Nebraska Football: Robinson’s Transfer Puts Frost’s Nebraska Vision In Question

The transfer of junior phenom Wan’Dale Robinson sent shockwaves through the Nebraska fanbase. In head coach Scott Frost’s three years in charge, Nebraska has seen an inordinate amount of players – both recruited by Frost and by his predecessor – leave the program.

For the most part, fans have invested their trust in Frost, believed him when he talked about how the culture within the Nebraska football program needed to change, and that the departures were a necessary part of that culture shift. And given what Nebraska had seen under previous head coach Mike Riley, it was evident that Frost was correct.

But as the departures continued, especially departures of players Frost recruited, an unease began to crop up that the departures were less about Frost excising bad culture and more about players becoming dissatisfied with the progression of the offense and their place in the program.

Robinson’s departure brought those concerns to a head. Yes, Robinson ended up returning to his native Kentucky. Yes, there is little question that he was motivated by his mother contracting COVID and wanting to be closer to home. That’s been the motivation of many transfers this season, throughout the country.

But part of Robinson’s motivation, according to ESPN’s Adam Rittenberg, was to be in an offense that would better set him up for an NFL career.

That should send alarm bells through Nebraska’s program, as well as through the fanbase. Except maybe for Adrian Martinez, Robinson was the face of Nebraska’s program. He was the offensive archetype, the kind of player that Frost at Central Florida used to create a dazzling, dynamic offensive attack.

Unfortunately, very little of that dynamic offense has materialized in Lincoln. In Robinson’s two years, Frost seemed to struggle finding the right ways to utilize Robinson’s skills to their fullest. Last year, Robinson ended up being used as a tailback, getting carries and running between the tackles quite a bit.

While getting your most dynamic player the ball as often as possible is certainly wise in any offense, Robinson is 5 foot 9 and 180 pounds. He is not at all built to survive the rigors of a between-the-tackles running back, particularly in the B1G. And Robinson began to break down at the end of 2019, underlining the need for finding the right ways to use Robinson’s amazing skills.

The 2020 season was always going to be a challenge, playing through a pandemic with no spring football and an uncertain (to put it mildly) future for B1G football. Nebraska did find more balance in using Robinson during the 2020 season. But Nebraska’s offense on the whole was a huge disappointment this year.

While Nebraska’s defense began to find its feet, Nebraska’s offense looked lost. Frost switched between Martinez and Luke McCaffrey at quarterback, trying to find a signal-caller that could get Nebraska’s offense into rhythm, but never quite succeeding. And Robinson’s production in his second season at Nebraska suffered as a result.

Robinson clearly has designs to play in the NFL. And his electric skill set should be tailor-made for the modern NFL offense. But to get there, he’s got to be able to put what he can do on video, to make sure he can stand out from the crowd.

It’s clear that Robinson came to the conclusion that Frost was not going to be able to provide him that stage upon which to showcause his talents. That, as much as his mother’s illness, is why Robinson is no longer wearing scarlet and cream.

A smart and particularly handsome analyst said that you would know when Frost’s tenure at Nebraska was truly at risk when his recruiting started to tail off. And to be clear, we’re not there yet. In addition to Nebraska still landing a top-25 recruiting class, Nebraska landed an NFL-caliber wide receiver and running back through the transfer portal.

Nebraska’s talent level on offense should be sufficient to succeed. But almost the entire offense is an open question. Martinez, McCaffrey, or freshman Logan Smothers could all reasonably be expected to be the starting quarterback for week one of the season. Nebraska’s most experienced returning non-quarterback rusher had 24 carries last season. Nebraska’s most experienced returning receiver had 18 catches.

It’s worrying, to say the least, that Frost will be basically starting over offensively in year four. And the 2021 schedule – with games against Ohio State, Michigan, and Oklahoma, in addition to the B1G West slate – is awfully challenging for an entirely rebooted offense.

Robinson’s departure is in no way guaranteed to be the end of the Frost era. But ultimately Frost needs to maintain confidence and faith in his offensive scheme for Nebraska to be successful under his leadership. Robinson’s transfer is the first truly undeniable rejection of Frost’s vision. If that lack of faith were to take hold generally, then Robinson’s transfer really could be seen as the beginning of the end of Frost’s time in Lincoln.

So 2021 after Robinson’s departure brings a sense of urgency that wasn’t there before. While Frost’s contract situation is clearly secure, the faith in his ability to succeed offensively needs proof of concept on the field desperately in this upcoming season.

GBR, baby.

Nebraska Football: Five Takeaways from the 2020 Season

After a challenging season both on and off the field, Nebraska ended its 2020 campaign with a 28-21 win over Rutgers to finish with a 3-5 record. While Nebraska certainly could have gotten into a bowl game even with its record (oh hai 3-7 mississippi state), the team voted to end the season and decline any bowl invitation. Head coach Scott Frost, after the Rutgers win, sounded like a man ready to let the 2020 season go.

Nebraska also completed its early signing period with a top-25 recruiting class, headlined by four-star tight end Thomas Fidone from Iowa (and keeping Fidone from the Hawkeyes, avoiding another Noah Fant situation). So now that an exhausting, maddening, at times cringe-inducing season is over, let’s step back and take a look where Nebraska football is right now.

A brave decision to end the season

After Nebraska’s … uneven win over Rutgers, Frost talked about how much of a toll the 2020 season had taken on both the team and the coaches, and that it would ultimately up to the players to decide if they wanted to play in a bowl.

The players decided they did not, and that ended Nebraska’s 2020 season.

