Nebraska Football: How the Cornhuskers Could Fail to Live Up to the Hype in 2019

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For the first time in forever (it seems), Nebraska is the toast of the national college football media preseason. No less a luminary than Phil Steele picked Nebraska as his no. 1 most improved team for 2019. Nebraska has been in the conversation as a dark-horse national title contender. Nebraska just missed being in the coaches’ preseason top 25 poll.

That’s a lot of positive vibes for a team that went a combined 8-16 in the last two years and hasn’t been to the postseason since getting clobbered by Tennessee in the 2016 (!) Music City Bowl. Of course, there’s plenty of reason for such optimism, between head coach Scott Frost’s experience turning UCF around and having legitimate Heisman Trophy candidate Adrian Martinez back at quarterback for his sophomore season.

But Husker Fan having all the feels in August doesn’t guarantee the long-awaited turnaround for Nebraska football is at hand. Even with all the reasons for optimism, there are ways that Nebraska’s 2019 season could fall apart. If it happens, these could be the culprit.

Center

One of the biggest questions about Nebraska’s roster in 2019, and certainly the biggest question on the offensive side of the ball, is who will play center. Cameron Jurgens, a redshirt freshman tight end converted to the position, seemed to have the pole position for the starting role given how highly Frost has praised him – comparing Jurgens’ potential to none other than Dave Rimington.

That’s about as high of praise as you can give for a center wearing the scarlet and cream, so clearly Frost likes what he sees in Jurgens’ potential. But injuries have sidelined Jurgens from participating in fall camp, and it is unclear if he would be ready to start the season.

That means Nebraska’s best case scenario is to play a redshirt freshman who has never played the center position before, coming in with little-to-no time in fall camp to get ready and to gel with the rest of the offensive line.

If Jurgens isn’t ready, or doesn’t get the nod, then Nebraska will likely turn to redshirt freshman Will Farniok or walkon freshman A.J. Forbes. Neither Farniok nor Forbes has played snaps at center, either, so no matter what Nebraska will be starting a freshman without experience at the most important position on the offensive line.

In Frost’s offense, with its focus on timing and precision, a clean center-quarterback exchange is crucial. The center is also usually responsible for making line calls to ensure coordination between the entire offensive line in their blocking scheme. That’s a big responsibility for a young player, whoever might step up and take on that role.

And a struggle for Nebraska at center could short-circuit much of the offensive progress made in year one of Frost’s arrival in Lincoln, which could result in a disappointing 2019 campaign.

Inside Linebacker

There is, rightly, significant concern about Nebraska’s depth at outside linebacker. Alex Davis, a talented senior who has yet to produce, and JoJo Doman, who has just returned to fall camp after injury, are the most reliable options Nebraska looks to be fielding at a position of need.

But inside linebacker might be even more concerning with regards to depth. Mohammed Barry is the anchor of the linebacker corps (and, indeed, the entire defense), and Collin Miller is hoped to build on a solid end to the 2018 season.

After that? Nebraska is hoping JUCO transfer Will Honas can return from injuries that robbed him of the majority of last year’s campaign, but we don’t know yet if he’s able to return to form. Freshman phenom Nick Henrich’s injury will certainly keep him out of the lineup for the start of the season, and at this point anything Nebraska gets from him in 2019 has to be viewed as a bonus.

Behind those four (and, really, those three), it’s a grab bag. Can Garrett Snodgrass make a leap and gain playing time? How about Jackson Hannah? Garrett Hustedt? Nebraska has a wealth of freshmen in the room, but there’s no clarity who – if any – would be able to successfully fill that role in the middle of the defense against B1G competition to give the starting three a break – or to replace them in case of injury.

Unlearning the Past

This point has less to do with one specific position group and more to do with the team as a whole. Nebraska is coming off two straight seasons of going 4-8. Nebraska has had one winning season in the last four. Nebraska has losing streaks to conference foes like Northwestern (two straight), Iowa (four straight), Ohio State (four straight) and Wisconsin (six straight). Nebraska hasn’t been in a conference title game since 2012, and that one didn’t really go well for the boys in scarlet and cream.

