Nebraska Football: Why an Eight-Win Season in 2018 Isn’t Out of the Question for the Cornhuskers

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Long-time columnist Steven M. Sipple of the Lincoln Journal-Star tried – unsuccessfully – to talk himself out of predicting an eight-win season for Nebraska in 2018.

There’s plenty of reasons to be doubtful of Nebraska getting to eight wins next year. Primarily, NU is coming off a 4-8 season last year, and going from four wins to eight would be a massive jump. Nebraska has an entirely new coaching staff, and will be learning an entirely new offensive and defensive structure. Nebraska’s starting quarterback will almost assuredly be either redshirt freshman Tristan Gebbia or true freshman Adrian Martinez, neither of which have played a down of college football.

Sipple listed a number of reasons, including the departure of defensive coordinator Bob Diaco, the depth of the running backs, the strength of the wide receivers, and the track record of new head coach Scott Frost as causes for his optimism. All of those are well founded.

But Sipple didn’t mention another reason why Husker Fan might allow a little irrational exuberance to creep into the imagination as the new season dawns. Here are the five-year recruiting averages for all of Nebraska’s 2018 opponents, as compiled by SB Nation’s Bill Connelly.

Akron 124
Colorado 57
Troy 102
Michigan 22
Purdue 69
Wisconsin 35
Northwestern 53
Minnesota 48
Ohio State 2
Illinois 59
Michigan State 23
Iowa 46

Nebraska’s five-year recruiting average is no. 25. That means only three teams on NU’s 2018 schedule (Michigan, Ohio State, and Michigan State) have better overall talent than Nebraska.

Now, I can hear all kinds of objections being raised to this analysis. First of all, I know a bunch of you are going to be telling me that recruiting ratings are just guessing games, and that the stars don’t matter.

Well, you’re wrong. Sure, for individual players, a five-star rating isn’t a guarantee of stellar performance. But the five-year averages are looking at recruiting in the aggregate, and the numbers are pretty hard to ignore. According to Stuart Mandel,

Power 5 teams (of which there are 65) that consistently recruit Top 20 classes have a 60 percent chance of becoming a Top 20 program and a 35 percent chance of regularly inhabiting the Top 10.

By contrast, Power 5 teams that finish outside the Top 20 in recruiting have a lower than 18 percent chance of fielding Top 20 teams and just a 6.7 percent chance of reaching the Top 10.

There’s no perfect gauge, of course, for determining a team’s talent level. But given how predictive recruiting averages are to a team’s performance, those averages are as close as we can get to quantifying talent levels.

In other words …

Now, the other argument I can hear is probably much stronger. Sure, talent level matters, but it ain’t everything. Wisconsin is ten spots below Nebraska in the five-year recruiting average, and is 6-1 against NU since Nebraska joined the B1G. Iowa is 21 spots below Nebraska, and has beaten NU in three straight games by an aggregate score of 124-44. Northwestern (no. 53) beat Nebraska last year. Heck, even Minnesota (no. 48) hung 54 on Nebraska last year.

So obviously, just because Nebraska has better on-paper talent than teams on its schedule is no guarantee of victory. Coaching, home field, system familiarity and fit, injuries, and any other number of variables go into that equation as well.

But looking at the recruiting averages gives you at least some gauge of how the teams stack up on paper. And because Nebraska stacks up well against a number of its opponents from a recruiting average standpoint, analysts like Sipple can at least make an argument how a new coaching staff and new structures can help erase the deficits in other areas and make games against teams like Wisconsin and Iowa winnable.

Now, is an eight-win season for Nebraska likely? I tend to think not, and that six wins should be the target for Frost’s first season.

But the recruiting averages (and the points Sipple makes) at least makes the case for an eight-win 2018 a colorable one.

GBR, baby.

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Nebraska Football: New Cornhuskers Uniforms A Step Backwards (And A Bold Proposal)

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It had to happen. This run of feel-good perfection couldn’t last forever.

After Scott Frost was announced as Nebraska’s new head football coach in December of last year, everything has been sunshine and rainbows in HuskerLand. The prodigal son has come home, and with his return it’s only a matter of time before Nebraska football returns to glory.

With this focus on the past, it probably shouldn’t come as a surprise that adidas has tweaked Nebraska’s uniforms for the upcoming season

Notice anything different? There are a few changes (like no “N” on the hip of the home pants and the “Winning Tradition” patch higher up on the jersey) but it looks like there is one big modification.

The stripes are gone from the pants.

I’ll admit, it’s not entirely clear from adidas’ marketing whether the stripes are gone. But it sure looks like it, and it makes sense if their going for a nineties-era vibe for Nebraska under Frost.

After all, when Nebraska was the most dominant program in college football, NU was rocking the stripeless pants. When Tommie Frazier was galloping through an exhausted Florida defense, he was doing so sans stripe. When Frost himself was advocating to give “Tom Osborne, that great man, a national championship … at least a share” after vanquishing Peyton Manning’s Volunteers, he did so without a stitch of a strip on his legs.

So why, you may ask, shouldn’t Nebraska throw its pants back to the nineties and lay claim to that heritage.

I’ll tell you why, dear reader. Because it looks terrible.

Nebraska went stripeless-pants for an alternate uniform last year, against Wisconsin, so we’ve got some recent evidence to compare. Here’s what the scarlet and cream look like both with stripes and without.

I get the nostalgia. I get the yearning for better days. But clear your head for just a moment and look at these pictures. The stripes on the pants just objectively look better. They provide length and color agreement. Football pants without stripes are just blobs of shiny color.

The NFL knows this to be true. Check out the Gridiron Uniform Database, and you’ll find there’s only two uniform sets in the whole league that go without stripes – the Baltimore Ravens home uniform and the New Orleans Saints alternate blacks.

