Nebraska Football: What New Redshirt Rules Mean for the Cornhuskers

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Wednesday, the NCAA adopted new rules that will have a significant impact on college football rosters. Under the new rules, players can participate in up to four games in a season and still be eligible to redshirt for that season.

Under the previous rules, participating in even one snap during a season would burn a player’s redshirt for the year unless that player received a medical exemption from the NCAA. Now, a player can participate in up to four games – a quarter of the regular season – and still be able to redshirt and not lose a year of eligibility.

This rule change, which takes effect this coming season, will have a significant effect on how all college football teams manage their rosters. What will those effects be, and how specifically will they affect Nebraska?

DEPTH OPTIONS FOR INJURIES

More than likely, the biggest change this rule will create is the ability for schools to expand the pool of players they can use to cover injuries. Take a look at Nebraska’s roster distribution and you can see an alarming depth situation at a number of key positions.

With the new rule, Nebraska will now be able to press true freshmen in a crisis situation without having to burn their redshirts for one play. So if Nebraska finds itself due to injury or suspension down to a choice between a true freshman scholarship player or a walk-on without the requisite talent to hold up, Nebraska will now not have to factor in the loss of a redshirt season to let that freshman play for a game or four.

This could become even more important on the offensive and defensive lines, when freshmen are given an extra couple of months in the strength and conditioning program to build up size and strength to stand up against B1G competition. Particularly at offensive line, even being able to increase the number of players that can be included in a rotation will help preserve the starters’ ability to last throughout a season.

IN-GAME OPPORTUNITIES FOR PROMISING FRESHMEN

The other significant change that the new redshirt rule will provide is the ability for teams to give immediate in-game opportunities for incoming freshman that could compete for playing time.

As an example, take a look at Jaylin Bradley’s 2017 campaign for Nebraska as a true freshman.

Game Total touches Total yards
Northern Illinois 0 0
Rutgers 6 16
Illinois 1 7
Purdue 7 42
Penn State 1 9
Iowa 9 19
TOTAL 24 93

Under the old system, once Bradley entered the game against Northern Illinois – even though he didn’t touch the ball – his redshirt year was gone.  Whether or not the juice was worth the squeeze with regards to the decision to burn his redshirt season is certainly up for debate. But there’s no question that as a result of the old rule, his sporadic use was a sunk cost.

Under the new rule, Bradley’s entry into the game against Northern Illinois and Rutgers would have still left the coaching staff with the ability to find spots for him to potentially contribute (such as Purdue and Iowa) while protecting his redshirt eligibility.

An even clearer example of how the new rule and avoiding the sunk cost of a burned redshirt could benefit both players and teams is wide receiver Tyjon Lindsey. Here’s Lindsey’s 2017 total offensive output.

Game Total touches Total yards
Arkansas State 0 0
Oregon 2 5
Northern Illinois 0 0
Rutgers 0 0
Illinois 0 0
Wisconsin 0 0
Ohio State 0 0
Purdue 1 3
Northwestern 2 -6
Minnesota 0 0
Penn State 1 1
Iowa 1 1
Total 7 4

Lindsey was one of Nebraska’s most exciting recruits in the 2017 class, and it made perfect sense to get him onto the field and see if his electric skills could make a difference. Unfortunately for Lindsey, it didn’t really work out for him to contribute last year – although, in Lindsey’s defense, not a lot went well for Nebraska last year.

But again, under the old system, once he set foot on the field for one snap against Arkansas State, his redshirt season was gone. Even though the Lindsey experiment was clearly failing, there was no point in not playing him, as the redshirt season was a sunk cost.

Under the new rule, Lindsey would have had four games to demonstrate his ability to contribute on the field. If it wasn’t happening – and boy, was it not happening for Lindsey – then the coaches could have benched Lindsey after those four games and saved a full year of his eligibility.