In other words, it’s been a long time – since the current players on Nebraska’s roster were in middle school, at best – since NU has tasted success in football. Of course, everyone is excited and optimistic about the future. All the players love the chemistry of the team and say they are in the best shape of their lives.

That may all be true, but we heard it all before the 2018 campaign, and the 2017 campaign, and the 2015 campaign too. Until Nebraska proves something on the field, it hasn’t accomplished a darn thing.

And that’s the danger, if Nebraska happens to hit a bump in the road this season. Say things go wrong and Nebraska gets knocked off by Colorado in Boulder. Say Ohio State finds its mojo and does to Nebraska in Lincoln what it did to Michigan last year. Say Nebraska has an unfathomable clunker and loses on the road to Illinois or at home to Indiana.

In other words, what happens if the reality of Nebraska’s 2019 campaign doesn’t quite match up with the lofty expectations? Is there a risk that the sounds of Nebraska’s football failures in this last decade start to echo in the players’ minds? Could the prospect of a promising season slipping away start to make the jerseys weigh a little heavier on the backs of the players, prompting a downward spiral?

This isn’t to say that this doomsday scenario will happen. Indeed, given the combination of Frost’s accumulated talent and track record of success, this scenario is pretty unlikely.

But it’s not impossible. And it’s one that Nebraska fans will have to be cognizant of when (not if) NU hits a couple of bumps in the road this season. A serving of patience from a fanbase that is understandably desperate for national relevance will go a long way to help avoid a challenge turn into a disaster.

GBR, baby.

 

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

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

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

Quarterback

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

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

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

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

Running Back

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

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

Wide Receiver

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

Tight End

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

Offensive Line

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

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

Defensive Line

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

Linebacker

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

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

Secondary

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

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

Specialists

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

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

GBR, baby.

Nebraska Football: Spring Football Preview

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On Monday, Nebraska started spring practice in its second year under head coach Scott Frost. Unseasonably frigid temperatures kept work inside as the squad opened preparation for the Spring Game on April 13.

This is now Nebraska’s second straight season without a bowl game, meaning a second long winter of waiting for Nebraska football. So spring practice should bring a welcome relief for Nebraska fans weathering yet another cold winter of discontent. Here’s what to keep an eye on as spring practice begins.

OFFENSE

Returning Strengths

  • Quarterback. There is little doubt that Adrian Martinez is the biggest reason for Nebraska’s optimism in 2019. Martinez’s accomplishments last season have at least one Las Vegas sports book listing him as third-favorite for the Heisman next year. That might be a little optimistic, but at least Nebraska is coming into next year’s campaign with its situation at signal-caller settled.
  • Y and Z Receivers. JD Spielman is clearly Nebraska’s most dangerous receiving threat returning next season, and incoming freshman Wandale Robinson looks perfectly set to excel in the slot. While not every receiving position is clear (see infra), Nebraska does have a lot to lean on at receiver.
  • Tight End. Jack Stoll could very well be one of the team leaders next season, and Kurt Rafdal and Austin Allen both saw increased playing time towards the end of 2018. Kateriene Legrone should also have an opportunity to see the field, giving Nebraska at least four dangerous options to create mismatch opportunities and challenge the middle of the field.

Biggest Questions

  • Offensive Line. Nebraska does have quite a bit of returning talent, but it’s not entirely certain how it is going to fit together. And center for Nebraska is one of the biggest open questions, which is always a challenge. There’s enough talent for Nebraska’s offensive line to be successful, but it is still unproven.
  • X Receiver. Nebraska will be looking for a true no. 1, go-to receiver to make catches that get first downs as well as threaten downfield. Stanley Morgan’s leadership and production will be a huge challenge for Nebraska to replace, and while there is significant depth at receiver, it is unclear who (if any) in that room will be able to fill that role.
  • Running Back. At this time last year, it was hard to imagine that Devine Ozigbo’s graduation would be one of Nebraska’s biggest challenges going into 2019, but here we are. Maurice Washington and Miles Jones, Nebraska’s two returning backs with any playing time from 2018, are huge question marks for different reasons. The incoming backs, Dedrick Mills, Rahmir Johnson, and Ronald Thompkins, all have potential but are unproven.