Or, as the definitive UniWatch blog refers to them, yoga pants.

Take the Saints, for example.

You can see how gorgeous the Saints’ uniforms look with well-designed pants – meaning pants with stripes on them – compared to the yoga pants.

Yes, I know that Nebraska went stripeless in the nineties, and we all want that era of Nebraska football back. But in the nineties, we also thought that platform shoes and brightly-colored windbreakers looked good, that Limp Bizkit’s cover of “Faith” rocked, and that “Batman and Robin” was as good as a superhero movie could get.

We know better now. For the love of heaven, Husker Fan, don’t let your desperation for a return to college football glory blind you to the sartorial catastrophe about to befall Nebraska Football.

#savethestripes

You want a uniform modification that really moves things forward? Here’s my humble proposal.

Right now, Nebraska uses pretty standard block numerals, which makes sense given the “Iron N” logo they’ve adopted.

But it doesn’t really match with the skinny N on the helmet. On the helmet, you have a thin sans-serifed N, and then a heavy, block numeral. It doesn’t really match.

So how do you fix it? You sure as heck aren’t going to mess with the N on the helmet. So what do you do?

The answer is there already. Look closer at the gorgeous numerals Nebraska has worn on the back of its helmets for ages.

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Why not import those numerals onto the uniform itself? Then everything from pants to jersey to helmet would all match. Plus, Nebraska would be cleaning up its look, but would be giving a nod to its history by mimicking the numbers on the historic Stadium Clock inside Memorial Stadium (just ignore the goofball with the two awesome kids standing in front of it).

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Here’s a terrible, terrible Photoshop of what the uniform alteration might look like.

NU Prototype

This is the past Nebraska should be embracing – with stripes on its pants as it comes out of the tunnel.

GBR, baby.

 

Nebraska Football: Five Biggest Additions of Frost’s Overhaul of the Cornhuskers’ Roster

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When Scott Frost was announced as Nebraska’s new head football coach, fans were understandably thrilled with visions of returning to the glory days of the nineties.

Little did they suspect that some of that nineties glory would be Kansas State head coach Bill Snyder’s junior-college-heavy roster building tactics.

Since arriving in Lincoln, Nebraska has added eight (!) junior-college transfers (as observed by Brandon Cavanaugh of Athlon Sports) and a total of 51 (!!) new players since December (according to Parker Gabriel of the Lincoln Journal-Star). Indeed, according to Gabriel, 36.4 percent of the 140 players currently on the roster have been added since December 2017.

That’s … a lot. And it means that Frost was serious about creating an entirely new Nebraska program. So when you see Nebraska come out of the tunnel against Akron on September 01, there will be a lot of new faces and new names to process.

You can keep track of Nebraska’s roster with our own Roster Distribution page, of course. But to help you out, here’s a list of the five biggest new additions to the roster that will help define Frost’s first year in charge.

Tre Neal (S)

Neal’s recruiting numbers won’t blow you away, being a 247 Sports composite 0.8385 as a recruit. But don’t underestimate the importance of this graduate transfer from UCF arriving in Lincoln. Neal was effective in his time with the Knights, and more importantly he has an intimate knowledge of defensive coordinator Eric Chinander’s system. Look for him to see the field right away and be critical in helping the rest of Nebraska’s secondary get on the same page.

Will Honas (ILB)

Nebraska’s linebacker depth coming into 2018 was a little shaky, to put it charitably. Mohammed Barry and Dedrick Young are clearly the class of the returners, but behind them at inside linebacker was only one other scholarship player, Avery Roberts.

So the addition of Honas provides not only depth at the position, but a player ready to start on day one, giving an instant infusion to a position of need for Nebraska.

Vaha Vainuku (DL)

The cliché in all of sports is that you can’t coach size. At six-foot-three and 295 pounds, Vainuku has the frame to fit in immediately at any role in Nebraska’s 3-4 defensive line setup. And while his skill-set may lean more ideally to defensive end, Nebraska’s lack of depth at nose tackle means Vainuku can both literally and figuratively fill a significant hole for NU in 2018.

Breon Dixon (OLB)

One team’s misfortune is always another team’s gain. With Mississippi’s NCAA troubles, their highly-regarded (and at times illegally recruited) stars became available for transfer. Dixon, a four-star linebacker, was targeted by Nebraska, and ultimately given clearance to play right away by the NCAA.

The addition of Dixon at outside linebacker gives Nebraska an instant infusion of SEC-level talent at a position of need. For a team that ranked no. 119 nationally (!) in sacks last year (according to CFB Stats), adding a talent like Dixon could make a huge difference for Frost’s version of the Blackshirts in 2018.

Maurice Washington (RB)

Yeah, I know this probably should be Greg Bell, the junior-college running back transfer that is likely your starting tailback for Nebraska in 2018. Bell’s skills are amazing, and his addition gives Nebraska an instant-impact offensive performer, especially if injuries continue to hamper Tre Bryant’s development at the position.

But I’m including Washington, a true freshman, instead both for what he brings to the field and for the nature of his recruitment. Washington was Nebraska’s third-highest rated offensive recruit (behind quarterback Adrian Martinez and tight end Cameron Jurgens) in 2018, but it looked for the longest time like he would be an academic casualty and at best need a redshirt year and burn a scholarship hole for NU.

That didn’t happen, though, because Washington was able to get his academics cleared and be eligible for 2018. Frost and his staff never waivered on Washington, and their perseverance helped make sure that Nebraska has a potentially game-changing tailback in the mix this season. And with the new redshirt rules that allow players to participate in up to four games without losing redshirt eligibility, it is even more likely that Washington will get an opportunity to show his skills for Nebraska in 2018.

GBR, baby.

