We are well and truly into spring practice for Nebraska football ahead of the 2021 season. After a disappointing 3-5 campaign, Nebraska now enters head coach Scott Frost’s fourth season surrounded by uncertainty. With a number of high profile departures on offense and a strong corps of returning defensive starters, anyone who says they know what Nebraska will be like in 2021 is guessing.
But it is year four, and even Frost’s most ardent defenders understand that results on the field need to be seen this year. So what questions will need to be answered as the new season begins?
So, about that offense?
Look, there’s a lot about Frost’s first three years in Lincoln that have been surprising and befuddling. But by far the most surprising is how lost Nebraska’s offense looks. Frost arrived from UCF bringing an innovative spread-based option attack that looked to meld what he learned at Oregon with the principles he learned under Tom Osborne.
The results have not been what anyone expected. In total offense, Nebraska was no. 25 nationally in 2018, which gave fans hope for things to come. But in the last two years, Nebraska has been no. 55 and 65 nationally in total offense – meaning things have gotten comparatively worse in the three years since Frost arrived.
Sure, there’s plenty of explanations. Nebraska’s roster wasn’t where it needed to be, particularly in the trenches. Nebraska’s culture (I know, I’m sick to the teeth of hearing about “culture” too) wasn’t the best. Frost’s offensive system hadn’t been tested against defenses of the caliber and style of the B1G.
But it’s year four, with a four-year starter at quarterback and a well-stocked offensive line. It’s time for Frost’s offense to show proof of concept.
For as much as Nebraska’s offense has been an enigma, Nebraska’s defense has been a surprising star. After being ranked no. 94 nationally in total defense in 2018, Nebraska’s ranking improved to no. 65 in 2019 and no. 50 in 2020.
And for as much turnover as Nebraska’s offensive personnel has seen in the last couple of years, defensive coordinator Erik Chinander sees almost his entire squad return for the 2021 campaign. We’ve seen Nebraska’s offense be – put charitably – a work in progress in the last three years. Is it really possible that Nebraska’s defense can be the glue that holds things together until Frost gets the offense on track?
Can special teams not be a disaster?
What is truly maddening – well, one of the things that are truly maddening – about Frost’s time in Nebraska is how special teams have been a quiet culprit of failure. Think about, even if nothing on offense or defense was any better than it was, how many games Nebraska could have or should have won with even league average special teams play.
2019 Iowa with a kick return touchdown. 2019 Wisconsin with a kick return touchdown. 2019 without a field goal kicker. 2020 Illinois with a fake punt. And these are just the ones that come to mind the quickest. Imagine without these debacles that Nebraska could have won some of those agonizingly-close games it always seemed to be on the wrong side of. And if a couple of those games turn the other way, especially against teams like Iowa or Wisconsin, how much does that change the confidence – and, dare I say, the culture – of the team?
Can Frost reboot the roster?
Yes, a 3-5 record in a pandemic-shortened 2020 season made it hard for even the hardest of die-hard Nebraska fans to stay optimistic, particularly with head-scratching losses to Illinois and Minnesota.
But what really shook Nebraska fans to their collective core was seeing how many players – Frost recruits, not just previous staff guys – who were leaving the program. Some, like running back Dedrick Mills, were a loss but understandable. But when leaders like Luke McCaffrey and Wan’Dale Robinson left, alarm bells started to ring.
Frost has been able to restock the cupboards pretty quickly through the transfer portal, landing running back Markese Stepp from USC and wide receiver Samori Toure from Montana. If Omar Manning, last year’s shining hope as a transfer, is also able to contribute, then Nebraska’s offensive weapons will look very different than they did last year.
That might very well be a good thing given Nebraska’s anemic performance. But it is also a very strange thing given that – other than at quarterback – Nebraska’s skill positions will look almost entirely different next year.
Can Frost keep the vision alive?
One of DC’s most under-rated superheroes is Green Lantern (maybe because this movie got made). Whether it’s Hal Jordan, Jon Stewart, Guy Garder, or any other incarnation, a Green Lantern’s willpower is what he or she uses to keep the galaxy safe. It is the strength of the Lantern’s will, focused through a power ring, that makes Lanterns the scourge of despots throughout the universe.
Much like a Green Lantern, right now Frost is holding Nebraska’s program together through the force of his own will. Even though Frost is 12-20 since 2018, Frost has never waivered in promoting his vision for the program, how he sees this thing turning around and where it will be.
In many ways, Frost is willing Nebraska’s program into existence with his vision. His success at Oregon and UCF certainly help, but ultimately it’s Frost’s force of will and charisma that is keeping Nebraska afloat. It continues to work, as a smart and particularly handsome analyst has observed, based on how Frost continues to out-recruit his results on the field.
But now it’s year four, and willpower can only take you so far. Green Lanterns have to recharge their rings every 24 hours, and at some point Frost is going to have to recharge himself with some success on the field for his willpower-created program to avoid collapse.