Players to Watch

  • Jaylin Bradley. Ozigbo is gone. The competition for running back carries won’t arrive until fall camp. So this spring, Bradley will be competing with Wyatt Mazour and the other walk-on running backs for a chance to get the carries that Ozigbo had last year. Bradley didn’t see the field last year, and with the other backs coming, this spring may be Bradley’s last, best chance to really make an impact and earn a spot on the depth chart.
  • Cameron Jurgens. One of the biggest open positions for Nebraska in 2019 is center, and Jurgens has taken a strange path to the position. Jurgens was a four-star prospect in Nebraska’s 2018 class (.9227 composite, according to 247 Sports) – as a tight end. But after a redshirt year, Jurgens switched positions from tight end to offensive line and looks to be competing for a spot at center. Given his composite ranking, Jurgens’ athletic prowess is unquestioned. If he can make the switch in positions – and make no mistake, it’s a massive switch – then Nebraska could get a quick infusion of talent in the middle of the offensive line.
  • Jaevon McQuitty. Much like with Bradley, there is an opening in the depth chart at X receiver, and McQuitty has his best opportunity to take advantage and seize a spot. He’ll have some competition from players like Mike Williams and Andre Hunt, in addition to the freshmen receivers coming in the fall. So this spring is the time for McQuitty to make his move, if it’s going to happen.

DEFENSE

Returning Strengths

  • Defensive Line. The returning experience is there. Particularly with the addition of graduate transfer Darrion Daniels, Nebraska front should have both experience and depth coming back. The production of that front last year, of course, wasn’t what anyone thought (no. 96 nationally in rush defense and no. 76 nationally in sacks, according to com). But after a year in defensive coordinator Erik Chinander’s system (and, in all candor, a year removed from former defensive coordinator Bob Diaco), perhaps the unit we thought would be a strength in 2018 will actually become one in 2019.
  • Secondary Starters. Three of Nebraska’s four starters in the secondary should be decided going into spring football. Dicaprio Bootle was Nebraska’s best and most consistent cornerback throughout 2018, and Lamar Jackson responded to his benching early in the season to solidify himself as a starter. At safety, neither starter returns, but Deontai Williams showed such athleticism and natural ability that it would be stunning not to see him on the top line of the depth chart this year.
  • Mohammed Barry. Martinez is arguably Nebraska’s most important player, but it’s hard to overstate the leadership Barry brings not only to the defense but to the team in general. With a number of Nebraska’s vocal leaders from last season graduating, the mantle looks to fall to Barry to take on that role in 2019.

Biggest Questions

  • Secondary Depth. After the three likely starters, there’s little proven talent in the secondary. There is a tremendous amount of potential, but all unproven. That should be enough to keep Chinander up at night, but also provides an opportunity for someone to stand out.
  • Pass Rush. A pass rush is a defensive back’s best friend, and Nebraska’s pass rush struggled last season. With no obvious pass rush specialist being recruited in this year’s class, Nebraska will be looking to manufacture a rush from the talent already on the roster. A healthy JoJo Doman staying at outside linebacker should help, and a return to 2017 form for Ben Stille may be part of the answer.
  • Run Defense. Take another look at Nebraska’s performance against teams like Wisconsin and Iowa – if you can stomach it. Wisconsin averaged 7.7 yards per carry against Nebraska, while Iowa averaged 5.5 yards per carry. Nebraska simply will be able to win the B1G West if it cannot significantly improve how it defends power running teams.