Frost, of course, didn’t have to give the players that choice. And he opened himself up to the possibility of ridicule by doing so. After all, it was Frost who was a vocal as anyone before the season started wanting to play football whenever, wherever – even in Uzbekistan, if need be.

After a disappointing 3-5 season, Nebraska turning down a bowl could easily have been made to look life Frost tucking tail and shying away from further embarrassment. Frost knew that, but let his team make the decision anyway.

Recruiting still on track

It’s probably not a surprise that there is at least some buzz about Frost being on the hot seat after going 12-20 in his first three-ish years in charge. In most circumstances, there would be some truth to that.

But not here. Athletic director Bill Moos has made a long-term commitment to Frost. And although Illinois and Minnesota did shake the faith of many in the fanbase, ultimately there’s little question Frost will be in Lincoln for the long-term.

If you really want a canary in the coal mine about Frost’s tenure in Lincoln, watch Nebraska’s recruiting. Last year, a smart and particularly handsome analyst pointed out that Nebraska’s recruiting ranking nationally was far out-pacing its success on the field. That over-performance was Frost’s ability to connect with recruits and get them to believe that the on-field success will be coming.

Well, the Frost Effect is still working. After the first National Signing Day, Nebraska ended up no. 25 nationally in recruiting, third in the B1G West. While that’s below both Wisconsin and Iowa this year, a top-25 class is still more than good enough for Nebraska to compete.

Blackshirt resurgence

When Frost arrived in Lincoln, we all expected Nebraska’s offense to be fast and explosive, and its defense to struggle and be at best a complimentary piece to the offensive engine.

As we finish year three, that’s … not quite how things have worked out. Nebraska’s offense has been a mess, and there’s all kinds of different reasons as to why that is.

But Nebraska’s defense has been quietly improving. Nebraska ended 2020 no. 46 nationally in team defense, no. 66 nationally in scoring defense, and no. 52 nationally in total defense.

Sure, those numbers aren’t anything to write home about. But they show a defense that’s above-average nationally, which in Nebraska’s proof-of-concept should be more than good enough. If the offense can catch up – and that’s still very much an open question – Nebraska’s defense looks ready to do its part.

Special teams disaster

There’s lots of things that Nebraska needs to fix. But top of the list needs to be special teams, writ large. Nebraska did make a massive improvement in placekicking, going from having no functional kicker to an all-conference player in Connor Culp.

But Nebraska still cannot cover a kick return. Nebraska allowed two fake punts for first downs – in eight games – where the punter was essentially unguarded and gifted a long run. Letting that happen once is bad enough. But when it happens a second time under almost identical circumstances, it’s evidence of a systemic breakdown.

Nebraska tried to have special teams be handled by a special teams consultant this year, rather than having a coach specifically tasked with handling that role, which at least reflects an attempt to shake the system up. It hasn’t worked, clearly, but there’s little question that Nebraska needs drastic action to fix a gaping hole.

Quarterback still a question

Boy, how much fun was it to see Adrian Martinez go off against Rutgers, going 24-28 for 255 yards in the air and 157 yards on 23 carries and scoring three total touchdowns? That’s the guy we’ve been waiting for to lead Nebraska’s offense, right?

Well, that same guy – in the same game – lost two fumbles and threw two interceptions. More disturbingly, the turnovers were repeat performances of mistakes we’ve seen in the past, mistakes which have killed Nebraska in the last three years.

If there’s one weakness in Frost’s offensive concept, it’s that it needs supremely talented quarterback play. Frost’s quarterback needs to be a threat on the ground, have the ability to deliver the ball to dangerous playmakers, and stretch the field to keep defenses honest and put them in conflict. He’s got to do all that while protecting the ball and making consistent smart decisions.

Whether it’s injury or understanding, Martinez has yet to demonstrate his ability to check all those boxes – and in his defense, that’s a lot of boxes to check. Luke McCaffrey, while an exciting and dynamic athlete, has not demonstrated his ability to throw or protect the ball sufficiently for Nebraska to rely on him as a starting quarterback option.

So Nebraska comes into 2021 with questions at quarterback. It is entirely possible that, with a full offseason, that Martinez or McCaffrey could grow into the position. It’s possible that freshman Logan Smothers, after watching this season from the sideline, will be able to challenge for the position.

But we don’t know – and more importantly, Frost doesn’t know – who is going to be that guy in 2021.

GBR, baby.

Nebraska Football: NU ReView, Nebraska 37, Purdue 27

They don’t make it easy, do they?

After going up 14-0 in the first five minutes, Nebraska held off a surging Purdue squad, winning 37-27 for its second win of 2020. Nebraska’s defense was able to get Purdue off the field on one last stand after failing to convert on a fourth down, sealing a much-needed victory.

So in looking back at Nebraska’s win in West Lafayette …

THE GOOD

Rush defense. Don’t look now, but the Blackshirts have put up two straight impressive performances against B1G rushing attacks. Against Iowa and Purdue combined, Nebraska has allowed a total of 127 rushing yards on 62 rushing attempts, averaging 2.05 yards allowed per rushing attempt.

Yes, that includes quarterback sacks – which is a nice problem to have. Even including that, though, that’s pretty stingy.

That’s my quarterback. It’s understandable why Adrian Martinez was benched against Northwestern. He was 12-for-27 in that game, including a bad interception. That led to Luke McCaffrey starting against Penn State, leading to Nebraska’s first win of the season. But Nebraska’s offensive limitations with McCaffrey under center were clear against a reeling Penn State – and became all-too-obvious when Illinois bullied Nebraska the following week.

Martinez came in at the end of that Illinois game and led Nebraska on a sharp (if ultimately meaningless) scoring drive. But then against Iowa and Illinois Martinez has been a combined 41-50 for 416 yards and one touchdown. Those numbers won’t knock your socks off – 8.32 yards per attempt is good but not spectacular.