(Stats from cfbstats.com)

ADDITIONAL MOTIVATION OPPORTUNITIES

Under the old rule, redshirting freshmen pretty much knew they were in for a season of observation. Sure, there’s still plenty of motivation for them to be putting work in for seasons to come. But it’s human nature to have a little extra motivation if you know a payoff for your hard work can come sooner rather than later.

Well, with the new rule there’s another carrot that coaches can use to help drive freshman performance. If a player knows that he could get into four games during the season and not burn a redshirt year, there’s little doubt that will provide a little extra motivational push to perform and earn that playing time.

SPECIFIC ADVANTAGES FOR NEBRASKA

Every school is going to reap the benefits of this new rule, of course. But a program like Nebraska seems poised to take particular advantage of the change.

For schools at the top end, the rule change is going to have limited effect. Part of what makes schools like Alabama and Ohio State such perennial powers is that their rosters are loaded up with blue-chip athletes both young and old. As a result, those schools are far less likely to reach a depth crisis where they would be forced to consider burning a redshirt year to fill a gaping hole in the depth chart due to injury or suspension.

As a result, this de facto expansion of a team’s eligible roster – somewhat akin to Major League Baseball’s expanded rosters in September – should act as somewhat of a leveling device between programs. Because programs such as Nebraska, a tier (or two or three) below teams like Alabama and Ohio State, are more likely to need and use freshmen to fill in depth gaps, the rule change is likely to benefit those lower-tier schools more. That will help close the gap between the Alabamas of the world and those chasing them.

Additionally, because those top-flight schools have stacked rosters already, it would be more difficult for top-tier freshmen to crack the starting lineup. Because those freshmen can see the field earlier without burning a redshirt, the “chasing” programs now have an additional card to play in recruiting battles for highly-regarded prospects – come to a school like Nebraska, and it’s more likely you’ll see the field right away.

The NCAA is quite rightly criticized for any number of things it has done poorly (GIVE US BACK OUR NCAA FOOTBALL VIDEO GAME!!!!) over the years. But this rule change is great. It’s good for the players. It’s good for the schools. And in helping to level the playing field, it’s good for the sport in general.

GBR, baby.

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Nebraska Football – Pre-Spring Game Offensive Preview

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The problem – well, one of the problems – with missing a bowl game is how long you as a fan have to wait to see football. In an ordinary, bowl-game-including season, the longest wait for Nebraska football is from the Spring Game until kickoff of the new season.

But after Nebraska’s 4-8 campaign in 2017, the firing of Mike Riley, and the hiring of Scott Frost, the wait from the end of the 2017 season to the 2018 Spring Game will be even longer. So if it seems like that ugly loss to Iowa on Black Friday was a long time ago, well, it actually was.

Even with snow still on the ground in April, then, spring football is here, and it’s time to start getting ready for what life will be like under Frost. Let’s take a look at the offense first, to get somewhat of an idea of what to expect.

Quarterback – Three schollies and a lot of questions

There’s a whole bunch of unknowns for Nebraska coming into 2018. But one of the biggest unknowns is who will be Nebraska’s signal-caller to start the season.

Nebraska’s two returning scholarship quarterbacks are redshirt sophomore Patrick O’Brien and redshirt freshman Tristan Gebbia. O’Brien has the only returning experience, playing in three games including the entirety of Nebraska’s 54-21 loss to Minnesota. Both O’Brien and Gebbia were recruited to play former head coach Mike Riley’s pro-style system, quite different from Frost’s no-huddle, up-tempo attack.

That doesn’t mean O’Brien or Gebbia couldn’t run Frost’s offense, though. As O’Brien told the Lincoln Journal-Star:

“I’ve been paying attention,” O’Brien said of the Knights. “Their offense is really fast, and they’re a good team. It’s going to be exciting for us to run that here. I feel like I fit in it pretty good. I ran something pretty similar to it in high school, and I feel like it fits my skill set, so I’m just ready to go.”