Players to Watch

  • Breon Dixon. After transferring from Mississippi, last year it looked like Dixon might be the kind of immediate infusion of SEC talent that could give Nebraska’s defense an instant jolt. But it didn’t happen for Dixon last year, who saw very little of the field and was unable to make an impact. With a year in the system, 2019 is the time for Dixon to make his move.
  • Avery Anderson/Eric Lee. Yeah, I know it’s cheating to list two guys here. But Anderson and Lee were both highly regarded recruits, now in their last year at Nebraska. With the questions remaining about depth in the secondary, these two seniors have a door open to see the field and leave an impact in 2019.
  • Collin Miller. Will Honas came in as a junior college transfer last year and looked to be part of the puzzle for Nebraska’s transition on defense. But an injury against Purdue knocked Honas out for the season, and is still recovering from that injury. So outside of incoming freshman Jackson Hannah, Miller has the opportunity this spring to solidify a starting position at inside linebacker.

GBR, baby.

Nebraska Football: NU ReView, Iowa 31, Nebraska 28

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Nebraska’s 2018 campaign ended in heartbreaking fashion, with Iowa kicking a game-winning field goal as time expired to defeat Nebraska 31-28. Head coach Scott Frost’s squad made up a 28-13 deficit and tied the score, but wasn’t able to keep Iowa from getting into position to win the game at the end.

With the loss, Nebraska falls to 4-8 for the second straight season, and the third year without a bowl game. So as you prepare for another maddeningly-long offseason, let’s take a look back at this year’s Heroes Game.

THE GOOD

Culture change. In the last two games against Iowa, Nebraska did not respond well to Iowa’s challenge. In 2016, Nebraska entered the fourth quarter clinging to an ember of hope, down 26-10 but still within two scores. Iowa responded, though, by putting up fourteen unanswered fourth quarter points and notching an emphatic 40-10 win.

In 2017, hard as it is to remember, Nebraska and Iowa were tied 14-14 at the half. But a 28-0 explosion for Iowa in the third quarter left little doubt, as the Hawkeyes cruised to a 56-14 romp in Lincoln.

This year, Iowa was pushing Nebraska around, with a gutsy fake field goal failing and leaving Nebraska within 15 points, down 28-13. This time, though, Nebraska didn’t fold. Instead, Nebraska reeled off 15 straight, tying the score and requiring Iowa to hit a game-winning field goal as time expired.

Throughout this year, we’ve heard a whole bunch about judging the season not by wins and losses but by a nebulous concept called “culture change.” Well, Nebraska’s response against Iowa this year, compared to the previous two, is hard evidence of just what that culture change looks like.

Record-breaker. It’s hard to fathom that wide receiver Stanley Morgan is going to end his Nebraska career playing on three teams with losing records. His accomplishments have been amazing, and against Iowa he cemented his place in Nebraska’s record books.

Last week, Morgan broke Kenny Bell’s school record for total receptions. This week, Morgan passed Bell for total receiving yards in a career and became Nebraska’s first (!) 1,000-yard receiver in school history.

With Frost’s upscale offense still being installed, it’s entirely possible that Morgan’s time on top of the leaderboard may be short-lived. But that should take nothing away from a guy whose career spanned three coaches and ended in excellence.

Rivalry accomplished. Personal foul flags away from the play were flying. Tempers were flaring and the two teams were on edge. Both coaches took risks that seemed otherwise unwarranted in an attempt to win the game.

I know, Husker Fan, that for some reason you’re not wanting to dive into the rivalry pool with Iowa. Well, Nebraska junior linebacker Mo Barry disagrees with you. So does this smart and particularly handsome analyst.

Guys, that’s what a rivalry game looks like. That’s what losing a rivalry game on a walk-off field goal feels like. Embrace it, Husker Fan.

THE BAD

Physicality. Iowa ended up running for 266 yards against Nebraska’s defense, and particularly in the first half looked like it could get six to eight yards at will. While Nebraska’s defense shored up some in the second half, throughout the game Iowa’s physical dominance was never far from the surface.