But it’s efficient, and it provides far more of a threat to opposing defenses. And the lack of interceptions in two games means that Martinez has also been smart and safe with the ball.

Receiving options. In the last two weeks, Nebraska has found a groove in getting Wan’Dale Robinson involved both in the rush and the pass game. Against Iowa, Robinson was both Nebraska’s leading rusher and leading receiver. He was far less involved running the ball against Purdue, but his nine receptions for 114 yards more than made up for it.

What’s more encouraging is how freshman wideout Xavier Betts seemed to find his spot in the offense. Betts had five receptions for 36 yards, and only one of them was of the touch-pass jet sweep variety. If Nebraska is able to find a way to include a weapon like Betts into the offense, perhaps some version of the high-powered Central Florida offense can finally start to emerge.

THE BAD

Ending halves. It’s an interesting thought experiment to consider where Nebraska’s 2020 season could be if it was better at ending the first half. Against Ohio State, Nebraska was down 17-14 in the Horseshoe with 3:14 left in the second quarter. If Nebraska could hold the ball and get into field goal range, NU could go into the half tied against the mighty Buckeyes.

Instead, Nebraska went a feeble three-and-out, and Ohio State had enough time to score a touchdown and go into the half leading 24-14. Then Ohio State took the ball to start the second half, and scored another touchdown, being up 31-14 over Nebraska before NU was able to touch the ball.

Nebraska faced a similar circumstance against Purdue. With 2:52 left in the second quarter, Nebraska had the ball and led 27-10. With Nebraska set to take the ball at the start of the second half, a score on this drive had the potential to put the game out of reach.

Instead, Nebraska went three-and-out – and then had its punt blocked, giving Purdue the ball at Nebraska’s 40. A strong defensive stand held Purdue to a field goal, but the difference between 30-10 and 27-13 is substantial.

Special teams. Yep, that punt block we just talked about is just one in an uncomfortably-large collection of special teams catastrophes that have endangered Nebraska’s chances to win. Against Iowa and Northwestern, special teams mistakes (particularly on kickoffs and kickoff returns) were a huge factor in close losses. Against Purdue, Nebraska’s special teams took a game that could have been a blowout and made it competitive into the fourth quarter.

Making it tough. This picture says it all.

This shows my heart rate during Saturday’s game. I wasn’t on a treadmill, or doing a bunch of yardwork, or anything else physically strenuous – apart from watching and being emotionally invested in a Nebraska football game.

Anyone who has been on this roller-coaster called Nebraska football for the last couple of decades knows what I am talking about. Even a game that Nebraska really had – or, more accurately, should have had – under control ended up being a cardio workout just watching.

AND THE NEXT GREAT EXPERIMENT

Hey, remember when Nebraska held on for a win over Penn State, and it felt like a turning point? Nebraska was a double-digit favorite over lowly Illinois at home, and felt good enough to go full Darth Vader with its Blackshirts alternate uniforms.

We all remember how that went.

Nebraska is now a double-digit favorite over Minnesota at home – a team that has bullied and dominated Nebraska two of the last three years the teams have played. So once again we will get an opportunity to test Nebraska’s maturity as a team by seeing how it handles success.

We have some idea of how Nebraska handles adversity – let’s face it, Nebraska’s had lots of practice with that over the last few years. What it doesn’t have a lot of practice at is handling itself when things are going well.

So if the Nebraska-Minnesota contest is able to be held (which is still in question based on Minnesota’s COVID problems), then we will see if Nebraska has learned its lesson from its lackluster and entitled performance against Illinois earlier this season.

GBR, baby.

Nebraska Football: NU ReView, Iowa 26, Nebraska 20

Stop me if you’ve heard this one.

In a back and forth game that went to the last possession, Iowa made one more play than Nebraska and came away with a win in the Heroes Game, knocking off NU 26-20.

This time, the one play Iowa made was a sack of Adrian Martinez as Nebraska was driving for a winning touchdown, knocking the ball loose for Zach VanValkenburg (how did Wisconsin miss signing this kid?) to scoop up and end the game.

After last week’s debacle, Nebraska has gone from embarrassing back to maddening, so – progress? So in looking back at this game …

THE GOOD

Closing time. Adrian Martinez looks to have taken back his starting job at quarterback decisively, going 18-20 for 174 and no interceptions. Yes, Martinez gave up the game-sealing sack fumble. But let’s be honest, that was far more on his offensive line than on the quarterback.

More importantly, with Martinez Nebraska showed at least some semblance of a downfield passing threat. While certainly nothing that looks like a finished product, at the very least the threat of Martinez throwing downfield seemed to – at times – allow the offense to get in some semblance of a rhythm.

Luke McCaffrey is still a remarkable talent and head coach Scott Frost still refers to him as the future of Nebraska. But from where the two are now, it seems clear that Martinez as the signal-caller gives Nebraska’s offense its best chance to succeed.

Blackshirts are back. Be honest. After what you saw against Illinois, you were expecting an Iowa squad that bullied Minnesota and Penn State to run roughshod.

Instead, the Blackshirts held Iowa’s vaunted rushing attack to 2.9 yards per carry. Had Nebraska been sharper in other aspects of the game, that kind of performance should have been enough to win. At the very least, it showed Nebraska ready to stand toe-to-toe with Iowa physically – at least until Nebraska shoots itself in that toe it’s standing with.

