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: Taysom Hill a Blueprint for Luke McCaffrey

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On Sunday, the Minnesota Vikings beat the New Orleans Saints in a wild card playoff game on a disturbingly familiar official’s decision. But the Saints’ controversial loss hides a remarkable performance from New Orleans’ backup quarterback Taysom Hill.

Actually, that’s not entirely accurate. Hill is the Saints’ backup quarterback/running back/wide receiver/kick coverage specialist. While Hill may be the heir apparent to Drew Brees, Saints head coach Sean Payton has been very creative in finding ways to use Hill’s talents even with Brees under center.

Against the Vikings, here’s Hill’s stats. There’s … a lot going on.

Passing 1/1, 50 yards, TD
Rushing 4 carries, 50 yards (led team in rushing)
Receiving 2 catches, 3 targets, 25 yards, TD
Defensive 1 tackle

Watching this game, it’s hard not to let your mind wander a little bit and wonder if Scott Frost is watching too. Because Luke McCaffrey bears a lot of resemblance to Hill, and not just because they both wear number 7.

Hill is six-foot-two and 220 pounds. McCaffrey is six-foot-two and 200 pounds. Hill put up a 4.44 40-yard-dash time at the NFL combine. McCaffrey has put up a 4.5 40-yard-dash. Hill was a dual-threat weapon at quarterback in college. McCaffrey is a dual-threat weapon that provided Nebraska quite a spark in his limited appearances under center.

Now, Nebraska looks to have a spirited competition at quarterback for 2020. Adrian Martinez, as a two-year starter, should have an inside track, especially coming off an injured sophomore campaign. McCaffrey sparkled in his times both under center and on the field last season. And freshman Logan Smothers bears so many resemblances to a younger Martinez in terms of size, speed, and athletic ability.

There’s no question that McCaffrey could beat Martinez out and be Nebraska’s starting quarterback next season, especially if Martinez doesn’t recover fully from his injuries. McCaffrey only played four games last year, so he still has four years of eligibility to use, and Martinez will be a junior next year.

But if Martinez (or, heck, Smothers) wins the job, there’s an opportunity for McCaffrey to take on a Hill-like role for Nebraska’s offense. We saw it last year, in a limited role. McCaffrey had 24 carries for 166 yards and a touchdown, and one catch for 12 yards, in addition to going 9-12 for 142 yards and two touchdowns as a quarterback.

According to Bob Hamar of the Grand Island Independent, Frost is well aware of McCaffrey’s versatile skills.

“He’s a really good football player,” Frost said of McCaffrey. “He can run, he can throw, he can catch, he loves it, so he’s going to be a really good player for us around here for a long time and we thought it was smart to get a guy like that on the field.”

Frost wanted to make it clear that McCaffrey’s future is at quarterback, but he can provide some help at receiver going into Friday’s game against Iowa.

Frost said quarterbacks coach Mario Verduzco makes sure all his quarterbacks know the assignments of all the offensive players on every play. That makes it possible for a player like McCaffrey to slide into another position.

“Luke is an extremely versatile guy,” Frost said. “You can just see the raw athleticism that he’s got. He’s going to be a hell of a ball player for us in the future. I just look forward to however we use him, whether that is how we did last week or if that’s at quarterback, wherever he’s needed. But he’s a hell of a ball player and I can’t wait to see him in the future.”

Of course, Frost’s focus was on McCaffrey staying at quarterback. There was at least a good argument that McCaffrey was more effective in his time at quarterback than Martinez was. And especially with a third talented quarterback entering the room (and that’s not even talking about Noah Vedral), Frost has to know he runs the risk of losing someone to the transfer portal.

But if Martinez does win the job, and McCaffrey still sees himself as Nebraska’s future starting quarterback – much like Hill is waiting for his shot after Brees retires – then Frost would have an opportunity to get creative with McCaffrey’s skills.

Nebraska’s got a lot of new talent at skill positions coming in. But there’s precious little in terms of returning production, outside of JD Spielman and Wan’Dale Robinson. If Martinez does win the job, then Frost will have an entire offseason to devise clever ways to use McCaffrey’s talents.

It doesn’t have to be a main feature of Nebraska’s offense. Hopefully some of Nebraska’s incoming talent (especially junior college transfer Omar Manning) will provide some day-one assistance.