Don’t believe me? Ask Frost (as reported by the Omaha World-Herald):

“Iowa’s a bigger, stronger football team,” Frost said. “That’s right now. I never thought I’d see or hear that or say that about a Nebraska football team. That we can fix. We can get bigger, we can get stronger.”

Candid words from Nebraska’s head man, but that should also be read as a challenge to his own team as the offseason draws near.

Walkoff Woes. 2018 felt like a year where almost everything that could go wrong for Nebraska went wrong, particularly early in the season. Frost started the season talking about how things would get worse before they get better, and about a team hitting rock bottom and finding its way up.

And yet, Nebraska was the victim of two walk-off field goal losses. Flip those two razor-thin margins, and Nebraska – yes, this 2018 borderline-year-zero Nebraska – is 6-6 and going to a bowl game.

Sure, reaching bowl eligibility isn’t and shouldn’t be the benchmark of success for Nebraska (although this year might help an otherwise-rabid fanbase hold on to just a sliver of perspective about the game over the next few years). But it is a reflection of the work Frost and his staff have done to have this Nebraska team, with this level of changes that needed to be made, be that close to the postseason.

Missed Ya, JD. In a game of such fine margins, it’s hard not to wonder what Nebraska’s offense would have looked like with its most elusive playmaker, wide receiver JD Spielman. Walk-on receiver Kade Warner did an admirable job, with four receptions for 16 yards and the clutch two-point conversion reception to tie the game.

But Warner, many things that he is, ain’t Spielman. We’ll all be left wondering what that game would have looked like had it been Spielman on the field.

AND THE PERFECT ENDING

Nebraska’s contest against Iowa was in many ways the 2018 season in microcosm. It started dreadfully, with Iowa dominating Nebraska physically and pulling out to what seemed like an untouchable 15-point lead. Then, a combination of offensive wizardry and an improved defensive performance, Nebraska pulled itself back into the game. At the end though, Nebraska was left with no immediate payoff for its hard work, but with a strong belief that a firm foundation has been laid going forward.

Sure, a win over Nebraska’s rival to the east would have been a sweet way to cap off a sour season. But somehow this sendoff to 2018 seems to fit better. Now Nebraska will go into another long offseason knowing just how close it was – to a win over a rival, to a bowl game, to being the kind of team Frost envisioned – but that it isn’t there yet.

That feels like the kind of sour sendoff that will put a little extra fire into offseason work. Every Nebraska player coming back next year can feel like the difference between how 2018 turned out and a championship run might be an extra set of reps, an extra mile run, an extra hour of film each day.

It worked for Nebraska in 1994, when the team adopted an “Unfinished Business” motto after 1993’s disappointment. Obviously, the disappointment of 2018’s 4-8 campaign and 1993’s national title near-miss are two very different things.

But the motivational power of disappointment remains the same. So yeah, Husker Fan, that wasn’t a fun end to the season (particularly to those of us who experienced it in Hawkeye country).

However, if that disappointment ends up being the spark that lights the fire of a 2019 campaign, then it will all be worth it for you.

GBR, baby.

Nebraska Football: No, You Can’t Kick Players Off The Team For Kneeling During the National Anthem

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On Saturday, prior to Nebraska’s game against Northwestern, defenders Michael Rose-Ivey, DaiShon Neal, and Mohammed Berry knelt during the playing of “The Star Spangled Banner.” The action was a protest, inspired by San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, to draw attention to the deaths of African-Americans at the hands of police. Rose-Ivey described the rationale for his actions as follows (as quoted by the Omaha World-Herald):

As everyone is aware, this past Saturday, before the game against Northwestern, DaiShon Neal, Mohamed Barry and myself kneeled in solidarity with Colin Kaepernick and many other athletes across the country, both professional and non-professional, who are standing together to use their various platforms to bring awareness about police brutality and the recent deaths of black men and women at the hands of police officers.