Nebraska Football: Three Takeaways from Scott Frost’s First B1G Media Days Appearance

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You know football is getting close when you see coaches and players wearing suits and talking to reporters. That’s what happened in Chicago when Nebraska and head coach Scott Frost opened up B1G Media Days. Here are three quick takeaways about what Nebraska’s new head man said to the assembled media.

The Buzz is Real

According to Sam McKewon of the Omaha World-Herald, Frost was supposed to share a stage with Penn State quarterback Trace McSorley. Plans had to change when someone pointed out that the assembled crowd might be too big to accommodate both Nebraska’s new head man and the league’s best returning quarterback.

And it’s not just the assembled media for B1G Media Days that have their eyes on Nebraska. Check out what ESPN’s David Pollack had to say about Nebraska on Twitter.

There Was Some Shade Thrown At Previous Coaches

It wasn’t explicit. It wasn’t out loud. But it was pretty clear that Frost wasn’t happy with the status of how he found Nebraska’s football program.

According to a transcript of Frost’s remarks from the Lincoln Journal-Star:

It’s not one thing. We’ve got to get Xs and Os installed. We’ve got to change the way guys think. We’ve got to make sure they care about each other and making decisions based on what’s best for the team first; that we’re getting to work in the weight room and changing that; that we’re in better shape; that we get faster kids; that we recruit better. All those things have to go together. You can’t change any one of those things overnight. All of them are a process.

That’s a more general, if softer, criticism of the previous regime. But here, according to McKewon, is what he had to say about the infamous story about Nebraska not doing any squats under previous head coach Mike Riley.

Well, Frost said, they did some front squats. But they weren’t Husker Power squats. It wasn’t linemen squatting more than 700 pounds, plates gently bending bars like heat does a tree. It wasn’t the lifting Frost prefers — and knows he’s getting — under the guidance of strength and conditioning coach Zach Duval, whom Frost continued to present as a linchpin to Nebraska’s success.

He’s Setting A High Bar

Frost identified Wisconsin as his first target in engineering Nebraska’s resurgence. And he did it in a way that acknowledged the current reality of the relationship between the two teams

But Frost has his eyes set on where he wants to see the program under his leadership, according to the Omaha World-Herald.

“Nebraska belongs in the upper echelon of college football.”

 

Nebraska Football: What New Redshirt Rules Mean for the Cornhuskers

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Wednesday, the NCAA adopted new rules that will have a significant impact on college football rosters. Under the new rules, players can participate in up to four games in a season and still be eligible to redshirt for that season.

Under the previous rules, participating in even one snap during a season would burn a player’s redshirt for the year unless that player received a medical exemption from the NCAA. Now, a player can participate in up to four games – a quarter of the regular season – and still be able to redshirt and not lose a year of eligibility.

This rule change, which takes effect this coming season, will have a significant effect on how all college football teams manage their rosters. What will those effects be, and how specifically will they affect Nebraska?

DEPTH OPTIONS FOR INJURIES

More than likely, the biggest change this rule will create is the ability for schools to expand the pool of players they can use to cover injuries. Take a look at Nebraska’s roster distribution and you can see an alarming depth situation at a number of key positions.

With the new rule, Nebraska will now be able to press true freshmen in a crisis situation without having to burn their redshirts for one play. So if Nebraska finds itself due to injury or suspension down to a choice between a true freshman scholarship player or a walk-on without the requisite talent to hold up, Nebraska will now not have to factor in the loss of a redshirt season to let that freshman play for a game or four.

This could become even more important on the offensive and defensive lines, when freshmen are given an extra couple of months in the strength and conditioning program to build up size and strength to stand up against B1G competition. Particularly at offensive line, even being able to increase the number of players that can be included in a rotation will help preserve the starters’ ability to last throughout a season.

IN-GAME OPPORTUNITIES FOR PROMISING FRESHMEN

The other significant change that the new redshirt rule will provide is the ability for teams to give immediate in-game opportunities for incoming freshman that could compete for playing time.

As an example, take a look at Jaylin Bradley’s 2017 campaign for Nebraska as a true freshman.

Game Total touches Total yards
Northern Illinois 0 0
Rutgers 6 16
Illinois 1 7
Purdue 7 42
Penn State 1 9
Iowa 9 19
TOTAL 24 93

Under the old system, once Bradley entered the game against Northern Illinois – even though he didn’t touch the ball – his redshirt year was gone.  Whether or not the juice was worth the squeeze with regards to the decision to burn his redshirt season is certainly up for debate. But there’s no question that as a result of the old rule, his sporadic use was a sunk cost.

Under the new rule, Bradley’s entry into the game against Northern Illinois and Rutgers would have still left the coaching staff with the ability to find spots for him to potentially contribute (such as Purdue and Iowa) while protecting his redshirt eligibility.

An even clearer example of how the new rule and avoiding the sunk cost of a burned redshirt could benefit both players and teams is wide receiver Tyjon Lindsey. Here’s Lindsey’s 2017 total offensive output.

Game Total touches Total yards
Arkansas State 0 0
Oregon 2 5
Northern Illinois 0 0
Rutgers 0 0
Illinois 0 0
Wisconsin 0 0
Ohio State 0 0
Purdue 1 3
Northwestern 2 -6
Minnesota 0 0
Penn State 1 1
Iowa 1 1
Total 7 4

Lindsey was one of Nebraska’s most exciting recruits in the 2017 class, and it made perfect sense to get him onto the field and see if his electric skills could make a difference. Unfortunately for Lindsey, it didn’t really work out for him to contribute last year – although, in Lindsey’s defense, not a lot went well for Nebraska last year.

But again, under the old system, once he set foot on the field for one snap against Arkansas State, his redshirt season was gone. Even though the Lindsey experiment was clearly failing, there was no point in not playing him, as the redshirt season was a sunk cost.