Wan’Dale. I mean, what can you say about a guy who leads the team in rushing (six carries for 42 yards) and receiving (nine receptions for 75 yards)? It does seem like Nebraska has finally figured out ways to get Robinson the ball in ways that don’t involve lining him up at running back and smashing him against a B1G defensive line 15 times a game.

Add to it this quote after the game when asked about Nebraska fans doubting the team’s progress (as reported by Evan Bland of the Omaha World-Herald).

Keep doubting us. We’re going to get over the hump eventually. I know there’s a couple of us who will make sure that happens.

That’s the kind of leader you want in that locker room, Husker Fan. There’s plenty of ink spilled about quarterbacks and centers and coaches. But number 1 on offense might very well be the most important person in the room.

THE BAD

The third phase. For the second year in a row, poor special teams play cost Nebraska a game against Iowa. Last year, it was long kick returns. This year, it was the punt game, between allowing sizable returns and Cam Taylor-Britt’s muffed punt.

It’s as good a metaphor as any for where Nebraska is as a program. Special teams, more than offense and defense, is less about athletic talent and more about execution and attention to detail. Northwestern and Iowa have great special teams units. Nebraska’s has been varying degrees of a tire fire for the last two years.

The center experiment. Early on, Frost made a bold move, taking a highly-regarded tight end prospect and converting him to center. Last year, particularly early in the season, Nebraska struggled with the growing pains as Cameron Jurgens adjusted to his new duties and struggled delivering accurate shotgun snaps.

Against Iowa, Jurgens struggled again – and whatever effect Iowa’s clapping coaches had was about tenth on the list of things Jurgens struggled with. Nebraska had four drives that had snap issues. On three of those, Nebraska failed to score.

In a game of fine margins – and Nebraska is nowhere near good enough to win a game with anything less – that’s the difference between victory and defeat. As good as Jurgens is in other aspects of offensive line play – and he’s very good at a number of other aspects – Nebraska can simply not afford to continue to give away drives, possessions, and points based on inconsistent center snaps.

Field position. 54. 46. 55. 66. 30. 19.

Nebraska outgained Iowa, 338-322. Nebraska gained an average of 5.4 yards per play, compared to Iowa’s 4.3. So how did Iowa end up winning?

In large part, because those six numbers were the length of Iowa’s six scoring drives. That means all but one of those scoring drives started further out than the Iowa 45-yard line. And, back-breakingly, the two scoring drives that put Iowa ahead were only 30 and 19 yards long respectively.

To the credit of Nebraska’s defense, four of those six short scoring drives ended in field goals rather than touchdowns. But between turnovers and poor special teams play (see supra), Nebraska helped Iowa by giving it short fields to work with. And in a game of fine margins, that makes all the difference.

AND THE POVERTY OF LOW EXPECTATIONS

Last week’s loss to Illinois was enough to shake Nebraska fans to their core. It appeared that Nebraska had reverted back to where it was at the end of 2017, when it was simply and embarrassingly bullied and intimidated physically by mid-tier B1G competition. With that taste in your mouth, it was hard not to see Nebraska’s future – short-term and long-term – as anything other than bleak.

Nebraska’s performance against Iowa was, then, somewhat of a reassurance. The Illinois game, not the Iowa game or the Northwestern game, was the aberration. Take heart, Husker Fan, Nebraska is not the team that gets shoved off the field by Illinois. Instead, it’s the team that can outgain and either outplay or at least stand even with the best in the B1G West – and then find ways to lose.

That’s … cold comfort, to be sure. Nebraska’s future does not seem to be as hopeless as it did last week. But – as been repeated here many times – winning begets winning and losing begets losing. Nebraska as a program does not have the maturity to handle success, either in the micro or in the macro.

Bust a big run to get the ball within field goal range to tie the game? Holding penalty.

Get a three-and-out with Iowa inside its 30? Muff the punt and give up another field goal.

Get the ball inside Iowa’s 40 on a drive to win the game? Give up a sack through the A-gap and fumble away a sixth straight game.

Get a win against a team full of five-star recruits? Come out the following week with the worst loss in a decade for the program – and this is a team that lost at home to Troy, fer cryin’ out loud.

So yes, Nebraska has stopped the rot from last week at least. But Nebraska is guaranteed to have its fourth losing regular season in five years. And while a smart and particularly handsome analyst was right in that Nebraska fans should focus on one game at a time, it is hard not to notice just how far NU still is from what it was and what it aspires to be.

GBR, baby.

Nebraska Football: NU ReView, Ohio State 52, Nebraska 17

After a strong start, Nebraska fell victim to both its own mistakes and a top-flight Ohio State squad, losing its 2020 season opener to the Buckeyes, 52-17. The game was more than competitive throughout the first half, but a flurry of chances taken advantage of by Ohio State put the game beyond doubt early in the second half. So, in looking back at week one of the B1G 3.0 schedule for 2020 …

THE GOOD

Signs of Life: That first half felt pretty good, didn’t it Husker Fan? You could see it, starting to take shape, that proof-of-concept of what head coach Scott Frost is trying to build. You could see Nebraska competitive in a way that we haven’t seen for a while.

Unfortunately, Nebraska’s second half looked a lot like what we’ve seen earlier in terms of NU hurting itself. But after last year’s humiliation, to see Nebraska at least be able to be on the same field with Ohio State

Bringing Heat: Nebraska sacked Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields three times. Given how much Nebraska struggled with generating a pass rush last year, and that the entire defensive line was replaced, it’s an encouraging sign that Nebraska is able to generate enough of a pass rush even against an offensive line like Ohio State.

Competent Kicking: Placekicker Connor Culp wasn’t asked to do a lot, but looked like a competent FBS kicker. That in and of itself is a massive difference from last season. Remember, with a league-average placekicker, Nebraska last year is likely 7-5 with a win over Iowa. So that box, at the very least, is checked for Nebraska.

