It’s been an offseason of change for the Nebraska football program.
Head coach Scott Frost, who will be working with a restructured contract in 2022, hired five assistant coaches—offensive coordinator Mark Whipple, receivers coach Mickey Joseph, running backs coach Bryan Applewhite, offensive line coach Donovan Raiola and special teams coordinator Bill Busch—to replace the ones he fired in November: Matt Lubick, Greg Austin, Mario Verduzsco and Ryan Held. Another now-former assistant, defensive line coach Tony Tuioti, left to take the same position at Oregon, which led to Mike Dawson now coaching both outside linebackers and the d-linemen.
Key pieces to the team who had the option to return for another season in Lincoln have departed, including quarterback Adrian Martinez (transfer to Kansas State) and NFL draft hopefuls center Cam Jurgens, tight end Austin Allen, corner Cam Taylor-Britt and defensive linemen Damion Daniels and Deontre Thomas.
There were 28 new faces that were brought into the program, including 10 Division I transfers, three junior-college signees and 15 high school recruits. The coaches, who have been watching as the team goes through winter conditioning, will finally get a chance to see what the new additions can do during a spring schedule that includes 14 spring practices and the annual Red-White Spring Game on April 9.
This will be one of the more interesting springs in recent memory due to the competitions and new blood at several positions, including quarterback, offensive line, running back, receiver and defensive back. There are questions nearly everywhere you look, but what about the things we do know about this team? Let’s take a glance at three of them.
Of the new assistants, Donovan Raiola’s impact is the most crucial
Quarterback will always be the most important position on a football team. It’s hard to say anything different when that position has the ball in its hands and is making decisions with it on nearly every play of a game. That being said, the offensive line’s development under Raiola will have a major impact on how successful the Whipple-Frost offense is in its first season.
According to the Action Network, Nebraska returns 81.83% of its o-line snaps (transfers are included, so it’s taking into account what Hunter Anthony did at Oklahoma State and Kevin Williams Jr. at Northern Colorado), which is 11th in the nation and the most in the Big Ten, just in front of Maryland’s 81.72%. While that percentage looks good on paper, there’s still so much uncertainty along the unit that last season ranked 104th and 115th in standard-downs sack rate and passing-downs sack rate, respectively, according to Football Outsiders.
Raiola will go through spring practice without two potential starters in Turner Corcoran and Teddy Prochazka, who are both out while rehabbing injuries. There’s also not a clear answer on who will replace Jurgens at center, the most important position on the line, but one name thrown around was the 6-foot-6 Corcoran.
“Turner’s a guy I think is probably capable of playing all five positions if we needed him to,” Frost said on Feb. 2. “He did a great job at left tackle, looked great at right tackle when we moved him over when Teddy played. Teddy and Turner are both gonna miss spring with injuries. So they’re around and learning and able to do some things, but again, that’s going to help some other guys get reps. And Turner in particular, we’re probably going to have to figure out where he fits the best.”
The injuries to Corcoran and Prochazka might mean more practice reps for former starters Ethan Piper and Trent Hixson, as well as the transfers Anthony and Williams. This might be the time when redshirt freshman Henry Lutovsky starts to insert himself into the discussion, too.
Raiola didn’t dive into his coaching or teaching style much when he met with the media for the first time in December, but he did make one thing clear: He wants his room to be close, like a family.
“Staying together, being together all the time,” Raiola said of what he wants his room to be. “Just getting as close as possible because, you know, the offensive line obviously, you have to play through one set of eyes and play together as five guys seeing the game as one, so that’s the most important thing right now.”
Thomas Fidone II will get an opportunity to be TE1
Corcoran and Prochazka weren’t the only notable names that Frost said won’t be going through spring practices—tight end Travis Vokolek was another.
Vokolek had offseason surgery and will save his body for the fall. That means the Huskers’ gem of the 2021 recruiting class, Thomas Fidone II, will get an opportunity to be the first-team tight end this spring. Fidone came to Lincoln as a four-star prospect according to the 247Sports Composite, but his career got off to a slow start as he suffered a torn ACL in his first spring with the team. While that adversity stunted his development, Fidone attacked the rehab process and was even able to see limited action at Wisconsin.
Nebraska used two-tight end formations quite often in 2021 with Allen and Vokolek. With Allen off to the next level and Vokolek’s on-field presence delayed until the fall, it will be interesting to see who is paired with the 6-6, 235-pound Fidone if Whipple decides to utilize two tight ends, which he did often at his previous stop, Pittsburgh.
There are intriguing, but unproven, options in the tight end room, including the undersized Chancellor Brewington (6-3, 185), Chris Hickman (6-5, 215), James Carnie (6-5, 230), AJ Rollins (6-6, 230) and Nate Boerkircher (6-4, 220).
But make no mistake about it—Fidone is the one who coaches and fans want to see on the field the most. He’ll get his chance this spring.
On a new-look defense, there are still two strong pillars at middle linebacker
Nebraska’s depth along the defensive line got thinner once Daniels, Thomas, Ben Stille and Jordon Riley left. At surface level, the loss of Riley didn’t seem like a big hit. But he was set to be a part of the rotation at least, and his absence now means Dawson will likely lean on unproven young players to fill backup roles if NU can’t find help through the transfer portal in the summer.
The defensive backfield also took hits to its depth and leadership with the departures of Taylor-Britt, safeties Deontai Williams and Marquel Dismuke and nickel linebacker JoJo Domann.
But two rocks in the middle of Erik Chinander’s defense return in linebackers Luke Reimer and Nick Henrich, who combined for a whopping 207 tackles last season. To give one a sense of how productive those two were, they were one tackle shy of becoming the first Husker duo to record over 100 tackles each in a season since 2007 when Barrett Ruud and Demorrio Williams accomplished the feat.
Reimer and Henrich, two in-state players, enjoyed a solid d-line in front of them last year. The work that the big guys did against opposing offensive lines was a crucial part to Reimer and Henrich’s productivity. But with three of the five rotation players leaving in Stille, Daniels and Thomas, that puts more on the shoulders of Robinson, Rogers and the Polar Bear, Nash Hutmacher.
Now is the time to see who can provide depth behind Robinson, Rogers and Hutmacher—maybe Ru’Quan Buckley, Marquis Black, Jailen Weaver or Mosai Newsom. If the d-line can replicate what it did in 2021, then Reimer and Henrich could be one of the best 1-2 punches at linebacker not only in the Big Ten, but the country.