To make it clear, I am not anti-police, I am not anti-military, nor am I anti-American. I love my country deeply and I appreciate the freedoms it professes to afford me.

I feel I am obligated to stand up and bring awareness to the social injustices that are not limited to police brutality but also to the policies and laws that discriminate against and hinder the growth and opportunities of people of color, low-income people, women and other marginalized communities.

As a rule, I try to avoid politics and controversy here. While I have my opinions on the Kaepernick-style protests, I decided not to use this forum to share them with the world. If you want a really thoughtful piece on the protests themselves, check out Brandon Cavanaugh’s piece from Today’s U.

I even held fire when Rose-Ivey and the other players – and the predictability of this response was so disheartening – received racist death threats as a result of their actions. Such revoltingly ignorant and evil actions would seem not to need a response – “hey, how about not being a racist bully” doesn’t seem like a particularly hot take – but maybe in 2016 it’s becoming necessary.

Then I read about what University of Nebraska Regent Hal Daub had to say about the protest by the Nebraska players (according to Chris Dunker of the Lincoln Journal-Star):

It’s a free country. They don’t have to play football for the university either.

They know better, and they had better be kicked off the team.

They won’t take the risk to exhibit their free speech in a way that places their circumstance in jeopardy, so let them get out of uniform and do their protesting on somebody else’s nickel,

Those publicity seeking athletes ought to rethink the forum in which they chose to issue their personal views at the expense of everyone else.

(emphasis added)

In addition to following Nebraska football (although my wife would say there’s precious little time for much else, especially in the fall), I have some experience in the law. And when a Nebraska Regent – the elected officials responsible for the entire University of Nebraska system – says in public that football players at a Nebraska university should be kicked off a team, that’s a big deal.

Why? Because that’s clearly unconstitutional.

To understand why, we have to understand what is being asked of the players. Observing “standard” decorum for the National Anthem is asking players – commanding players, in Daub’s view – to make a political statement. There’s no getting around that position. If it wasn’t a political statement – if what you say and how you act during the national anthem doesn’t carry meaning – then the national controversy generated by Kaepernick would not exist.

Nebraska is a state university, which means when it takes an action, it ultimately carries the force of the state of Nebraska behind it. That includes what the university can require football players to do during the National Anthem. And the First Amendment (made applicable to the states by the Fourteenth Amendment) has very clearly been understood to mean that the state cannot mandate a citizen to make a political statement he or she does not want to make.

The most famous United States Supreme Court case about this is probably Wooley v. Maynard, where the Court said the state of New Hampshire could not require citizens to put a license plate on their cars with the state motto of “Live Free Or Die” if that message conflicted with their own personal views. But there are a host of other cases making it clear that the government cannot compel speech from its citizens.

That’s why Daub has it exactly backwards. Rose-Ivey and the others weren’t expressing “personal views at the expense of everyone else” (never mind the argument about how anyone else’s expression of patriotism was affected by someone quietly kneeling). They were declining to participate in a political statement by observing standard decorum for the National Anthem. They were doing so quietly, and in a way that was specifically designed after consultation with veterans to be respectful of the military while still reflecting the message  of the protest (according to Will Brinson of CBS Sports)

And Daub wants to use the power of the state to punish those players for failing to make the political statement he felt the players should make, seeking out the media to criticize the “publicity seeking athletes.”

Now, it’s different if a professional sports league, such as the NFL or NBA, wants to put a rule in place with regards to the National Anthem. The First Amendment protects you from the government, but it doesn’t protect you from your employer (unless you work for the government, of course).

Since the story came out, Daub has now denied saying he said he thought the players should be removed from the team, prompting this headline from Deadspin (and meaning that Daub’s statement has gained national attention and that he probably isn’t going to put this particular cat back in the bag):

Nebraska Regent Calls For Kneeling Players To Be Kicked Off Team Then Tries To Deny It (Filed to: LIARS)

While it doesn’t sound like Daub is going to get a mulligan for this one, it is good that he recognizes his position was untenable. As a lawyer and long-time Congressman, Daub should well know the freedoms guaranteed to all citizens, and that the power of the state cannot be used to compel anyone – even a Nebraska football player – to make a political statement he or she does not want to make.