Also competing for the position will be true freshman Adrian Martinez, a four-star dual-threat quarterback. Frost was not shy about his praise of Martinez, according to Land of 10.

“I’m excited about him. He has a lot of potential,” Frost said. “When I was evaluating quarterbacks a year ago around the country, he was my favorite one. His ability to run and throw and his maturity as a kid are going to serve him really well, and for the offense that we run, I didn’t think there was a better fit in the country. Once we took the Nebraska job, we got a hold of him right away and we’re thrilled to have him on campus.”

So yes, Husker fan, at some point in the near future you’ll have a Martinez slinging the ball around Memorial Stadium. Get ready for your flashbacks.

It’s tempting to thing that Martinez will get the nod when Nebraska tees it up against Akron in September. At Central Florida, Frost didn’t hesitate to play a freshman quarterback in McKenzie Milton. But don’t discount the experience and athleticism of both O’Brien and Gebbia.

It’s likely that Frost and co. will want Martinez to show up ready and win the job. But it’s very unlikely that a true freshman will be able to pull of that feat. Look for O’Brien or Gebbia to get the nod, at least to start the season.

I-Back – Questions about the guys coming back, and the guys showing up

Nebraska looked like it had a real answer at I-back with Tre Bryant. For two games, Bryant looked to be the go-to back Nebraska had been hoping for since Ameer Abdullah,  averaging 5.86 yards per carry and 149.5 yards per game.

But lingering injuries sidelined Bryant for the rest of the season, and he remains a question mark as to what he will be able to contribute in 2018. Devine Ozigbo and Mikale Wilbon will be the backs returning with the most experience. Sophomore Jaylin Bradley flashed some potential, as well, in the limited opportunity he got towards the end of the season. And with the demise of the fullback, it’s likely that Ben Miles will look for his ability to contribute as an I-back, if not on special teams – if he remains part of the program.

This year’s recruiting class, however, has put some new faces into the mix. Junior college transfer Greg Bell was a jewel of the class, and with two years of eligibility left it’s hard not to see Bell competing hard for playing time right away. And on signing day (well, old school signing day anyway), one of Nebraska’s big wins was four-star running back Maurice Washington.

What the I-back position will look like in Frost’s new offense is still an open question. And given the new and returning faces in the room, who will be filling the role next season is just as much of an open question.

Wide Receiver – Stan’s squad

One of the best pieces of news Frost got upon taking the job in Lincoln was learning that wide receiver Stanley Morgan Jr was returning for his senior season. Morgan’s offensive output last year – 61 catches, 987 yards, 10 touchdowns – was one of the bright spots in an otherwise dismal 2017 season. Indeed, while Morgan did break Johnny Rogers’ 1972 single-season receiving record, his chase for 1,000 receiving yards ended up being about the only compelling thing to watch for Nebraska fans as the season wore down.

Also returning is JD Spielman, who had a breakout freshman campaign with 55 receptions, 830 yards, and two touchdowns. Spielman’s game would seem to translate well to Frost’s speed-based offense, and his year of experience should set him up well to contribute next year.

Tyjon Lindsey, one of the prize recruits from last year’s class, also returns with a year of experience. Lindsey struggled to find his place in the offense last year, but he remains one of the players for whom a year of experience and a change in system might pay the biggest rewards.

Nebraska’s also got some returning question marks, including Jaevon McQuitty coming off of an injury, and Keyan Williams looking for an opportunity to make his contribution. There was also a swell of receiving talent arriving in this year’s recruiting class, including junior college transfers like the speedy Jaron Woodyard and big-bodied Mike Williams. Incoming freshmen Miles Jones, Dominick Watt, and Andre Hunt will also find themselves competing for playing time in 2018.

Tight End – Spoiled for choices

Nebraska has one returning tight end with any experience, sophomore Jack Stoll, who hauled in eight catches for 89 yards and two touchdowns in 2017.