But anyone who has watched the Saints this season knows that Hill’s role in the offense has grown and he’s become a legitimate weapon for New Orleans. If the Saints would have won the game, Peyton’s use of Hill would have been one of the primary reasons cited for the victory.

So maybe Frost can steal a page or two from Peyton’s playbook and find more ways to get an explosive and dangerous playmaker like McCaffrey on the field more in 2020.

GBR, baby.

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

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

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

Quarterback

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

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

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

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

Running Back

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

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

Wide Receiver

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

Tight End

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

Offensive Line

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

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

Defensive Line

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

Linebacker

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

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

Secondary

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

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

Specialists

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

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

GBR, baby.

Nebraska Football: What to Watch For at the Spring Game

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

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

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

Standout Freshmen

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

A Number One in the Making?

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

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

Running Back Opportunity

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

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

Offensive Line Composition

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

Second Season Chances

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

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

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

GBR, baby.

Nebraska Football: 2019 Recruiting Class Super Six

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Nebraska finished its 2019 recruiting season signing a class of 27, including two graduate transfers. The class rated no. 19 nationally and no. 4 in the B1G, behind Michigan (no. 8), Penn State (no. 13) and Ohio State (no. 14). Nebraska’s 2019 class was rated no. 1 in the B1G West, besting Purdue (no. 25), Wisconsin (no. 27) and Iowa (no. 40).

Here’s a breakdown of how Nebraska’s 2019 scholarships were distributed according to position and their composite recruiting ranking, according to 247 Sports.

Position No. Avg. Ranking
QB 1 .9070
IB 3 .8831
WR 4 .9058
TE 1 .8928
OL 5 .8741
DE 3 .8859
DT 1 .8410
OLB 2 .8864
ILB 3 .8953
CB 2 .9007
S 2 .8686

 

So now that we have a basic idea of how Nebraska did overall, who are the players in this year’s class that stand out? Here are the Super Six for 2019 – and keep in mind, this takes into account immediate production, potential long-term contributions, and position value. Listed after the recruit’s name are his position, height, weight, and 247 composite ranking.

6: Luke McCaffrey (ATH, 6’2”, 183, .9070)

Yeah, 247 Sports lists him as an athlete, but there’s no question about his status as a quarterback at Nebraska. Indeed, his solidity at the quarterback position looks to be the primary reason he is still in Lincoln, even knowing that he’s behind sophomore phenom Adrian Martinez. While McCaffrey might not see the field right away in the best of circumstances, having a dangerous quarterback behind Martinez does provide critical depth (see Troy 2018) as well as a path for the future.

5: Wandale Robinson (APB, 5’9”, 175, .9597)

It’s a little peculiar to have Nebraska’s highest-rated recruit sitting at number five on the Super Six, and that’s not a knock on his talent. Robinson’s quick-twitch elusiveness and gamebreaking speed look elite and a perfect match for head coach Scott Frost’s offensive scheme. But Robinson will be competing with players like JD Spielman and Maurice Washington, who have a similar set of skills.

4: Noa Pola-Gates (CB, 5’11”, 165, .9379)

One of the bigger late gets for Nebraska, Pola-Gates is the highest-rated secondary signing for NU in 2019. He’s listed as a cornerback, but it is not out of the realms of possibility that he will see time at safety, a position of significant need for Nebraska.

3: Dedrick Mills (RB, 5’11”, 227, .8817)

With the graduation of Devine Ozigbo, the only running back left in Nebraska’s stable that looks capable of replacing Ozigbo’s between-the-tackles running production is Mills. While Nebraska has a lot of exciting potential on the perimeter, that threat is far less dangerous if opposing defenses do not have an inside running game to worry about.

2: Ty Robinson (SDE, 6’5”, 283, .9284)

If there was one area that was left unattended in Nebraska’s 2019 class, it was the lack of a true pass rushing specialist. Robinson comes the closest to providing that ability, although will likely need to develop before Nebraska can truly consider that particular box checked.

1: Bryce Benhart (OT, 6’9”, 287, .9349)

Even with Frost’s flashy offense, ultimately strong line play makes everything work. Landing a four-star tackle like Benhart, who has the possibility of playing four years in Lincoln, makes a positive impact on every offensive skill position player.

Sleeper: Myles Farmer (S, 6’3”, 194, .8688)

Nebraska brings back no returning starters at safety, so a recruit of Farmer’s size and skill set has the chance to make an immediate impact on the depth chart.

All recruiting rankings according to 247 Sports