The Huskers picked up their 21st transfer commit on Tuesday (including walk-ons and junior college commits) when former Texas wideout Marcus Washington pulled the trigger.
That transfer haul includes three JUCO players, six FCS/Division III transfers (including three walk-ons) and 12 FBS transfers (10 of which were from other Power Five programs). That is a sizable transfer class that may or may not even be complete at this stage.
And because of the free transfer role, each and every one of them is eligible to play this season. Welcome to the new age of college football, where it’s easier to flip a roster than ever before.
The buzzword for the 2021 season was “close.” Nebraska went 3-9 with a positive point differential and nine single-digit losses, six of which were against ranked opponents. However, the Huskers were so close in large part because of an experienced group of upperclassmen, most of which are gone. Scott Frost also swapped out most of his offensive coaching staff and the offense is set to change dramatically with Mark Whipple’s arrival as coordinator.
However close the 2021 team might have been really doesn’t matter, because the 2022 version of the Huskers looks like a whole new squad.
We saw last season with Michigan State how impactful a great transfer class can be, and now Frost is trying to replicate Mel Tucker’s success in what appears to be a make-or-break year for his future in Lincoln.
The staff still has all of fall camp to sort out the depth chart, but if I were to project the two-deep right now, I could see upwards of 16 or 17 of the 2021 newcomers in the picture.
Casey Thompson is the presumptive starting quarterback while Chubba Purdy will have a chance to beat out Logan Smothers and Heinrich Haarberg for the back-up job if he can stay healthy through fall camp.
JUCO transfer Anthony Grant looks to have the tools to factor heavily into the running back rotation. Trey Palmer might be Nebraska’s top pass-catcher this season, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see one or both of Isaiah Garcia-Castaneda and Marcus Washington in the wideout rotation as well.
On the line, grad transfers Kevin Williams Jr. and Hunter Anthony will look to earn first- or second-string jobs in there lone season at Nebraska.
On the other side of the ball, the staff brought in Devin Drew and Stephon Wynn Jr. to fill a massive need, and Ochaun Mathis might have been the biggest recruiting win of the offseason. The Huskers are solid at inside linebacker but three or four of the new defensive backs — Tommi Hill, Omar Brown, DeShon Singleton, Kaine Williams and Javier Morton — could factor into the two-deep on the back end.
Turn to special teams and it’s possible if not likely that all three specialists — place kicker, punter and long snapper — are transfers: Timmy Bleekrode, Brian Buschini and Brady Weas.
The only transfers I haven’t mentioned yet are walk-on kickers Spencer Pankratz and Jacob Hohl. Everybody else they brought in feels like they at least have a chance to play for Nebraska this year.
Eleven of those transfers are players with just one or two seasons of eligibility remaining. Considering everything they lost, the coaches clearly felt they needed some stop-gap options for the 2022 season. Of the preferred 22 offensive and defensive starters last season, only 10 of them return.
How did we get to the point where Nebraska went to the transfer portal instead of simply trusting in underclassmen to rise to the occasion? Look no further than Frost’s first three recruiting classes.
A glance at the 2018 recruiting class shows only Caleb Tannor (a starter) and Braxton Clark (a back-up competing for a starting role) as players from that class still on the team. Sixteen players did or will complete their eligibility elsewhere. Whereas many teams will benefit from redshirt or COVID-19 seniors this year, Frost’s first class will have little impact in his fifth season.
After three seasons, the 2019 recruiting class has produced seven players expected to win or at least compete for a starting job: Nick Henrich, Ty Robinson, Rahmir Johnson, Myles Farmer, Quinton Newsome, Garrett Nelson and Travis Vokolek. The class also has nine others looking to add depth if they don’t win starting jobs — Noa Pola-Gates, Chris Hickman, Mosai Newsom, Javin Wright, Garrett Snodgrass, Michael Lynn, Brant Banks and Ethan Piper. We’ve already seen 10 members of that class transfer out of the program.
Finally, it’s still a little early for the 2020 class after just two seasons. Turner Corcoran and Nouredin Nouili will likely be starters on the offensive line again and Omar Manning is the team’s top returning wide receiver. Isaac Gifford is looking to succeed JoJo Domann at nickel as well. Ten others will likely add depth with entrenched starters ahead of them. But the problem is we’ve already seen 16 players leave via the transfer portal.
The number of departures created a large gap on the roster, and many of those that stuck around seemingly have yet to prove to the coaches that they are ready for a starting role. Thus, the sizable transfer class.
The rules have changed and we’ll continue to see Nebraska look to the transfer portal to supplement the roster each and every season. However, I don’t think you want to see Nebraska rely so heavily on it on a yearly basis.
Nebraska has a lot riding on this transfer class, and if the coaches (many of the same coaches who recruited the classes filled with departures and players who have yet to see the field) chose poorly it could have disastrous ramifications. Not every class will be as impactful as Michigan’s State’s, particularly for a program like Nebraska that doesn’t often get its pick of the litter. There are many reasons players enter the portal, and the surefire impact guys will be hard to land. Nebraska’s hit rate with transfers — from both four-year and junior colleges — over the last couple of years has been all over the map.
Nebraska can’t afford to continue losing more than half of its recruiting class in less than two years. Whether it comes down to identification, development or simply retention, the Huskers need to be better. It’s going to be hard to establish any kind of winning culture if you’re constantly recruiting over your underclassmen with new portal guys, especially if those players don’t end up being impact players.
For example, Mathis and Tannor will be moving on after this season. It would be a great sign for the Huskers if one or both of Jimari Butler and Blaise Gunnerson show enough to play significant roles rather than the coaches having to dip back into the portal looking for another stop-gap option.
The transfer portal is a valuable tool, but the best teams will likely be the ones that make the most of every avenue to roster-building, and that includes developing the players already in your program and trusting in them to get the job done when the time comes.