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: 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.