If we were handing out awards, perhaps we could call this one something like the Allen-Rogers Breakout Player of the Year Award.
Austin Allen will be in Indianapolis next week as one of three player representatives for Nebraska football at Big Ten Media Days. Safe to assume at this point the fifth-year junior will be among the favorites to earn a captain nomination from his teammates. Mission accomplished for Allen if that is indeed the case, as he set that particular goal for himself in the spring. The 6-foot-8 tight end had eight catches in 12 games in 2019 and last year he was the team’s second-leading receiver. Allen has grown quite a bit in the years since Scott Frost took over.
Same can be said for defensive end Casey Rogers. The Syracuse native saw a redshirt in 2018 while he rehabbed an injury, then played just four games in 2019 without registering a single tackle. In 2020, he rocketed up the d-line depth chart to play in every game, see the third-most snaps of the defensive linemen, and finish with 25 tackles, a sack, and five havoc plays.
In terms of developmental success stories for players who made big jumps from relatively uninvolved to becoming key pieces, there aren’t any two stories better than the ones Allen and Rogers can tell.
One of the things I’m sure many in Husker Nation are curious about as the season approaches is, simply, who’s next? So here’s a betting guide. Let me know on social or in the comments who you’d take, who’s too high/low, etc.
Odds to win the Allen-Rogers Breakout Player of the Year
- Matt Sichterman 5/2
- Jaquez Yant 5/1
- Isaac Gifford 10/1
- Alante Brown 10/1
- Javin Wright 25/1
- Will Nixon 25/1
- Noa Pola-Gates 35/1
- Garrett Snodgrass 35/1
- Wyatt Liewer 40/1
- Damian Jackson 50/1
- Phalen Sanford 66/1
Important to note this isn’t a Most Improved exercise, as that would probably change the list. You’d see names like Nick Henrich and Quinton Newsome or Oliver Martin and Omar Manning. Henrich and Newsome were on my “Most Intriguing” list of Huskers (as was Martin) because there’s somewhat of an expectation they take a step if given the opportunity. With Manning, would it be a true “breakout” if he was good? A JUCO guy can be Newcomer of the Year level without being Breakout Player of the Year level, if that makes sense. For a player like Rogers, there were virtually no expectations placed on his shoulders before last year. That’s the kind of situation we’re looking for.
Sichterman would probably be the betting favorite for a Most Improved, too. The story is just too good there. It’s almost cheating listing him as a breakout candidate considering what we know about his placement on the depth chart pre- and post-spring, but here’s a player that has yet to start a game in his four-year Husker career and there’s little we know about what he’ll provide.
If he wins the right guard spot, which he seemed to have a hold on in the spring, and has a decent 2021 campaign, he’ll be the quintessential antithesis to the transfer portal—a player who just waited for his moment and then seized it. Of course, praising Sichterman’s resiliency shouldn’t come at the expense of sweeping generalities about the players in the portal, but he’s undoubtedly the exception to what has increasingly become a rule. A good Nebraska football team thanks in part to a strong offensive line with Sichterman at its core could be one of the better stories of the year.
Pick your poison among the defensive backs. Though not practically defensive backs anymore, Gifford and Wright seemed to be huge benefactors of the spring period. Wright has long been an intriguing prospect given his length and athleticism, he’s just not been healthy to this point in his career. He and Gifford both have the requisite skill set to keep The Domann Nickel alive in Nebraska’s defense after the super-senior departs, but also perhaps they can make it multi-faceted while he’s still on campus.
The biggest question is how much usage is potentially available. Domann played virtually every second last year for the Huskers on defense, and Nebraska understandably won’t do that again for a full 12-game (13…?) season, but considering the fact Domann is the defense’s 1A or 1B playmaker, it’s not like he’ll suddenly see a precipitous decline in his usage.
Either Wright or Gifford could have a real impact—a Rogers-level, “Um, maybe he should be on the field even more…?” kind of season because of the unique skillsets, but the ceiling is obviously capped right now by usage questions.
There’s also the safety partnership on the second line of the depth chart—Myles Farmer and Pola-Gates—and the local walk-on who absolutely helped himself during winter testing. Farmer’s not on this particular list on account of his playing time to this point, but Pola-Gates had the same level of recruiting pub and a vastly different start to his career. One defensive appearance is all he’s had after two years. But secondary coach Travis Fisher in the spring foreshadowed a much larger role this upcoming season with health. The lasting memory of Pola-Gates is him laying the hammer down on Wan’Dale Robinson in the All-America high school showcase game. That’s a player I’d like to see on the field.
One of the wideouts no one is talking about is going to find a role for himself. Those are the rules. Nebraska seems to really appreciate the football IQ Nixon possesses. His father coaches running backs in the NFL, and Nixon has a little wiggle to his game with the ball in his hands. An injury before his first year in Lincoln kept him off the field, but anyone and everyone is going to get a chance to show their stuff at wideout given the lack of consistency.
Liewer is brought up too much by the coaching staff—often times unprompted I’d remind you—to ignore in the room.
Brown is the guy who’s seemingly most forgotten about. Three catches for 41 yards was all the Chicago native produced in his first year, but coaches will stress that he was learning the position. As a 5-foot-11 wideout, Brown has versatility to his game that should help him stand out in the pack. How far back, if at all, did his spring injury set him? The top three guys—Samori Toure, Omar Manning, and Oliver Martin—are still mostly in pencil, so there’s plenty of room for guys to ball out in fall camp.
Brown has the added advantage of being one of the picks in the return game. That didn’t mean much last season—10 kickoff returns, 19.6 yards per—but maybe new special teams coordinator Mike Dawson has new ideas to beef up the return game. If Brown retains his spot, he’s got multiple opportunities to impact the game.
Jackson is the wildest of wild cards. And that’s not just because of the viking-like beard or the physique that would make Steve Rogers look like a melted popsicle. He’s clearly a player whose leadership and work ethic head coach Scott Frost values in the locker room, in the weight room, and on the practice field.
He was brought onto the team as a walk-on in 2017 and had to learn the game of football. That’s obviously a process that doesn’t happen overnight. He saw the field just three times in 2018 and 2019, his redshirt freshman and sophomore seasons, but played on defense in each of Nebraska’s last six games to close out the 2020 year. He’s only got seven tackles to his name, but if he’s comfortable in the scheme and shows good enough instincts and awareness on the field… why not?
It’s not like Nebraska has another linebacker outside of Domann whose game demands he be on the field 90% of the time. Jackson seems to be a featured face on the team this offseason, more so than at any other point in his career. That’s got to mean something, right? Maybe not, and maybe Jackson is the kind of guy who’s comfortable being one of those heart-and-soul types from the background.
Nebraska has a bunch of options at outside linebacker, though, and a pass-rushing need and plenty of opportunities available. Anything can happen.
Derek is a newbie on the Hail Varsity staff covering Husker athletics. In college, he was best known as ‘that guy from Twitter.’ He has covered a Sugar Bowl, a tennis national championship and almost everything in between (except an NCAA men’s basketball tournament game… *tears*). In his spare time, he can be found arguing with literally anyone about sports.