So, there’s some holes to fill for Nebraska at the position. The tight end is another position that looks to undergo some big changes in Frost’s offense, and the advantage Frost has is that he’ll have some options to choose from.

Stoll, as the only returning contributor, likely has an advantage in competing for playing time. But he’ll be fighting with oft-injured Matt Snyder, as well as highly-recruited Austin Allen and Kurt Rafdal. And don’t be surprised if Nebraska native David Engelhaupt is in the mix this season as well.

This year’s recruiting class also brought in three big-bodied, move-style tight end weapons in Cameron Jurgens, Katerian Lagrone, and Justin McGriff. So while Nebraska doesn’t have a lot of experience coming back, at the very least it will have a lot of options from which to choose.

Offensive Line – The perennial question

Nebraska should feel comfortable with returning talent at guard, as Tanner Farmer, Jerald Foster, and Brendan Jaimes will all be back. At center, Michael Decker and Cole Conrad will likely be competing for the spot, but both have injury issues that will limit their participation in spring practice.

Tackle is by far the biggest question on Nebraska’s offensive line – and that’s a big position at which to have a question. Matt Farniok will get a shot to slide out to tackle, and it also is time for Broc Bando and Christian Gaylord to step up and make their mark.

Nebraska has some additional line depth – Chris Walker, Boe Wilson, Jalin Barnett, and Matt Sichtermann will all have their opportunities. Freshmen Will Farniok and Willie Canty will be coming to Lincoln, but it’s always a challenge for freshmen linemen to play.

(h/t to Sam McKewon of the Omaha World-Herald for his offensive line preview)

GBR, baby.

All stats courtesy of cfbstats.com unless otherwise stated.

Nebraska Football: What the 2017 Recruiting Class Means for the Cornhuskers (And a Super Six!)

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On Wednesday, Nebraska signed a class of 20 prospects who will join the Cornhusker roster for the 2017 season. The eight defensive and 12 offensive players were rated no. 21 nationally by ESPN, no. 23 by 247 Sports, and no. 20 by Rivals. Bill Connelly of SB Nation does an aggregate recruiting ranking, which puts Nebraska at no. 22 nationally this year, no. 22 over a two-year timespan, and no. 26 over a five-year timespan.

So, a decent class, but not the top-15 heights that some were hoping for. But what does this mean for where Nebraska is now as a program, and where it’s going?

Fishing in the Right Streams

Yeah, holding your breath on National Signing Day to wait for high school kids to put on a hat is a little nerve-wracking. And given that Nebraska only signed 20 players instead of the expected 22 or 23 means that spots were likely being held for Signing Day decision-makers like C.J. Verdell, Joseph Lewis, and Deommodore Lenoir, who went elsewhere.

Oh, yeah. And there was Jamire “Three Commitments” Calvin, too.

And while that’s frustrating and disappointing, it’s something you’d better get used to as a Husker fan if you want to sit at the Big Kids’ Table in college football. For Nebraska to get over its four-loss plateau, it’s going to need the talents of players who wait until National Signing Day to put on a hat.

The fact that Nebraska is in the mix right to the end with so many of these players is a great sign. Landing one more of those guys would likely have put Nebraska safely into the top 20. This year’s class has decommits from Ohio State and Florida, showing once again that head coach Mike Riley can go toe-to-toe with national juggernauts and win recruiting battles.

So, yes, Nebraska’s 2017 can definitely be chalked up as a good-but-not-good-enough performance. But this is also coming off a second season of Nebraska’s on-field performances being somewhat less than inspiring. If the addition of a quarterback friendlier to Riley’s offensive system and the addition of new defensive coordinator Bob Diaco bear fruit on the field in 2017, then 2018’s class may have even more promise to offer.

An Incomplete List

Nebraska signed 20 players to Letters of Intent, bringing its total of scholarship players to 83 (the roster breakdown done by the Omaha World-Herald is here, although at the time of writing it did not have the entire 2017 class listed). In his discussion with the media about the 2017 class, Riley said that he liked the flexibility of having a couple extra scholarships available to use.

