for playing time.

Specialists

No one really stood out punting, meaning that Isaac Armstrong likely will be keeping his role at starter. Caleb Lightbourn announced that he was transferring, which will leave Armstrong a clear field at the position.

As for placekicker, well … *whispers* Barret Pickering hasn’t missed a kick since October 13, 2018, at Northwestern. It seemed like Nebraska fans kind of set their impressions of Pickering based on his early season struggles last year – and, in fairness, Pickering’s missed kicks (a field goal and an extra point) likely cost Nebraska a win in Evanston. But he also was a crucial part of Nebraska’s all-grit win over Michigan State, kicking three field goals in the snow. A smart and particularly handsome analyst referred to Nebraska as Kicker U, and just maybe Pickering can be next in that legacy.

GBR, baby.

Nebraska Football: What to Watch For at the Spring Game

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On Saturday, Nebraska will conclude Spring Practice with the annual Red-White Spring Game. Of course, it’s not exactly a game, more the final practice of the season with 90,000 fans watching. So everything about the Spring Game should be taken with that particular grain of salt in mind.

Of course, the most important thing to watch for on Saturday is simply this – we get to see Nebraska football again. We haven’t seen Nebraska football since Black Friday in Iowa City, so getting this fix will help tide us all over until it’s South Alabama week.

But there are a few things to keep an eye on as you watch head coach Scott Frost run his second Spring Game at Nebraska.

Standout Freshmen

One of the most exciting parts about the Spring Game is the chance to see the early-enrollee freshman on the field and get a glimpse of the future. Wide receiver Wan’Dale Robinson, of course, is the crowning jewel of these freshmen, although injuries may limit what he’s able to accomplish on Saturday. Receiver Jaime Nance and tight end Chris Hickman could also provide a view of what’s to come for Nebraska as additional offensive weapons. And Nebraska fans could be very excited to see a glimpse of quarterback Luke McCaffrey, and if nothing else have some faith that Nebraska’s offense won’t fall off a cliff if something happens to Adrian Martinez.

A Number One in the Making?

Junior wide receiver JD Spielman is the only real certainty coming back at wide receiver for Nebraska. After that, there’s a whole bunch of questions. And Spielman, while a dangerous receiver, doesn’t necessarily have the skill set to be a true number one receiver, with the body size and type to absorb that level of completions

So who on the spring roster could make a move for that position? According to the Lincoln Journal-Star, offensive coordinator Troy Walters said that Andre Hunt has been continuing to improve. Jaron Woodyard and Mike Williams never really grabbed their opportunity last year. Jaevon McQuitty should have his first real opportunity this year after injury.  Kade Warner got plenty of playing time last year, but would need to show he’s got the skill set to step up into that expanded role.

Running Back Opportunity

One of Nebraska’s biggest question marks next year will be at running back. Maurice Washington is clearly the best returning back, but the uncertainty regarding his legal situation in California leaves his ability to contribute next season in doubt. In the fall, Nebraska should have transfer Dedrick Mills and freshmen Rahmir Johnson and Ronald Thompkins to compete for playing time.

That means this spring will be critical for sophomore running back Jaylin Bradley, along with redshirt freshman Brody Belt and senior Wyatt Mazour, to make their mark. Keep your eye on these players to see if they will be able to stake a claim for a spot on the depth chart once the running back room fills up this fall.

Offensive Line Composition

It might not be easy to get a handle on what the starting offensive lineup is looking to be, in part because the depth chart is still in flux, according to Hail Varsity. Competition for center should be one of the most fascinating, to see if Cameron Jurgens can complete his transition from tight end (!) to center. Walkons Hunter Miller and Trent Hixson look like they have real shots to earn playing time. Brendan Jaimes should be locked in at tackle, but it will be interesting to see if Matt Farniok can stick at the other tackle spot, or ultimately move inside once freshman phenom Bryce Benhart arrives this fall.

Second Season Chances

Either through injury or getting buried on the depth chart, there’s a number of players who didn’t meet their potential in their first year in Lincoln last year. 2019 provides a fresh start and, for many of them, a second chance to make their mark on the program.

Redshirt freshman Miles Jones, with his combination of speed and elusiveness, looked tailor made to play in Frost’s offense, but injuries derailed his 2018 campaign. Same for junior middle linebacker Will Honas, who was thought to be one of the keys to defensive coordinator Erik Chinander’s transition last season, but was sidelined by injury. When sophomore outside linebacker Breon Dixon transferred to Nebraska from Ole Miss, it was hard not to be excited about a player with SEC speed being added to the depth chart. Dixon was never able to find much in the way of playing time last year, though, and 2019 should give him a chance to be the answer to Nebraska’s pass rush problems.

Keep your eye on these three and whether they are able to lay a claim to playing time this fall.

GBR, baby.

Nebraska Football: Osborne’s Legacy as Athletic Director Defined by Big Ten Membership

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Earlier this week, Nebraska athletic director Bill Moos announced that Fred Hoiberg would replace Tim Miles as head men’s basketball coach. For a long-suffering fanbase, Nebraska basketball fans were very excited, and Moos received a lot of praise for his hiring of Hoiberg and head football coach Scott Frost.