Under the new rule, Lindsey would have had four games to demonstrate his ability to contribute on the field. If it wasn’t happening – and boy, was it not happening for Lindsey – then the coaches could have benched Lindsey after those four games and saved a full year of his eligibility.

(Stats from cfbstats.com)

ADDITIONAL MOTIVATION OPPORTUNITIES

Under the old rule, redshirting freshmen pretty much knew they were in for a season of observation. Sure, there’s still plenty of motivation for them to be putting work in for seasons to come. But it’s human nature to have a little extra motivation if you know a payoff for your hard work can come sooner rather than later.

Well, with the new rule there’s another carrot that coaches can use to help drive freshman performance. If a player knows that he could get into four games during the season and not burn a redshirt year, there’s little doubt that will provide a little extra motivational push to perform and earn that playing time.

SPECIFIC ADVANTAGES FOR NEBRASKA

Every school is going to reap the benefits of this new rule, of course. But a program like Nebraska seems poised to take particular advantage of the change.

For schools at the top end, the rule change is going to have limited effect. Part of what makes schools like Alabama and Ohio State such perennial powers is that their rosters are loaded up with blue-chip athletes both young and old. As a result, those schools are far less likely to reach a depth crisis where they would be forced to consider burning a redshirt year to fill a gaping hole in the depth chart due to injury or suspension.

As a result, this de facto expansion of a team’s eligible roster – somewhat akin to Major League Baseball’s expanded rosters in September – should act as somewhat of a leveling device between programs. Because programs such as Nebraska, a tier (or two or three) below teams like Alabama and Ohio State, are more likely to need and use freshmen to fill in depth gaps, the rule change is likely to benefit those lower-tier schools more. That will help close the gap between the Alabamas of the world and those chasing them.

Additionally, because those top-flight schools have stacked rosters already, it would be more difficult for top-tier freshmen to crack the starting lineup. Because those freshmen can see the field earlier without burning a redshirt, the “chasing” programs now have an additional card to play in recruiting battles for highly-regarded prospects – come to a school like Nebraska, and it’s more likely you’ll see the field right away.

The NCAA is quite rightly criticized for any number of things it has done poorly (GIVE US BACK OUR NCAA FOOTBALL VIDEO GAME!!!!) over the years. But this rule change is great. It’s good for the players. It’s good for the schools. And in helping to level the playing field, it’s good for the sport in general.

GBR, baby.

Nebraska Football: More Examples that Huskers-Hawkeyes Is a Rivalry

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Husker Fan, pay attention. Your noisy neighbors are right in your backyard, and they’re raising a ruckus.

On Tuesday, Hawkeye coaches were part of an I-Club booster meeting at the Mid-America Center in Council Bluffs. Hosted by Iowa play-by-play legend Gary Dolphin, the speakers threw a little red meat out for the 200 some Hawkeye fans in attendance (according to the Omaha World-Herald).

I hear everyone is fired up about Scott Frost coming here. Seems like a terrific guy, Dolphin said. But there’s a new Nebraska wave. It’s like this. Five fingers, and now turn your thumb in. That’s the new Nebraska wave, because four of the last five years we’ve kicked your butt.

(Full disclosure. I had no idea what Dolphin was talking about until my Hawkeye fan brother-in-law explained it was referring to Iowa winning four of the last five games against Nebraska, and the “wave” was more “hi, how are you” than “water crashing into the beach.” Apparently Dolphin is decipherable only if you listen to him frequently.)

That’s Dolphin throwing some significant shade at the Big Red neighbors, which is well-earned after Iowa’s recent success on the football field.

Regardless of what a smart and particularly handsome analyst has said, Nebraska fans have been reluctant to embrace Iowa as a rival. Many Nebraska fans still want to look down their noses at Iowa, treating them like Colorado or Kansas State, and pining for a return to an Oklahoma rivalry.

Iowa fans have no such compunctions. While head coach Kirk Ferentz held off on directly firing shots at Nebraska, this interaction (as reported by the World-Herald) is illustrative.

Ferentz said the two highlights of Iowa’s season last year were the wins over Iowa State and Nebraska. He later mentioned the 55-24 win over a ranked Ohio State at home, but when Ferentz mentioned the Nebraska win again, the crowd of about 200 interrupted him in applause.

There’s a couple of things to break down from that paragraph. First, Ferentz views Iowa’s wins over Iowa State and Nebraska as more highlight-worthy than Iowa’s utter decimation of then-fifth-rated Ohio State. That’s insightful in terms of how important Ferentz views beating his neighbors as opposed to the nation’s elite.

But what’s more illustrative is how the crowd reacted. An upset thrashing of Ohio State not only didn’t move the needle for the assembled Hawkeye faithful, but was interrupted by applause when Ferentz referenced the Nebraska win.

Do you get it, Husker Fan? Hawkeye fan really doesn’t like your team. Iowa fans have hated Nebraska since before the Big Red joined the B1G. And beating Nebraska four out of the last five years – the last two games by an aggregate score of 96-24 – is the answer to Hawkeye fans’ wildest dreams.

So what are you going to do, Husker Fan? Are you still going to just sit back and pretend this isn’t happening? Because this whole idea of thinking that you’re too good for a Hawkeye rivalry isn’t really working out for you.

It’s time, Husker Fan. The Hawkeyes have plenty of rivalry hate for you, and they’re right across the river. It’s time to give some of it back to them.

Nebraska Football: Four Takeaways from the Spring Game

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On Saturday, Nebraska’s Red squad handled the White squad, 49-9, in front of a nation-leading 86,818 fans at Memorial Stadium. (Sorry, Iowa). The buzz around new head coach Scott Frost reached fever pitch as Nebraska fans got their first glimpse of their native son returning home to restore the glory of yore.