There’s plenty of room for conversation about the moral justification for the kneeling protest, and people of good faith on both sides can honorably take opposing positions. Pete Ricketts, Nebraska’s Governor, called the protests “disgraceful” but upheld their right to protest (according to Sam McKewon and Emily Nohr of the Omaha World-Herald).

Look, if seeing Nebraska football players kneeling during the National Anthem upsets or offends you, I’m sure it feels good to say that they should be kicked off the team. But the Constitution – the document that ultimately the National Anthem is celebrating – clearly says the state is forbidden to do such a thing.

Nebraska Football: Five Freshmen Who Must Shine In Fall Practice

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photo and story by Patrick Runge

Nebraska football fans will be looking to the freshman as reasons for optimism in 2015 as fall practice begins. Yes, new head coach Mike Riley gives a new blush to Nebraska’s outlook on the season. But it will be the freshmen who will provide an upgrade to the roster that (hopefully, for Nebraska fans) will make the difference.

So here are five freshmen (redshirt and otherwise) who will need to have a solid performance in fall practice to set the table for the 2015 season.

Dedrick Young

Some of the other players on this list have to shine in fall practice for the players to have a chance. In Young’s case, he has to shine for Nebraska to be successful.

Nebraska’s lack of depth at linebacker is terrifying. For 2015, Nebraska has four scholarship linebackers. Of those four, one was used sparingly as a pass rush specialist, one was injured for all of last season, and one redshirted last year. That leaves one—Josh Banderas—with significant playing experience last year.

So the redshirt freshmen linebackers are likely going to be called on to contribute. Young, as an early-enrollee, will get the first shot at playing time. And unless Nebraska is extraordinarily fortunate with injuries, he or one of the other freshmen will be critical.

The Other Freshmen Linebackers

Young will get the first crack at playing time, but given Nebraska’s paper-thin depth at linebacker the other freshmen will have their shot. As a redshirt freshman, Luke Gifford should be first in line to take a crack at playing time. But the door will be wide open for the other true freshmen linebackers, Mohammed Barry, Tyrin Ferguson, and Adrienne Talan, to find their way onto the field.

Freedom Akinmoladun

Linebacker might be Nebraska’s biggest depth problem, but defensive end isn’t far behind. Jack Gangwish and Greg McMullen look to be in the lead to start, but the depth chart behind them is wide open.

According to Tom Dienhart of the Big Ten Network, Akinmoladun is his pick for Nebraska’s breakout player. A converted tight end, Akinmoladun brings speed and athleticism to the position, which is perfectly suited to be a pass rushing specialist at defensive end. And that’s exactly what Nebraska needs in an attempt to replace the production of Randy Gregory.

Matt Snyder

A smart and particularly handsome analyst pointed out that Nebraska’s offense under Riley should feature the tight end more than it has in the past. And while Cethan Carter should be first in line to benefit from the change in offensive philosophy, it also opens the door for a true freshman like Snyder.

None of Nebraska’s other tight ends on the roster provide the offensive threat that Snyder promises. And if Nebraska does end up playing in more 12 personnel (one running back, two tight ends), putting Snyder with Carter on the field at the same time has the potential to cause matchup nightmares for opposing defenses.

Jordan Ober

Ober might be one of the most under-hyped freshmen coming in, but he is second only to Young in terms of players Nebraska needs to contribute right away. Nebraska has the potential to be have a superior special teams unit, especially punting. But that’s only if Nebraska gets consistent play from its long snapper.

And that’s where Ober comes in. With the loss of Gabriel Miller to injury, Nebraska needed a scholarship long snapper. Ober, as a true freshman, will likely be called upon to come in right away and keep Nebraska’s special teams on track.