Of course, Moos deserves a lot of credit. In fourteen months, Moos has basically remade the face of Nebraska’s two most prominent revenue sports. And with that praise, inevitably there came some discussion about how Moos’ performance as athletic director compared to Tom Osborne. As summarized by a smart and particularly handsome analyst:

Initially I had thought that criticizing Osborne for anything amongst the Nebraska fanbase would be a dangerous proposition. But it turns out there is a contingent of the fanbase more than willing to question Osborne’s tenure at the helm of Nebraska athletics.

That tenure is, of course, open to criticism. It was Osborne’s decision to hire Bo Pelini as a replacement for Bill Callahan. Pelini ended up being a very divisive figure in the Nebraska fanbase, and was not able to deliver the success fans wanted in his seven-year tenure. Osborne also hired Tim Miles as head men’s basketball coach. Miles’ inability to deliver an NCAA tournament win in his seven-year tenure, combined with fans’ frustration about Osborne-hired head baseball coach Darin Erstad, has soured some on Osborne’s tenure as athletic director.

It’s fair comment. Osborne’s major hires as athletic director were certainly defensible at the time, but none have panned out. And coach hiring is one of the primary metrics you would ordinarily use to judge the success and legacy of an athletic director.

But notice the word “ordinary” there. Osborne was not Nebraska’s athletic director in ordinary times. Sherman, set the Wayback Machine for the summer of 2010. Nebraska was still in its unhappy marriage with the Big XII conference, but the problems were growing. Northern schools like Nebraska were always concerned about how the league tilted in favor of Texas, and the announcement of the Longhorn Network made those concerns even more stark.

Things really got serious, though, when rumors began to swirl that Texas was in conversation to take Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, and Texas Tech to the then-Pac-10 conference. With Missouri already having flirted with the Big 10 and Colorado with the Pac-10, it seemed almost a certainty that the Big XII would not survive for long. And for a program like Nebraska, without a massive population base, being frozen out of a conference home was an existential threat.

It was Osborne that faced down that threat, along with then-university chancellor Harvey Perlman. Osborne and Perlman ultimately pulled off the biggest pre-emptive strike, convincing the Big Ten Conference to accept Nebraska as a member.

The move was, to say the least, contentious. Nebraska would be abandoning rivalries with its former Big 8 partners that had lasted for over a hundred years. It would be sailing into uncharted territory, having to be the new guy on the block and competing for attention with blue-blood programs like Michigan and Ohio State.

But in retrospect, the move has paid off. Indeed, the decision to move Nebraska into the Big Ten is the most important one in the history of the Nebraska athletic program. Doing so has all-but-guaranteed Nebraska’s ability to continue as a top-flight college athletic program for the indefinite future. It has funneled more money into the program’s coffers (to the tune of $37 million dollars for fiscal year 2018, according to USA Today).

The importance of that decision, though, can only be seen in imagining the counterfactual. Take, for example, Connecticut athletics. Sure, UConn and Nebraska don’t have the same history or national brand. But it’s not like UConn has no history – in basketball terms, UConn has been a blue-blood for a long time.

Before the conference realignments in the early 2000s, UConn was a founding member of the Big East conference, which was a premier college basketball conference and a member of the BCS. Big East membership for UConn guaranteed the Huskies a seat at the table as a major program in both NCAA revenue sports.

Then the Big East fell apart. Between 2011 and 2012, West Virginia, Louisville, Syracuse, Rutgers, and Notre Dame all left the conference for different homes. Seeing the danger, UConn tried but failed to get itself into the ACC. Trying to stay relevant in football – the all-important sport for revenue purposes – the remaining Big East school made a last-gasp grab and added Tulane.

But adding Tulane – and the travel to Louisiana that the addition would require – was enough for the Big East’s basketball-only schools (St. John’s, Georgetown, Providence, Marquette, DePaul, and Villanova) to break off and form a new conference. That left UConn truly without a home.

Now, UConn is competing in both football and basketball in the American Athletic Conference, a “non-power-five” conference. In addition to being all-but-frozen out of the College Football Playoff and being a “mid-major” in basketball, the move has had significant financial implications for UConn. The AAC’s television payout for 2016-17 was $74.47 million – compared with the Big Ten’s payout of $531 million for the same period, according to the Orlando Sentinel.

(A great breakdown of the Big East’s collapse can be found at SB Nation.)

Again, Nebraska isn’t UConn. But it’s not hard to imagine a dystopian future for Nebraska if Osborne wasn’t able to secure Big Ten membership. Imagine a world where Texas takes those four schools and Colorado to the Pac-10. Texas A&M and Missouri bolt for the SEC. And let’s imagine that Notre Dame rather than Nebraska becomes the Big Ten’s twelfth member.

Where would Nebraska be in that scenario? The remaining five teams (Kansas, Kansas State, Iowa State, Baylor, and Nebraska) would have been without a conference home and scrambling. While Nebraska would certainly be the most attractive of those remaining, it’s easy to see how NU could have ended up in the Mountain West with schools like Wyoming, or in a far-flung nationwide conference like Conference USA.

Either of those scenarios – which would be best-case scenarios without the Big Ten golden ticket – would put Nebraska athletics in a very similar circumstance to UConn’s current plight. It was Osborne’s leadership (along with Perlman and the rest of the Nebraska brass) that helped NU avoid disaster and protect its place amongst the elite of college athletics.

So criticize Osborne’s coach hires all you want. But solely on the basis of getting Nebraska into the Big Ten, Osborne deserves a statue for his tenure as Nebraska athletic director.

GBR, baby.