As always, this caveat for any Spring Game. It’s a practice. One practice. This year, it’s not even the last practice of the spring. So even though it’s the only football we’re going to get until September, it’s really important not to put too much weight into what you saw. Just ask starting quarterback Zack Darlington about that.

With that said, here’s three takeaways from what we saw on Saturday.

Go wide to go deep

Yes, Nebraska’s offense was very vanilla, and the much-vaunted tempo wasn’t anything like what we are likely to see this autumn. But one thing that was very clear is that Nebraska’s offense is intended to attack defenses horizontally. Running the ball, Nebraska attacked the edges with outsize zones, speed options, and zone reads. Throwing the ball, Nebraska showed off a swing pass game, a quick-strike short passing offense, and at least an attempt to get a screen game going.

That attacking of the edges, then, opened up the middle of the field. The best example of that was quarterback Adrian Martinez’ draw play for a touchdown after faking an outside throw.

There’s a lot more to see about Frost’s offense against Akron in September. But at least conceptually, we got a good taste of what’s to come on Saturday.

Contrast in styles

If you were judging on one game, then Martinez was certainly more productive than Tristan Gebbia at quarterback. But there’s little question the two quarterbacks have a very different skill set.

Gebbia, along with surprising walk-on Andrew Bunch, throws a simply gorgeous ball, spun perfectly with consistent accuracy. And while Gebbia did display some instinct and skill as a runner, there’s little doubt he’s more dangerous with his arm than his legs.

Martinez, on the other hand, was more functional as a passer. His stats were great, but the balls he throws simply aren’t the statuesque spirals that Gebbia or Bunch offer. But when Martinez tucks and runs, he’s special. Not only can he accelerate quickly, he has moves in his locker like a hesitation step that will make him a nightmare to defend.

The quarterback battle won’t be decided until the autumn (and maybe not until the first game, like when another freshman quarterback named Martinez was dubbed the starter), but Frost’s choice as his signal-caller will likely tell much of the story of how he wants his offense to work.

A return to pressure?

Hey, that was something we didn’t see a lot of last year. Both of Nebraska’s defensive units were, at times, able to generate pressure and be disruptive forces in the opposing backfield. DaiShon Neal and Alex Davis were certainly the standouts in that category, getting two and three sacks respectively. But it was a team effort in terms of defensive penetration. If there’s anything to hang your hat on in terms of hope for 2018, that performance might be a sneaky category.

Lots of big targets

Wide receiver and tight end are both positions of strength for Nebraska. With leading returners Stanley Morgan and JD Spielman out with injuries, there was plenty of space on Saturday for other guys to get a look. And it was hard not to notice that Nebraska’s got a lot of big guys rumbling down the field looking to catch passes.

Wide receiver Justin McGriff (six-foot-six) had two grabs, Bryan Reimers (six-foot-five) had one, tight end Austin Allen (six-foot-eight) had three, Jack Stoll (six-foot-five) had three, and Kurt Rafdal (six-foot-seven) had one.

That’s five guys that are six-foot-five or taller that got at least one catch on Saturday. It’s also at least a plausible starting five for Tim Miles, in a pinch. Being able to throw that kind of height, especially in volumes, at an opponent can create huge mismatch opportunities.

Nebraska made a living for a little while taking advantage of big-bodied Maurice Purify at wide receiver – and he was “only” six-foot-three. On Saturday, it felt a little bit like Nebraska had a whole stockpile of Maurice Purifys running routes.

GBR, baby.

Nebraska Football – Pre-Spring Game Offensive Preview

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The problem – well, one of the problems – with missing a bowl game is how long you as a fan have to wait to see football. In an ordinary, bowl-game-including season, the longest wait for Nebraska football is from the Spring Game until kickoff of the new season.

But after Nebraska’s 4-8 campaign in 2017, the firing of Mike Riley, and the hiring of Scott Frost, the wait from the end of the 2017 season to the 2018 Spring Game will be even longer. So if it seems like that ugly loss to Iowa on Black Friday was a long time ago, well, it actually was.

Even with snow still on the ground in April, then, spring football is here, and it’s time to start getting ready for what life will be like under Frost. Let’s take a look at the offense first, to get somewhat of an idea of what to expect.

Quarterback – Three schollies and a lot of questions

There’s a whole bunch of unknowns for Nebraska coming into 2018. But one of the biggest unknowns is who will be Nebraska’s signal-caller to start the season.

Nebraska’s two returning scholarship quarterbacks are redshirt sophomore Patrick O’Brien and redshirt freshman Tristan Gebbia. O’Brien has the only returning experience, playing in three games including the entirety of Nebraska’s 54-21 loss to Minnesota. Both O’Brien and Gebbia were recruited to play former head coach Mike Riley’s pro-style system, quite different from Frost’s no-huddle, up-tempo attack.

That doesn’t mean O’Brien or Gebbia couldn’t run Frost’s offense, though. As O’Brien told the Lincoln Journal-Star:

“I’ve been paying attention,” O’Brien said of the Knights. “Their offense is really fast, and they’re a good team. It’s going to be exciting for us to run that here. I feel like I fit in it pretty good. I ran something pretty similar to it in high school, and I feel like it fits my skill set, so I’m just ready to go.”

Also competing for the position will be true freshman Adrian Martinez, a four-star dual-threat quarterback. Frost was not shy about his praise of Martinez, according to Land of 10.

“I’m excited about him. He has a lot of potential,” Frost said. “When I was evaluating quarterbacks a year ago around the country, he was my favorite one. His ability to run and throw and his maturity as a kid are going to serve him really well, and for the offense that we run, I didn’t think there was a better fit in the country. Once we took the Nebraska job, we got a hold of him right away and we’re thrilled to have him on campus.”

So yes, Husker fan, at some point in the near future you’ll have a Martinez slinging the ball around Memorial Stadium. Get ready for your flashbacks.

