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A Bonus Mailbag Topic: How Potent, and How Prevalent, Will the Husker Passing Game Be?

April 24, 2021

I pulled three questions from our weekly mailbag this time around because I wanted to address them individually and in a little more detail. They are as follows:

You have 3,500 yards and 30 touchdowns to distribute amongst wide receivers. Who ends up with what? (@sweetermanders)

AND

Given the apparently super-talented wide receiver and tight end rooms, and all the running back questions this spring, does that indicate the offense may lean more pass heavy to set up the run? (@Sal_Vasta3)

AND

How many players break 50 catches this year? (@ChicagoStation)

All centered around the Husker passing game, all assume some level of greater competence in that department that a season ago. The last question is tough because during the last full season played, only 11 Big Ten players total hit 50. JD Spielman and two others had 49, so you’re basically getting one per team. 

Eleven guys had 49 or more in 2018; 13 had 50 or more in 2017; 10 had 49 or more in 2016. So a little less than one per team per year, give or take. 

The weird part: Stanley Morgan Jr. and Spielman each caught 50 balls in back-to-back seasons in 2017 and 2018, and then Wan’Dale Robinson caught 51 in eight games last season. 

Robinson’s usage last season might prove to be an outlier within Scott Frost’s offense going forward. Complete reliance on one player to produce game in and game out is a road that leads to not so good places. Robinson got hurt his first year and then transferred after his second year. 

Nebraska’s receiver group has drawn just buckets of praise this spring, with Frost calling the group the deepest and most talented of his four years in Lincoln to this point. 

In 2018, when Morgan caught 70 balls for 1,004 yards and Spielman had 66 catches for 818 yards, Nebraska’s next leading pass-catcher was Maurice Washington with 24 catches out of the backfield. 

I don’t know that we’ll see complete reliance on a select few guys this fall—Nebraska has Levi Falck and Oliver Martin and Zavier Betts and Omar Manning and Samori Toure and Will Nixon and Wyatt Liewer all to divvy up snaps to—unless something goes horribly wrong, which will make 50 hard unless Nebraska does what Sal is suggesting. 

And that doesn’t seem to be in the cards even considering Nebraska’s inconsistencies at running back. 

Markese Stepp, a USC transfer with three years to play, is out for the spring. Many expect him to win the starting job, but he’ll have to first get healthy and then make up some ground in fall camp. 

But how much ground is a question, because it’s unclear how much separation any of the other backs have made. Rahmir Johnson, Sevion Morrison, and Gabe Ervin Jr. have all missed practice time. 

Jaquez Yant has been the tireless worker of the group this spring, but it will be interesting to watch come the fall if Nebraska is serious about using a walk-on over the five freshmen (by eligibility) scholarship backs on the roster. One would think such a plan would lead to some attrition. 

So, if Nebraska feels better about its wideouts and tight ends than it does about its running backs, it’s natural to wonder if Nebraska will look more toward the air. 

In Frost’s eight years now as either an offensive coordinator or a head coach, his offenses have had run rates of 57.0% (30th; 2013), 53.7% (41st), 57.3% (23rd), 50.3% (71st; 2016), 51.9% (57th),  49.9% (77th; 2018), 59.0% (18th), 56.1% (34th; 2020).

In Husker offensive coordinator Matt Lubick’s three years as an OC prior to Nebraska, his offenses had run rates of 51.8% (59th; 2016), 55.1% (33rd), 54.7% (38th).

Both Frost and Lubick tend to lean toward the run, but there’s evidence to suggest they are more than happy molding their offense to the personnel at hand. This season, that could very well mean more passing than in years past, but it would come with a rather important caveat—the accuracy quarterback Adrian Martinez enjoyed last season and has reportedly improved this spring would need to carry over, and the decision-making would need to be better. 

Martinez is still a dynamic runner, and if he’s in better shape, even more so. Offensive line coach Greg Austin and running backs coach Ryan Held talk of a desire to be better in the run game. It would surprise me if Nebraska’s run rate dipped below 50%, but anything can happen. 

It’s important to remember as well, Nebraska has seldom played with leads through the start of Frost’s tenure. If the Rutgers game can be an indicator here, maybe it’s notable that the Huskers ran it 35 times in that second half and threw it only 11 times. 

But we’ll see. The wideout room also needs to be fully available on a consistent basis for Nebraska to commit more energy to the passing game. If it’s not Manning and Betts and Toure (and perhaps Martin) out there more often than not, the threat of the vertical shot might diminish and Nebraska could opt to be a little more cagey. 

If the top guys in the room are fully available on a regular basis, though, then some of what we’ve heard this spring should be pretty excited. Nebraska has re-emphasized the deep ball. It wants Martinez to take those shots and wideouts worked on how to better create separation late in routes. 

If everything falls into place, Martinez enjoying a statistically relevant fourth year wouldn’t be a huge surprise. Now, 3,500 yards and 30 touchdowns is a huge jump from where he has been. David Blough, Dwayne Haskins, and Trace McSorely are the only Big Ten guys to throw for 3,500 yards in a season in the last five years. The Ohio State quarterbacks and Tanner Morgan in that magical 2019 season are the only guys to throw 30 scores in the last five years. 

But, just for the sake of the hypothetical, here’s how I could see it shaking out, and this is very rough:

Samori Toure with 1,100 yards and 12 touchdowns

Omar Manning and Oliver Martin with some combination of 1,000 yards and 10 scores

Austin Allen with 400 yards and five touchdowns

Zavier Betts with 300 yards

Markese Stepp with 150-ish yards and one score

Thomas Fidone with 150-ish yards and two scores

Levi Falck with 120-ish yards 

Travis Vokolek with 100-ish yards

Whoever earns the No. 2 running back spot with 80-ish yards

Will Nixon with 70-ish yards

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