THE BAD

Self-Destruction: Nebraska was down 17-14 with three minutes to go in the first half and the ball. If Nebraska scores, they go into half with the lead. If they at least bleed the clock, they are within three points at the half.

Instead, Nebraska took a delay of game penalty to start the drive (!), went backwards on three plays, and punted the ball back to Ohio State at midfield. The Buckeyes punched in a touchdown, then scored on the first play of the second half, and all of a sudden it was 31-17.

That kind of summarized the second half. Penalties and turnovers helped snowball the game and let it get away from Nebraska. Ohio State is very, very good, probably College Football Playoff good. But Nebraska gave the Buckeyes a ton of help in the defeat.

Lack of Deep Threat: Nebraska’s quarterbacks Adrian Martinez and Luke McCaffrey had a total of 290 yards of total offense – out of Nebraska’s total of 377. Wan’Dale Robinson was the only receiver with any catches (outside of garbage time), logging six grabs for 49 yards. I am not sure Nebraska threw more than one pass more than thirty yards downfield.

That’s not going to get it done against anyone, much less Ohio State. Junior college transfer Omar Manning wasn’t able to get into the game, which might have made a difference. But Nebraska’s got to find a way to manufacture some kind of deep threat or the offense is going to struggle.

The Outs: Every time Nebraska went to a single-high look, Nebraska’s secondary gave monstrous cushions to the outside receivers and left easy completions for 8-15 yards. For the most part, Nebraska’s defense held up fairly well (relative to Ohio State). And with both starting safeties for Nebraska missing the first half against Wisconsin for targeting calls.

Against Illinois (I know, I know), Wisconsin’s freshman quarterback Graham Mertz took advantage of soft outside coverage on the same kind of outs the whole game. If Nebraska is going to recover from this beating and compete against Wisconsin, that’s got to be fixed.

AND THE LONG VIEW

Ohio State wasn’t going to be the measuring stick for Nebraska’s progress. Nebraska, for the most part, held up physically against the Buckeyes, which is probably the most encouraging thing about the contest. For at least a half, Nebraska went toe-to-toe with the best team in the B1G.

Unfortunately, Nebraska in the second half looked quite a bit like the Nebraska we saw last year – sloppy, self-inflicted mistakes letting an opposing team get away. So next we we’re really going to see what this Nebraska team is going to be.

Wisconsin looked sharp in a comfortable win over Illinois on Friday. The Badgers clearly aren’t the same team without talents like Jonathan Taylor and Quintez Cephus. But like Wisconsin teams of the past, the Badgers know exactly who they are and will punish Nebraska if it can’t play cleaner.

So the season is off the ground. But next week, in many ways, the season really begins.

GBR, baby.

Nebraska Football: Five Reasons the Cornhuskers can Rebound in 2020

Nebraska hasn’t had a winning season since 2016. That’s hard to process when it’s seen in black and white. And while three years isn’t forever, Nebraska fans can be forgiven for feeling like it has been.

But there’s reason to think that, even in this pandemic-shortened season, Nebraska can finally show that it is turning that metaphorical corner. Here’s five reasons why you should be hopeful as the new season dawns.

GETTING DOWNHILL

If there was one specific area of disappointment for Nebraska in 2019, it was a lack of offensive performance. But towards the end of the season, as Nebraska’s offensive line began performing well, NU began leaning on downhill running with Dedrick Mills.

In the seventh through ninth games of the season, Mills never had more than ten carries in a game, and never averaged more than 3.75 yards per carry. But against Wisconsin and Iowa (two of the last three games), Mills had 17 and 24 carries, and averaged over 11 (!) yards per carry against the Badgers’ defense.

This year, Nebraska’s offensive line is starting from a much better place than last year. In 2019, the middle of Nebraska’s offensive line consisted of two walk-ons and a center who never played center. This year, Nebraska’s offensive line is both more experienced and more talented, and have a proven between-the-tackles thumper in Mills.

PROTECTING WAN’DALE

The second reason is related to the first. Last year, freshman phenom Wan’Dale Robinson was the most dynamic, dangerous part of Nebraska’s offense. Indeed, with the departure of Maurice Washington, the struggles of Adrian Martinez, and the injuries to J.D. Spielman, Robinson was the only offensive weapon.

The problem with that was it put so much pressure on Nebraska to over-use their best weapon. Robinson is five-foot-nine and 185 pounds. Robinson had games with 19, 22, and 14 carries. That’s too many for a player of his size, and we saw Robinson suffer from injury and diminished proportions.

In many ways, Robinson’s use last year echoed how De’mornay Pierson-El was used in 2016 and 2017. Pierson-El, like Robinson, was a diminutive, dynamic offensive weapon. Pierson-El, like Robinson, was at many times Nebraska’s only legitimate offensive weapon. Pierson-El, like Robinson, was exposed to far too much punishment from over-use, suffered injury, and ultimately never was able to realize his potential.

If Nebraska is able to establish more of a downhill attack, and has more weapons (see below), then Robinson will be able to be used properly, not over-used, and have a chance to fulfill his potential.

OPTIONS FOR MARTINEZ

Last year, receiver was an underwhelming position for Nebraska. Again, Robinson ended up being Nebraska’s only consistent weapon, particularly with Spielman’s injury.

This year, Nebraska has a number of tantalizing possibilities at receiver. Junior college transfer Omar Manning’s size and body type is tantalizing, although his injuries have limited his availability at least at the start of the season. Freshman Xavier Betts brings a similar size, and Alante Brown has possibility as a playmaking receiver.