It’s tempting to thing that Martinez will get the nod when Nebraska tees it up against Akron in September. At Central Florida, Frost didn’t hesitate to play a freshman quarterback in McKenzie Milton. But don’t discount the experience and athleticism of both O’Brien and Gebbia.

It’s likely that Frost and co. will want Martinez to show up ready and win the job. But it’s very unlikely that a true freshman will be able to pull of that feat. Look for O’Brien or Gebbia to get the nod, at least to start the season.

I-Back – Questions about the guys coming back, and the guys showing up

Nebraska looked like it had a real answer at I-back with Tre Bryant. For two games, Bryant looked to be the go-to back Nebraska had been hoping for since Ameer Abdullah,  averaging 5.86 yards per carry and 149.5 yards per game.

But lingering injuries sidelined Bryant for the rest of the season, and he remains a question mark as to what he will be able to contribute in 2018. Devine Ozigbo and Mikale Wilbon will be the backs returning with the most experience. Sophomore Jaylin Bradley flashed some potential, as well, in the limited opportunity he got towards the end of the season. And with the demise of the fullback, it’s likely that Ben Miles will look for his ability to contribute as an I-back, if not on special teams – if he remains part of the program.

This year’s recruiting class, however, has put some new faces into the mix. Junior college transfer Greg Bell was a jewel of the class, and with two years of eligibility left it’s hard not to see Bell competing hard for playing time right away. And on signing day (well, old school signing day anyway), one of Nebraska’s big wins was four-star running back Maurice Washington.

What the I-back position will look like in Frost’s new offense is still an open question. And given the new and returning faces in the room, who will be filling the role next season is just as much of an open question.

Wide Receiver – Stan’s squad

One of the best pieces of news Frost got upon taking the job in Lincoln was learning that wide receiver Stanley Morgan Jr was returning for his senior season. Morgan’s offensive output last year – 61 catches, 987 yards, 10 touchdowns – was one of the bright spots in an otherwise dismal 2017 season. Indeed, while Morgan did break Johnny Rogers’ 1972 single-season receiving record, his chase for 1,000 receiving yards ended up being about the only compelling thing to watch for Nebraska fans as the season wore down.

Also returning is JD Spielman, who had a breakout freshman campaign with 55 receptions, 830 yards, and two touchdowns. Spielman’s game would seem to translate well to Frost’s speed-based offense, and his year of experience should set him up well to contribute next year.

Tyjon Lindsey, one of the prize recruits from last year’s class, also returns with a year of experience. Lindsey struggled to find his place in the offense last year, but he remains one of the players for whom a year of experience and a change in system might pay the biggest rewards.

Nebraska’s also got some returning question marks, including Jaevon McQuitty coming off of an injury, and Keyan Williams looking for an opportunity to make his contribution. There was also a swell of receiving talent arriving in this year’s recruiting class, including junior college transfers like the speedy Jaron Woodyard and big-bodied Mike Williams. Incoming freshmen Miles Jones, Dominick Watt, and Andre Hunt will also find themselves competing for playing time in 2018.

Tight End – Spoiled for choices

Nebraska has one returning tight end with any experience, sophomore Jack Stoll, who hauled in eight catches for 89 yards and two touchdowns in 2017.

So, there’s some holes to fill for Nebraska at the position. The tight end is another position that looks to undergo some big changes in Frost’s offense, and the advantage Frost has is that he’ll have some options to choose from.

Stoll, as the only returning contributor, likely has an advantage in competing for playing time. But he’ll be fighting with oft-injured Matt Snyder, as well as highly-recruited Austin Allen and Kurt Rafdal. And don’t be surprised if Nebraska native David Engelhaupt is in the mix this season as well.

This year’s recruiting class also brought in three big-bodied, move-style tight end weapons in Cameron Jurgens, Katerian Lagrone, and Justin McGriff. So while Nebraska doesn’t have a lot of experience coming back, at the very least it will have a lot of options from which to choose.

Offensive Line – The perennial question

Nebraska should feel comfortable with returning talent at guard, as Tanner Farmer, Jerald Foster, and Brendan Jaimes will all be back. At center, Michael Decker and Cole Conrad will likely be competing for the spot, but both have injury issues that will limit their participation in spring practice.

Tackle is by far the biggest question on Nebraska’s offensive line – and that’s a big position at which to have a question. Matt Farniok will get a shot to slide out to tackle, and it also is time for Broc Bando and Christian Gaylord to step up and make their mark.

Nebraska has some additional line depth – Chris Walker, Boe Wilson, Jalin Barnett, and Matt Sichtermann will all have their opportunities. Freshmen Will Farniok and Willie Canty will be coming to Lincoln, but it’s always a challenge for freshmen linemen to play.

(h/t to Sam McKewon of the Omaha World-Herald for his offensive line preview)

GBR, baby.

All stats courtesy of cfbstats.com unless otherwise stated.

Nebraska Football: Three Takeaways From Cornhuskers’ 2018 Recruiting Class (Plus a Super Six!)

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On Tuesday, Nebraska’s new head coach Scott Frost signed his first recruiting class. With 24 signees, including five junior-college transfers, Nebraska’s 2018 class was rated no. 22 nationally and no. 4 in the B1G by 247 Sports. So what did we learn from Frost’s first full class for Nebraska?

A lot accomplished in a short time

Frost had his work cut out for him when he took the job on December 02, 2017. Much of the class assembled by former head coach Mike Riley was unraveling, and by late December Nebraska’s national recruiting ranking had dipped into the nineties nationally. Mix that in with Frost and his staff coaching Central Florida in the Peach Bowl, and that left Nebraska’s recruiting in a huge hole.

