Photo Credit: John S. Peterson

10 Questions for Nebraska Football, Both Large and Small, as the 2021 Season Draws Near

July 31, 2021

The reasonable perspective for Husker head coach Scott Frost as he enters into his fourth year with the program is that this season is officially prove it territory. The former national champion quarterback is 12-20 as the head coach at his alma matter and Nebraska hasn’t been to a bowl game since 2016. 

The boss who hired Frost is gone, though his replacement—new Athletic Director Trev Alberts—has already pledged support to Frost. The impending season will no doubt test that support. Alberts has spoken with the media on a few occasions since taking the job and each time he’s stressed an increased attention to detail. In the last three seasons, the Huskers are 4-12 in games decided by eight points or less. The record is unsightly for games you could categorize as coin flips, but maybe the more pressing concern is the frequency with which Nebraska is in them. 

The margins have been narrow for Frost and the details being a few degrees off have cost Nebraska majorly. The head coach says he has his best team yet in 2021. Here are 10 questions for them to answer this season.

1. The vibe is good, what is that good for? 

On Thursday, during a press conference to kick off fall camp, Frost said something that got his usual skeptics up and active again on social media: that the mood around Nebraska football was “the best … that we’ve had.” 

Frost has made similar comments in the past, thus the skepticism. 

He said this in June of 2020: “I think this is the first time we feel like the team culture is where we want it. It can always get better, but I feel really good about where we are as a football team right now and the type of people we have on our team.”

Frost has been searching for the right feel in the locker room since he arrived, often talking about a team that just needs to learn how to win and learn how to string a few wins together to finally get over the hump. He’s also said culture is overanalyzed and talked about too much, but when you have a good one you just know. 

Here’s the full quote from Frost this week: “I’ve had guys come into my office that are showing up today. Similar to what I’ve said all year, this is the best feeling around our building, by a long shot, that we’ve had. Guys genuinely excited to be back and around each other and playing football. I know for me personally, one of the hardest parts about starting camp is you just spent a whole summer with your family, and now you’re not going to get to see them as much. I had a great summer with Ashley and RJ and Alli and got to spend a ton of time with them. You kind of get a little sad you’re gonna go back to work for as many hours as coaches have to put in, but when the guys come up into the office and you’re back around the team, it makes you feel a lot better about that.” 

Frost seems to be in a good place, and for a coach whose first three seasons have brought with them plenty of turmoil, that should at least be happy to see. You wonder what kinds of things the “feeling around the building” can help. It’s not something you can quantify, more likely an intangible boost. Frost has sought horizontal leadership rather than vertical, which sounds like catchy-yet-shallow coach speak but it’s not. A team that polices itself throughout the week handles its business on the weekend. 

Outside linebacker JoJo Domann, a super-senior, gave his coach a nice endorsement on that front later Thursday.

“I’m not here to make any comparisons,” the sixth-year man said when asked how this team compares to others he’s been on. “We’re going to find out this fall.”

2. What will Mike Dawson’s special teams impact be? 

Nebraska has lost games because of its special teams under Frost; he has reiterated that point time and again. Now it’s on its third special teams. . . handler. . . in four years with the title of coordinator being added to outside linebacker coach Mike Dawson’s role this offseason. 

Dawson was brought back ahead of the 2020 season after a brief stint in the NFL, but he was only a position coach. Nebraska went the route of a senior analyst and didn’t like the year-end results. Frost then gave Dawson the title of coordinator after the year. 

The longtime assistant has handled that phase of the game before, so his particular touch will be interesting to see. Nebraska restructured practice to place a greater emphasis on special teams and it has drilled down on its importance. 

Per FootballOutsiders.com, Nebraska ranked outside the top 100 nationally in special teams efficiency (115th), kick return efficiency (118th), kickoff efficiency (113th), punt efficiency (118th), average starting field position (105th), average opponent starting field position (105th), and net field position (106th).

That’s almost all the things. The only aspect of the third unit that fared well was the punt return game and the field goal team. 

3. How long will some of these position battles go? 

“There’s certain spots where we feel really good about who the guy is going to be, and other spots where there’s going to be a competition for it,” said Frost on Thursday. “One of the things I’ve told the players and the coaches … is I want to kind of make those decisions a little earlier than normal, at least in-house to try to get a little continuity with groups (on) offense and defense. So guys better show up ready to go, and compete for the spots that are up for grabs.”

Those spots would be right guard, corner, presumably the two starters at inside linebacker with three main guys at the top fighting for their spots in the pecking order, maybe even the non-Domann outside ‘backer spot, running back, and the flanker and split end wideouts. 

This is a slight departure from Frost’s SOP in past years. Nebraska has taken depth chart “ORs” into the start of the season, particularly at the skill positions, and let competitions run their course. 

4. Who wins the starting running back job? 

Of all the competitions to take place during camp, though, the one at running back is going to draw the most attention. 

“We’ve got a ton of talent in that room, but I don’t want it to be by-committee,” Frost said. “I want to have a main guy and a backup or two who are going to share the carries.”