Tight end has always been a little bit like Lucy with the football for Nebraska, as the possible talent always seems to be present but never quite materializes (otherwise known as the Mike McNeil effect). But this year could be different. Rutgers transfer Travis Vokolek has all the attributes to be a dangerous offensive weapon, and Chris Hickman is now listed at wide receiver but is functionally a move tight end as well. Particularly with the uncertainty at wide receiver, tight end might take up the slack to provide additional weapons, and maybe force a second safety back and open up running lanes between the tackles as well.

DEONTAI’S BACK

Deontai Williams’ freshman year offered a tantalizing look at an immensely talented defensive back. At safety, Williams displayed the kind of talent and instincts that can be game-changing for a defense. Unfortunately, he struggled to carve out a role as a freshman, and was looking at his sophomore campaign to start making his mark.

An injury in the season opener derailed his entire 2019 season. But now he is back, healthy, and looks set to lead an experience secondary. While Nebraska might struggle with generating pressure, if Williams and the rest of the secondary can overachieve then Nebraska’s defense has a chance to shine.

COMPETENT KICKING

Yeah, last year was a rousing disappointment. But you can point to discrete events in a number of games – Wisconsin and Iowa being the most obvious – where even a competent placekicker would have either won the game or at least kept it very competitive. If that’s the only variable that changed, how would  you look back on a 7-5 record with wins over Wisconsin and Iowa last year, Husker Fan?

Nebraska made sure it wouldn’t be in the same situation this year, having four (!) punters and five (!!) placekickers on the 2020 roster. Michigan State transfer William Prystup will be the starting punter, and Connor Culp will be the starting placekicker. Specifically Culp, an LSU transfer who went 11-16 for field goals and 20-23 for extra points in 2017, will at least provide Nebraska with a legitimate FBS kicking option – something that was lacking last year. And just having that option will prevent Nebraska’s offense from being hamstrung as it was last year.

GBR, baby.

Nebraska Football: Frost’s Comments Put Pressure Squarely on Martinez

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In the offseason, most of us are used to non-descript, happy-talk, coach-speak interviews talking about how this year’s squad has never practiced so well, never been so together, and all the other cotton candy gobbledygook we usually get.

In other words, college football coaches have taken a page from Crash Davis’ playbook.

“You’re gonna have to learn your clichés. You’re gonna have to study them, you’re gonna have to know them. They’re your friends.”

  • Crash Davis, “Bull Durham”

Nebraska football head coach Scott Frost apparently never saw the movie. In an interview with Steven M. Sipple of the Lincoln Journal-Star, Frost was talking about why quarterback Adrian Martinez struggled last season. We knew about his injury issues, and that he had surgery in the offseason. But then Frost told us – or at least confirmed to us – something we didn’t know before.

Year 2, because of the situation, I think he was able to put it in cruise control a little more, and I think that showed up on the field a little bit. That’s not to put everything on him. There’s a lot of things he couldn’t control. But I don’t think he’ll be lax in his preparation ever again.

Stop. Read that paragraph again. Let it sink in.

Frost just told us that last year Martinez was “in cruise control.” That Martinez was “lax in his preparation” last season.

That’s a heck of a thing to say about your junior quarterback, your incumbent starter. That’s putting a heck of a lot of pressure on his shoulders. You know if he struggles next season, both Martinez and Frost will be peppered with questions about Martinez’s preparation and effort level.

So why would Frost say something like that?

Well, first of all, likely because it’s true. Martinez didn’t really have a legitimate challenger for his job last year. Noah Vedral is a great story and a competent athlete, but there’s a reason he’s playing at Rutgers this year. Luke McCaffrey is an electric athlete and certainly would have been a serious contender – if it wasn’t crystal clear that Frost had decided he was not going to burn McCaffrey’s redshirt season by playing him more than four games last season.

(ed. note: an earlier version reflected Vedral transferring to Northern Illinois, and the error has been corrected)

But even if it’s true, Frost didn’t have to say it out loud. So the clearest answer has to be that he’s sending a message to Martinez. The starting quarterback’s job is his to win – but Nebraska has other options if Martinez isn’t able to answer the bell.

This year, McCaffrey will have every ability to challenge for the starting job (although I still think he’s likely to be Nebraska’s version of Taysom Hill). And true freshman Logan Smothers looks every bit the part of a kid who could come in and win a starting quarterback job as a true freshman in Frost’s offense – just like Martinez did in 2018.

We still really don’t know what the 2020 season is going to look like under the specter of the coronavirus pandemic. But Nebraska is coming off three straight losing seasons, and facing a murderous schedule. Frost knows that – while he’s certainly not on the hot seat – the clock is ticking for him to turn Nebraska into a winning program again.

When Martinez is right – physically and mentally – he’s one of the most dangerous quarterbacks in the nation. We knew he wasn’t right physically last year, and now we know he wasn’t right mentally either. Clearly Frost must be confident of Martinez being ready physically, or he would not have laid down such a public challenge to him mentally.

We will see in September (hopefully) the fruits of Frost’s decision. Either Martinez will return to the form we saw as a freshman – or we could see a new signal-caller for Nebraska.

GBR, baby.

Nebraska Football: The impacts of Noah Vedral’s departure

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Junior quarterback Noah Vedral has entered the transfer portal, according to reports from the Omaha World-Herald. Because he is on track to graduate in May, Vedral will have two full seasons of eligibility left. Let’s take a look at how Vedral’s departure will affect the squad going forward.