But Frost and his staff dug in and made remarkable progress. A top-25 class for Nebraska in a transition year would be impressive regardless, but to achieve that goal while also coaching Central Florida to a win over Auburn is nothing short of remarkable.

It’s fair to observe that some of Frost’s recruiting ability was drafting off his 13-0 season at Central Florida and the national attention he received from his work in Orlando. Going forward, his accomplishments at UCF will mean far less than what he is – or is not – able to do at Nebraska.

Of course, it’s also fair to observe that next year Frost and his staff won’t be recruiting for one team while preparing another team to compete in a bowl game. So this year will likely be an outlier in terms of the surrounding circumstances – but it’s hard not to come away being impressed with the recruiting haul Frost and his staff were able to bring back to Lincoln.

Success in recruiting hotbeds

In this year’s class, Nebraska got eight (!) recruits from Florida, three from California, two from Georgia, and two from Texas. Those are good places to make inroads, and it appears that Frost’s ties in the Sunshine State from his time at UCF are paying initial dividends.

Additionally, Nebraska is competing at a recruiting level against the level of competition it needs to be. One of the recruits Nebraska just missed on, Javonte Jean-Baptiste, looks like he was going to pick Nebraska over Ohio State were it not for a snowstorm that delayed his decision.

Obviously, Nebraska needs to win those battles at some point. But given how quickly Frost had to get his class up to speed, even being in the running at this point for a talent like that is an encouraging sign.

Recruiting at a championship level

Frost’s return to Nebraska has certainly re-energized the fanbase with visions of returning to old glories. Heck, even the Spring Game is now sold out, demonstrating how desperately hungry the fanbase is for a taste of success.

But Frost’s return also brings out the recruiting skeptics. You know, the ones who believe that all it takes is good coaching and determination to win big in modern college football.

That’s understandable, after Nebraska fans have felt burned by two coaches (Riley and Bill Callahan) who focused heavily on recruiting and did not deliver results on the field.

It’s at this point that I will remind you – again – that there’s no escaping the importance of recruiting. Jason Kirk from SB Nation produced one of the best explanations of why recruiting matters, regardless of the romanticism surrounding all the try-hards in college football. The TL;DR is that if a school doesn’t recruit at an elite level, it’s very difficult to win at an elite level. Here’s what Stuart Mandel had to say on Fox Sports (back when they did more than just video) about the link between recruiting and winning.

Power 5 teams (of which there are 65) that consistently recruit Top 20 classes have a 60 percent chance of becoming a Top 20 program and a 35 percent chance of regularly inhabiting the Top 10.

By contrast, Power 5 teams that finish outside the Top 20 in recruiting have a lower than 18 percent chance of fielding Top 20 teams and just a 6.7 percent chance of reaching the Top 10.

So, sure, you can win with a bunch of two- and three-stars, a lot of coaching, and a lot of pride. But you are far, far more likely to have sustained success if you can recruit at least within the top twenty nationwide.

Nebraska finished it’s 2018 class rated no. 22 nationally, and that’s with a short window and the additional responsibility of Peach Bowl coaching for UCF. If Frost can keep Nebraska at that level of recruiting, then the talent level should be present for Nebraska to compete for conference (and ultimately national) titles.

More importantly, let’s take a look at how Nebraska’s 2018 class stacks up to the rest of the B1G. Nebraska’s B1G West division-mates are listed in italics.

School National Recruiting Rank
Ohio State 2
Penn State 5
Michigan 21
Nebraska 22
Maryland 28
Michigan State 32
Minnesota 37
Iowa 40
Wisconsin 44
Indiana 48
Purdue 49
Illinois 54
Rutgers 57
Northwestern 59

As you can see, Nebraska has significantly out-recruited the rest of the B1G West. If that trend continues, that should give Nebraska a significant talent advantage over all of its divisional rivals.

Of course, talent advantages alone aren’t enough to win games. Nebraska has out-recruited Iowa for years, and has lost its last two games to the Hawkeyes by an aggregate score of 96-24.

Scheme matters. Coaching matters. Development matters. All of those things have been in short supply in Lincoln over the last few years.

But recruiting matters, too. With his first class, Frost has demonstrated he can recruit at Nebraska to the level that he would need to give the fans what they ache for – conference titles and national relevance.

2018 Super Six

(6) Jaron Woodyard (WR). Frost’s offense is built on speed, and no one in this class – and maybe on this roster – has the kind of speed Woodyard possesses. His ability to take the top off defenses changes how Nebraska can attack on offense.

(5) Cam’Ron Jones (S). Not only is he likely the best of a talented group of defensive backs, but Jones could very well get offensive Wildcat-like packages designed to get him on the field.

(4) Will Honas (ILB). Plug-and-play ready to be in the middle of the defense. It’ll be an upset if he’s not a starter when Nebraska plays Akron in September.

(3) Maurice Washington (IB). Nebraska hasn’t had a true home-run threat in the backfield since Ameer Abdullah. In Washington, that streak may have ended. Given the nature of the position, Washington has a great chance to see significant playing time as a freshman.

(2) Caleb Tannor (DE). Yeah, Washington is the flashy guy and he really could be a lot of fun to watch. But Nebraska desperately needs to find a pass rush, and that’s Tannor’s specialty. He and Martinez were the two had-to-get positions in this class.

(1) Adrian Martinez (QB). Sure, it’s the obvious choice. But the fact remains that Frost’s high-speed attack really needs a dual-threat quarterback, and Martinez has been Frost’s choice since he arrived in Lincoln. Don’t be shocked if he sees the field in 2018.

GBR, baby.

Nebraska Football: Why Cornhusker Fans Are So Excited About The Hiring of Scott Frost

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Sometimes, being married to a Hawkeye fan is really helpful (although, other times, not so much). Mrs. DXP – in addition to heroically putting up with all this nonsense – has provided some invaluable perspective as the soap opera we call Nebraska football has churned on. She was ahead of the curve in detesting Bo Pelini, and she adored Mike Riley to the point of considering wearing a scarlet-and-cream shirt.