Some guys aren’t going to play, it sounds like, and Nebraska has a ton of guys. In total, there are six scholarship tailbacks on the roster, five of whom still have freshman status in the eyes of the NCAA. The names: Gabe Ervin Jr., Sevion Morrison, Marvin Scott III, Jaquez Yant, Rahmir Johnson, and Markese Stepp. Johnson is the oldest Husker, entering his third year. Stepp, a sophomore transfer from USC, has the most playing experience at the collegiate level. Ervin, a true freshman who enrolled early for spring ball, and Scott seemed to have the strongest springs. 

Nebraska has had only one 1,000-yard rusher since Ammer Abdullah left the program following the 2014 season—Devine Ozigbo in Frost’s first year. Last year had an asterisk because of the games played, but two of the top three rushers by both yards and carries and each of the last two seasons have been non-running backs. 

Tailbacks last season accounted for 514 yards on 122 carries (4.2 yards per carry). Remove the Rutgers performance where Dedrick Mills ran for nearly 200 yards and the performance last season was 323 yards on 96 carries at 3.4 yards a pop in seven games. For Nebraska’s sake, someone needs to win that job and run with it.

5. Has the snapping funk been snapped?

Center Cameron Jurgens has been the target of plenty of criticism since making the switch from tight end to center his first year in Lincoln. After a redshirt year spent learning a new position and rehabbing an injury, Jurgens has spent the last two seasons as the full-time starter. He’s been great for stretches and he’s struggled during others. When the problems pop up, it’s because the snap has gone awry. 

Entering his third year as a starter and his fourth year on the team, Jurgens is one of the most experienced players on the Husker offensive line. His voice has gotten louder, his influence more widespread. The snaps have to be on target this season. 

“The snap issue, hopefully, is taken care of,” Frost said at media days. “I know he has been working on that really hard. We’ve gotten him some technique improvement. Not only were the fumbles an issue, but just the inconsistency of the snaps affected the way our quarterback played. It’s really hard to read somebody at the line of scrimmage if you’re having to take your eye off that and reach up or down for the football. It breaks the rhythm a quarterback needs. Consistency there is gonna be a huge improvement for us.”

A strong camp should start Jurgens on the right foot.

6. Can the wideouts back up what Frost has been selling this offseason? 

He said it in the spring, he said it at Big Ten media days a few weeks ago in Indianapolis, and he said it again this week: the wideout room is deep and talented. 

“Receiver’s another spot where there’s gonna be competition, and not necessarily because we don’t know who some of our lead guys are going to be but because a bunch of receivers are getting an opportunity to play and I want to find out who the best ones are,” Frost said. “The depth and talent at that position is the best it’s been since I’ve been at Nebraska. We’re going to get the young guys opportunities to get reps and show us what they can do. I’m anxious to see who comes out on top of that.”

Second-year freshman Zavier Betts got a shoutout from quarterback Adrian Martinez this week. Wyatt Liewer and Levi Falck were recently placed on scholarship. Nebraska has Omar Manning and Oliver Martin as the written-in-pencil starters on the flanks, but it has plenty of interesting options behind those guys. 

In the receiver room, though, there’s 379 total yards returning from last season. Lots of proving ground ahead.

7. Can the front seven keep building in its run defense? 

In 2017, Nebraska surrendered 5.6 yards a run, a mark that ranked 124th nationally. 

In 2018, the Huskers gave up 5.0, which ranked 107th. 

In 2019, the number dropped again, this time to 4.8, though that still ranked 102nd nationally.

In 2020, NU made a leap against an all-Big Ten schedule, limiting opponents to 4.2 yards a carry, which ranked 56th nationally. 

Each of the four leading snap-getters from last season return. In total, the line returns 96.8% of tackles, 100% of sacks, 100% of havoc plays, and 97% of defensive snaps played. That would seem to signal improvement is on the way still. How much higher can they climb? 

8. Can Nebraska find a pass rush? 

Nebraska ranked 96th nationally in sacks per game, a pretty precipitous drop from where it was in 2019. The Huskers gotta get to the quarterback; they had 13 sacks in eight games. Someone has to step up there. 

9. Can Nebraska find more turnovers? 

The offensive not giving the ball away so much will help the to put the defense in better positions in 2021, but the Blackshirts do need to be a little more opportunistic when takeaways present themselves.

Based on fumbles forced and passes defended, Nebraska’s expected turnovers last season were 12.5. The Huskers came up with seven in eight games. They were only slightly below where they were expected to be, intercepting five balls (six expected) but had dreadful luck recovering fumbles, getting just two of its opponents’ 13. 

10. On the other side, what’s in store for Adrian Martinez? 

The quarterback has slimmed down. He’s in a good headspace. Frost seems to be optimistic about where the fourth-year starter is at after an offseason in which Martinez worked as hard as he ever has on his game. Martinez himself says he’s very much of the mindset that this year is about proving himself as a quarterback.

Martinez’s fumble concerns are well documented, as is his downfield passing ability. Nebraska needs more from the two-time captain at quarterback. Can he remind skeptics of the Freshman All-American he was in 2018? 

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