Vedral likely would have entered the season competing with redshirt freshman Luke McCaffrey as the backup to Adrian Martinez. With Vedral’s departure, McCaffrey – as the only quarterback on the roster with any game experience other than Martinez – likely vaults to an undisputed second-string quarterback.

This development has a couple of knock-on effects. First of all, if McCaffrey does become the clear-cut backup, then he will likely get more practice reps at quarterback. This will, in all likelihood, cut down on the amount of time McCaffrey will get working on packages at wide receiver or other gimmick packages. In other words, Vedral’s departure means we are likely to see far less of McCaffrey in the Taysom Hill-like role we saw him last season.

The other significant development from Vedral’s departure has to do with true freshman quarterback Logan Smothers. With both Vedral and McCaffrey in a backup role to Martinez, Smothers was looking at a true redshirt campaign absent a significant run of injuries at quarterback. Now, the relative paucity of depth at quarterback means Smothers could very well see playing time in 2020.

Vedral’s departure is also the end of an era for Frost in Lincoln. Vedral was the last holdover on the Nebraska roster of Frost’s time at UCF. The last ties to Frost’s glory run with the Knights are now officially severed, and now his squad in Lincoln is entirely Nebraska.

GBR, baby.

Nebraska Football: Reviewing the 2020 Recruiting Class (and a Super Six!)

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Nebraska’s 2020 recruiting class ended no. 20 nationally, no. 4 in the B1G, and no. 1 in the B1G West, according to 247 Sports. Let’s take a look at how the class breaks down, position-by-position. The “Composite” category is the 247 Composite star ranking. Players in bold are junior-college transfers, and players in italics are early-enrollees.

Quarterback

Name Height Weight Composite Position
Logan Smothers 6’2” 190 .8976 (4 star) DUAL

As long as Scott Frost is in Lincoln, Nebraska will likely be attempting to sign a highly-rated quarterback to fit his offensive system each year. Smothers certainly fits the bill, and looks to be as close to a clone of Adrian Martinez (at least freshman Adrian) that we’ve seen. He’s lightning-quick on the ground and a legitimate threat with his arm.

Running Back

Name Height Weight Composite Position
Sevion Morrison 5’11 ½” 196 .8941 (4 star) RB
Marvin Scott III 5’9” 203 .8647 (3 star) RB

Other than placekicker, perhaps no position suffered more at Nebraska in 2019 than running back, with Maurice Washington’s drama before his departure and Dedrick Mills’ slow start. Add to that Frost’s somewhat baffling use of Rahmir Johnson’s four-game redshirt, and Nebraska’s running back room was pretty thin.

Next year’s depth should be much better, with Mills and Johnson returning along with whatever Ronald Thompkins can offer after a year of recovering from injury. Morrison looks to have the skills of an all-around back, while Scott profiles as a between-the-tackles thumper.

Receivers

Name Height Weight Composite Position
Zavier Betts 6’2” 189 .9506 (4 star) WR
Marcus Fleming 5”9 ½” 160 .9075 (4 star) WR
Omar Manning 6’4” 225 .9053 (4 star) WR
Alante Brown 6’0” 190 .8976 (3 star) WR
William Nixon 5’11” 185 .8647 (3 star) WR

Yeah, I know I just got done talking about how Nebraska’s running back depth was the worst. I kinda forgot about how dreadful the wide receiver room looked. Even if JD Spielman does return to Lincoln for his junior season (which is an open question), Nebraska will still likely be looking to walk-on Kade Warner to fill out a third receiving option in addition to Wan’Dale Robinson.

So it’s no surprise that receiver was such a significant target in this year’s class. If they’re able to make grades, Betts and Manning look to be ready to contribute right away (particularly Manning, given his previous experience at the collegiate level), and Brown’s speed (along with him enrolling early) give him a chance to contribute right away as well.

Offensive Line

Name Height Weight Composite Position
Turner Corcoran 6’6” 280 .9751 (4 star) OT
Alex Conn 6’6” 280 .8647 (3 star) OT

For all the talk of Frost’s offense being gimmicky and finesse, it’s no accident that the highest-rated prospect in 2020 is an offensive lineman. After last year’s recruiting haul, Nebraska definitely had the luxury of choosing quality over quantity in 2020. Offensive line is an area that needs patience to see fruits on the field, but the combination of Nebraska’s 2019 and 2020 classes have done quite a bit to lay  a new foundation.

Defensive Line

Name Height Weight Composite Position
Blaise Gunnerson 6’5” 250 .8801 (3 star) SDE
Jordon Riley 6’5” 330 .8524 (3 star) SDE
Nash Huntmacher 6’5” 285 .8722 (3 star) DT
Jimari Butler 6’5” 217 .8621 (3 star) WDE
Marquis Black 6’4” 280 .8614 (3 star) DT
Nico Cooper 6’5” 220 .8594 (3 star) WDE
Pheldarius Payne 6’3” 270 .8541 (3 star) SDE

Nebraska’s defensive line was one of its strengths in 2019. Which is a problem in 2020, as all three starters (Khalil Davis, Darrion Daniels and maybe Carlos Davis) look to be on NFL rosters next year. So restocking the cupboard on the defensive line was a priority in 2020. Like the offensive line, defensive line is difficult to contribute right away, but Nebraska does have a couple of candidates in junior college transfers Riley and Payne.

Linebackers

Name Height Weight Composite Position
Keyshawn Greene 6’3” 195 .9387 (4 star) OLB
Eteva Mauga-Clemens 6’2” 218 .8688 (3 star) OLB

Another quality over quantity position, Nebraska was looking for weapons to bolster an anemic pass rush. Clemens, as a junior college transfer, should provide some immediate depth, and Greene as a signing-day decision was one of the players that got Husker Twitter very excited.