And she’s already sick of hearing about Scott Frost. What pushed her over the edge, I’m pretty sure, was the fact that Frost’s long-awaited announcement as Nebraska’s new head football coach was heralded by the arrival of a Super Frost Moon in the sky on Saturday.

(As a side note, I should mention that I would watch the heck out of any anime titled “Super Frost Moon” right about now).

How, an exasperated Mrs. DXP asks me, can you guys get so excited about a 42-year-old guy who has only coached at a school for two years? What in the world is the big deal?

That’s fair, I said, and not only because I would prefer not to sleep on the roof for the next couple of weeks. Frost’s hiring has excited the Nebraska fan base in a way that no one else has. There was an element of this excitement when Pelini was hired – you can make the walk of shame now if you have a “My Bo-Friend’s Back” t-shirt stuck in your closet somewhere.

But this is different, for two distinct but related reasons.

Hope

Nebraska’s last conference championship was in 1999. But, really, Nebraska’s exile into the desert of college football irrelevance began with Miami’s 38-14 humiliation of NU in the national championship game. Since then, Nebraska fans have been longing for a return to that national limelight.

Bill Callahan sold hope to the fanbase with a revamped offense, an NFL pedigree, and top-20 recruiting classes. That lasted four years and died with a defensive collapse and a poisoned atmosphere from a fractured fanbase. Pelini sold hope in a no-nonsense toughness, and defensive dominance. That lasted seven years and died in ugly losses to Wisconsin and Ohio State and ugly demonstrations of anger and immaturity on and off the field. Riley sold hope with a pro-style offense and a calm demeanor. That lasted three years and died in .500 mediocrity.

Why did Riley get only three years, not even a full recruiting class? In part, it was a lack of unity within the program – more on that in a moment. But more importantly was the volume of losses, and the nature of the losses in year three, that extinguished hope in the fanbase that Nebraska could ever be successful.

In Rogue One, Jyn Erso said that “rebellions are built on hope.” So are sports fans. It’s the bedrock upon which everything in sports fandom resides. Why do we sit out in ridiculous weather to watch a game? Why do we spend thousands of dollars on tickets and merchandise and travel? Why do we tolerate the hypocrisies, little and big, that stain the sports we love?

We do it because we live in hope, that the team in which we have invested our emotional capital will give us back glory. We will put up with just about anything – disturbingly so, in some cases – in the hope that we can bask in that reflected glory of our team’s victory. And if that hope dies, then the underlying ridiculousness of fandom becomes much harder to bear.

By the time Minnesota – Minnesota, fer cryin’ out loud – hung a fifty-burger on the Blackshirts, any remaining hope that Riley could be successful in Lincoln died. And once that hope dies in a fanbase, those in charge of a program face an existential challenge, and have to act decisively.

The hiring of Frost brings hope back to Lincoln. In part, the hope is simply because he’s not Riley, the guy who failed. In part, the hope is based on the success he had at Oregon and Central Florida. In large part, the hope is based on the unity he can bring to both the fanbase and the program – again, more on that in a bit.

But Frost brings hope. And for a despairing fanbase watching the worst performance since 1961 by a Nebraska football team, that hope was something desperately needed and greedily devoured.

Unity

As a smart and particularly handsome analyst observed, the firing of Frank Solich in 2003 created a schism in the Nebraska fan base, one from which it has never truly recovered. Since that firing, the fanbase has been split into warring camps, being either “current-coach-guys” or “not-current-coach-guys.”

Year by year, as Nebraska’s national relevance faded further and further into the mists of memory, that schism deepened. Each season of failure and frustration split that crack further apart, like a hammer blow on a wedge splitting a log. As Nebraska’s coaches and culture whipsawed from one pole to the other, each “camp” of fans took solace in the position that it was the other camp’s position that was responsible for Nebraska’s wanderings in the desert of irrelevance.

Which became, in many ways, a self-fulfilling prophecy by the time Riley arrived. As a man who overachieved at Oregon State, but never had won a conference title or achieved a gaudy record, Riley’s hire took Nebraska fans by surprise. And as an outsider, replacing a coach who still had a “camp” both inside and outside of the program even after his dismissal, Riley immediately faced a portion of his program and his fanbase that was at best skeptical of his ability to succeed – and at worst rooting for his failure.

This does nothing to absolve Riley of his failure, of course. Riley knew exactly what he was getting himself into, had every opportunity to succeed, and was singularly unable to deliver. His dismissal after three seasons, given his body of work, was not only justified but necessary.

Schisms are soul-crushing. Conflict is exhausting. Outside of sports, we live in a hyper-partisan world where your choice of religion or political party or pop singer identifies you and creates a group of mortal enemies who do not agree with your choice.

Since 2003, Nebraska football has fallen victim to the same disease of tribalism that has infected the rest of our land. But Frost’s arrival provides, for the first time since 2003, a healing of that schism and a moment of respite from our hyper-partisan lives. For now, the scarlet and cream family has come together around the returning son from Wood River, and Nebraska fans can bask in the glow of fellowship with their fellow fans.

Who knows how long this unity will last. Frost will never be more popular than he is right now – unless he wins Nebraska a national title, of course. Nebraska fans aren’t stupid, and they know that Frost’s hiring doesn’t guarantee trophies in the cabinet next year – or any year.

But they know that the hiring of Frost has brought them hope and unity. And, for now, that’s more than enough.

GBR, baby.

Image from KETV photographer Dan Grzekowiak.

Editor’s note: The post has been updated to reflect Nebraska’s most recent conference championship as 1999, not 1997.