OK, sure, having those extra scholarships can be useful if there is a late-available kid or for a JUCO target. But let’s be real. Those spots would have been filled if guys like Lewis or Lenoir would have picked Nebraska.

That leaves Nebraska’s roster a little thin, particularly at wide receiver. And with all the talent departing next year, recruiting defensive backs is going to be a huge priority for 2018.

Winning the West

Nebraska hasn’t won a conference title since 1999. If there’s anything that’s an indictment on how far Nebraska has fallen from mid-nineties glory, that lonely “1999” on the West Stadium sign for conference championships should serve as a reminder in ten-foot-tall lettering.

But to win a conference title, you need to win your division. Perhaps in year seven (!) in the Big Ten, Husker Fan will finally be ready to embrace its divisional rivals as the primary focus for Nebraska’s success.

So how is the rest of the B1G West doing in recruiting (according to Bill Connelly’s five-year recruiting rankings from SB Nation)?

Team 2017 Nat’l Rank Two-year Nat’l Rank Five-year Nat’l Rank
Nebraska 22 22 26
Wisconsin 38 36 34
Iowa 40 41 50
Illinois 46 57 58
Northwestern 53 48 48
Minnesota 56 52 55
Purdue 69 72 71

What do all these numbers mean? Well, the first thing that jumps out is that no one from the West is ready to compete nationally. We’ll talk more later about why recruiting ratings matter, but here’s a fascinating bit of statistical analysis from Stewart Mandel of FOX Sports.

Power 5 teams (of which there are 65) that consistently recruit Top 20 classes have a 60 percent chance of becoming a Top 20 program and a 35 percent chance of regularly inhabiting the Top 10.

By contrast, Power 5 teams that finish outside the Top 20 in recruiting have a lower than 18 percent chance of fielding Top 20 teams and just a 6.7 percent chance of reaching the Top 10.

The only team that’s even close to consistent top 20 recruiting performance from the B1G West is Nebraska, but as you can see from the five-year ranking, even that has been buoyed by recent performance.

This, by the way, is precisely the point where those college football fans who disdain recruiting rankings (such as Keyshawn Johnson, by the way, as told to Erin Sorensen of Hail Varsity) will point out that Wisconsin has been one of the most consistent national powers over the last ten years, and that Iowa is only one season removed from an undefeated regular season and being one play from the College Football Playoff.

Wisconsin is a fair point. The Badgers have been in the final AP Top 25 every year since 2013, topping out at no. 9 this year. And in 2012, Wisconsin won the B1G (although I don’t remember what happened in the conference title game) and played in the Rose Bowl.

But that means Wisconsin is dramatically overperforming its overall talent. It does so by recruiting to a system and narrowly focusing on players that are good fits for that system (which might sound like some other guy Nebraska fans have heard of). It’s a valid strategy, as Wisconsin has clearly proven. But it also means you have to significantly outcoach opposing teams and consistently either unearth diamonds in the rough or develop average players into top-flight college performers.

That’s tough to sustain. Just as Michigan State, which follows a similar model to Wisconsin and endured a 4-8 season one year after a College Football Playoff appearance.

Well, how about Iowa? No one is going to take last year’s 12-0 performance away from the Hawkeyes. But it was also in large part the product of the stars aligning and the schedule softening. Outside of that magical 2012 run (which, unfortunately, ended with a bit of a thud), Iowa hasn’t lost fewer than five games since 2009. That would suggest 2012 was an outlier, and Iowa’s performance is about what a team that recruits in the forties nationally should expect.

Yes, Nebraska’s time in the B1G has not been as productive in the trophy cabinet as Husker Fan would have liked or expected. But, the bottom line is that Nebraska should have a clear talent advantage over the rest of its divisional rivals. Even more encouraging, Nebraska is one of only four teams in the B1G West (along with Iowa, Illinois, and Purdue) that is improving on its five-year average, suggesting positive momentum in recruiting. Now, it just needs to start translating that recruiting advantage to wins on the field and trips to Indianapolis in December.