Secondary

Name Height Weight Composite Position
Henry Gray 6’0” 172 .9064 (4 star) S
Jaiden Francois 6’0” 184 .9047 (4 star) S
Isaac Gifford 6’0” 175 .8434 (3 star) S
Tamon Lynum 6’2” 165 .8375 (3 star) CB
Ronald Delancey III 5’11” 160 .8551 CB

The easiest way to improve a pass rush is, of course, to get better pass rushers. But improving the secondary is an indirect way to accomplish the same goal. Nebraska’s talent haul in the secondary might be the sneakiest addition in the class, with Gray and Francois talented enough to compete for playing time as freshmen.

Super Six for 2020

6. Sevion Morrison (RB). Mills finally looked to get some momentum (not to mention carries) towards the end of 2019, and looks set to enter next season as Nebraska’s bell-cow. And while Johnson definitely flashed, Morrison showed at the high school level that he has the skills needed to be an all-around running back.

5. Henry Gray (S). It would have been just as easy to put Francois here as Gray, as adding four-star talent to the secondary will reap benefits. But Gray is also a prolific peer recruiter, at least as seen on his Twitter account, and the value of such peer recruiting can’t be ignored.

4. Keyshawn Greene (OLB). Nebraska’s linebacker corps, particularly at outside linebacker, definitely needed an infusion of talent, and Greene looks to be an effective pass rushing weapon. Just as importantly, Greene’s decision to pick Nebraska on signing day shows Frost still has the credibility amongst incoming high school players to close on recruits.

3. Turner Corcoran (OL). The highest-rated prospect probably has to be on the list somewhere, and here he is. Nothing on any offense works without and offensive line to make it work. And last year’s offensive struggles can be explained in part by having two walk-on guards and a center who never played center before. Corcoran, along with the recruiting work done in 2019, looks to upgrade the athleticism and talent level on the pipeline.

2. Logan Smothers (QB). Other than perhaps goalkeeper in hockey, no position is more important than quarterback. Smothers has all the tools Frost wants to run his offense – speed, arm talent, and leadership. If Martinez continues to struggle, and Luke McCaffrey is not able to grow in his ability to throw the ball, it’s not a silly prospect to thing Smothers could win the starting job at some point in 2020.

1. Omar Manning (WR). Nebraska needed – not wanted, needed – immediate help at receiver. Manning’s arrival not only provides an immediate starter, it gives Nebraska something it didn’t really have last year – a prototypical no. 1 receiver with the size to win contested balls as well as the speed and route running to get open. Manning’s arrival – assuming he makes grades – will have the single biggest effect on Nebraska’s 2020 squad.

GBR, baby.

Nebraska Football: Chill Out About the Top-25 Rankings, Husker Fan

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Last week, two different analytics-based top 25 rankings for 2020 came out, and Nebraska made the cut in both. ESPN’s Bill Connelly has his SP+ ranking put Nebraska at no. 25, and ESPN’s Football Power Index listed Nebraska at no. 22.

Nebraska fans, to their undying credit, freaked out – by being upset that NU doesn’t deserve the hype. Last year, Nebraska was the darling of the college football world, picked in everyone’s top 25, even made a sleeper playoff team. That reality came crashing down pretty quickly, and a smart and particularly handsome analyst talked about the poison of Kool-Aid on a fanbase.

Well, good job, Husker Fan, y’all were listening. Tom Shatel of the Omaha World-Herald pointed out that the response to Nebraska’s top 25 rankings from fans has been to be upset that NU is getting pre-season hype.

In general, that’s the right result. Coming off three losing seasons and with a brutal 2020 schedule, it’s going to be critical for Nebraska fans’ collective sanity to keep expectations reasonable. A 7-5 season for this team, with this schedule, should be viewed as a success – regardless how foreign that sounds to Nebraska fans.

Having said that, though, these two particular top 25 rankings shouldn’t freak Nebraska fans out. Both SP+ and the FPI are data-driven, as opposed to subjective opinions about what’s going to happen. And one of the biggest components in both metrics is returning offensive production, which Nebraska has in spades this season.

Nebraska’s got a returning two-year starter at quarterback (ok, fine all you Luke McCaffrey stans, most likely). Nebraska’s starting running back, two top wide receivers, and top tight end will be coming back. Most of Nebraska’s offensive line returns. And Nebraska’s head coach returns for his third season in charge.

Those returning starters are a significant part of the formula both SP+ and the FPI use in the preseason to rank teams. And the advantage of data-driven rankings is that they take subjectivity out of the analysis. Given Nebraska’s faceplant last season, it’s only natural to resist ranking NU highly the following season. It’s certainly natural (although, in all candor, a bit unexpected) for Nebraska fans to resist the “woo we’ll be awesome this year” impulse.

But analytics don’t care about any of that. The numbers say what they say, and the algorithms that spit out those numbers are tuned year in and year out to find which data points are most correlative to future results. It worked that way last year, when the analytic rankings were predicting Nebraska to win five to six games, regardless of their pre-season hype.

Of course, there’s no guarantees. Like Connelly says, analytics are the start of a conversation, not the end of one. And just from a survival skill perspective, it’s understandable – even healthy – for Nebraska fans to be skeptical of anything that looks like unearned glory.

So don’t freak out, Husker Fan. There’s good reason to think Nebraska’s offense in particular might very well be significantly better than last year. If you can find a way to acknowledge that possibility without going right to “Adrian Martinez gonna win the Heisman yo,” then the 2020 season might not quite be the chewing-broken-glass ordeal the last few years have been for the scarlet and cream faithful.

GBR, baby.