Super Six (and a Sleeper)

It wouldn’t be a National Signing Day piece without an obligatory review of the signing class. So here is the official Double Extra Point Super Six for Nebraska’s 2017 class:

No. 6: Kurt Rafdal / Austin Allen (TE)

OK, OK, I know I’m cheating by listing both of them. But these are two impressive-looking tight end prospects coming to Lincoln. Rafdal is six-foot-seven and 230 pounds, while Allen in six-foot-eight and 210 pounds. Both are offensive weapons, and with the potential for a quarterback to truly spread the field, they should be able to create mismatches and allow the tight end to (finally) become a vital cog in Nebraska’s offensive engine.

No. 5: Brendan Jaimes (OT)

As with just about any offensive lineman, Jaimes will probably need a redshirt season to get himself physically able to handle life in the B1G. But he has the frame (six-foot-five, 250 pounds) and the skill set to be Nebraska’s left tackle from 2019 going forward.

No. 4: Guy Thomas (DE/OLB)

There’s a reason Nebraska fans were holding their collective breath on Signing Day to see if Thomas was still “N.” There’s nothing more valuable on defense than a natural pass rusher, something Nebraska has been without since Randy Gregory. Thomas probably isn’t a Gregory-level player, but he’s the closest thing in this class to a player that can heat up opposing quarterbacks. He’ll likely slide to an outside linebacker in Diaco’s 3-4 scheme, which should make him more dangerous as a pass rusher.

No. 3: Tyjon Lindsey (WR)

There’s a reason Urban Meyer wanted this kid to play in the Shoe. Lindsey is a game-changing playmaker with speed and moves and hands to score on offense and on special teams. Given his size (five-foot-nine, 161 pounds), he would be expected to at least start out in the slot. But given his talent, don’t be surprised if he ends up being able to play as an outside receiver. With Nebraska transitioning to a more quarterback-accurate offense, a player like Lindsey has the chance to make an immediate impact.

No. 2: Keyshawn Johnson Jr. (WR)

It’s unfortunate that Johnson’s talent is going to be lost in the shuffle a little, given his famous father and the expectations that brings. I expect Johnson to be an impressive contributor on the field, a bit in the Jordan Westerkamp mode in terms of the type of receiver he is.

But Johnson’s impact on Nebraska, both this year and going forward, is the buzz his commitment and continued recruiting has given NU. The “Calibraska” movement doesn’t happen without Johnson’s energetic commitment, and Nebraska’s recruiting momentum likely doesn’t take hold without that Calibraska movement.

So regardless of what his on-field contributions will be – and, again, I think Johnson is going to surprise with how well he plays – in a sense he’s already done his job for Nebraska.

No. 1: Damion Daniels (DT)

Daniels might not be the best player in the 2017 class. But he might be the most important. With Nebraska migrating to a 3-4 defense under Diaco, it is going to need a big run-stuffer to play the nose tackle, one that eventually will have the size to play “two-gap” on both sides of the center.

Daniels is six-foot-three and 315 pounds as a high school senior. He’s got the frame to be that true nose tackle in the future – with an outside shot of the future being 2017 if he has a good spring.

Sleeper: Ben Miles (FB)

Yeah, it was cool to see the Mad Hatter don a Nebraska lid on ESPN. But Les Miles’ boy can play. He’s an effective lead blocker, and a good enough athlete to be deployed as an H-back or even out of the slot as a receiver. He’ll play on special teams, and has a shot to be a four-year contributor.

Remember Andy Janovich’s senior campaign in 2015, and all the what-might-have-beens (such as those raised by a smart and particularly handsome analyst) if he would have been given a more featured role in Nebraska’s offense? Well, with Miles we might get to answer some of those questions.