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Nebraska Cornhuskers linebacker Garrett Nelson gives Nebraska Cornhuskers linebacker Pheldarius Payne a hug after blocking a pass
Photo Credit: John S. Peterson

A Christmas Wishlist for Nebraska Football Entering 2021

December 23, 2020

On Christmas Eve Eve, how about a Christmas-themed piece? 

Let’s say Scott Frost is writing his annual letter to Santa (who totally exists), and let’s say he’s just late on that letter because that football thing was going on until just a few days ago so he’s been a little busy but he’s gonna pay for rush delivery because lol Frost can afford those kinds of things, and let’s say this letter to Santa (who totally exists) isn’t asking exclusively for GameFuel and Call of Duty but instead asking for Nebraska football-related things. 

Let’s say all that and then ask: What would be on this letter?

Let’s also say that you’re in luck. Why? Let’s just say we broke into the post office and found this letter to Santa (who totally exists) and examined it before it was sent off on its way. 

Let’s say these three things were on it:

1. Help for the Playmakers

Consider this one of the weirdest numbers to come out of the weirder-than-anything-ever 2020 season: it took Wan’Dale Robinson 87 touches to get his first touchdown of the season. With Nebraska’s year now over, the dynamic sophomore wideout ends with totals of 97 offensive touches and just two touchdowns.

That feels misrepresentative of Robinson’s ability.

Yahoo Sports’ Pete Thamel said something interesting on a podcast a few weeks ago when discussing Nebraska. There are no playmakers, he said. No one that stresses a defense in the way a Rondale Moore or Tylan Wallace or DeVonta Smith does (my examples, not his). “Well that’s insane,” I thought when I heard it. “What about Wan’Dale?”

Well… Robinson had 128 offensive touches a season ago and only five scores. So, for his career so far, the Huskers’ best player has 225 touches and seven touchdowns.

Smith, for instance, has seven touchdowns in his last 33 touches, or four games.

Now, this isn’t an indictment of Robinson. Quite the opposite, actually. Nebraska’s not scoring touchdowns. That’s not a Robinson problem, but it underscores a bigger one. 

This was the case in 2019, and it was again the case this season; Nebraska is having a devil of a time putting its best playmakers in positions to find success. Non-quarterbacks had five of the 15 rushing scores this season. Quarterbacks threw five touchdowns all year. On passing plays, only six programs (out of 128) had a worse explosiveness rating than the Huskers this year.

But everyone is excited about the options, right? Wan’Dale Robinson has All-American potential. Zavier Betts showed flashes of promise in his first year and had teammates singing his praises often. Omar Manning was billed as an NFL wide receiver ready to plug and play. Thomas Fidone, an early-enrollee tight end in this recent class, has instant impact potential and versatility. 

Because Nebraska hasn’t been able to get any of its guys going, it looks to the casual or infrequent observer like it doesn’t have any guys to get going.

I can’t really blame Thamel for glossing over Robinson when the output so far is a touchdown every 32 touches. 

So what can/should Frost hope for in 2021 to help change things? 

Better execution would be a great starting point. Deliver a screen/swing pass to Robinson on time and on target and do it over and over and over again. Block the tunnel screen properly on a consistent basis. Block the stretch run properly on a consistent basis. Betts took a fly sweep 45 yards to the house because the other 10 guys all did their jobs. Simple things can start to add up. Frost talks all the time about the execution of the details. Clean the details up and let the headliner-type players make plays. Nebraska’s got playmakers, it needs to help them out a little more.

2. The Year Two Bump 

In 2011, Memphis’ special teams unit ranked 115th in Bill Connelly’s SP+ metric. Then Jonathan Rutledge showed up. With Rutledge in town for the 2012 season as a graduate assistant working with special teams, the Tigers jumped to 60th in SP+. In 2013, Memphis tied for the best special teams mark in the country. 

Then Rutledge went to North Carolina. The Tar Heels’ special teams ranked 31st in Connelly’s system in 2013 B.R. (before Rutledge). In 2014, they ranked 91st. In 2015, they ranked eighth. 

Then Rutledge went to Missouri as a special teams analyst. In 2015 B.R., the Tigers ranked 93rd in Connelly’s system. In 2016, Missouri was 96th. In 2017, Missouri tied for the fifth-best unit. 

Then Rutledge went to Auburn to fill the same position. In 2017 B.R., Auburn tied for 59th in Connelly’s system. In 2018, the Tigers crept up to 41st. In 2019, that unit finished the season tied for seventh. 

Then Rutledge went to Nebraska to fill the same position. In 2019 B.R., the Huskers ranked 124th in Connelly’s system. Their special teams unit cost Nebraska an average of 2.2 points a game. In 2020, Rutledge’s first season in Lincoln, Nebraska improved to 92nd. 

Will the trend continue…?

Everywhere Rutledge has been, his special teams units have gotten a massive year-two bump and become one of the better units in the country in Connelly’s system, a “tempo- and opponent-adjusted measure of college football efficiency.”

Special teams have been miserable at Nebraska for a few seasons now. It was better in 2020 than it was in 2019, but “better than abysmal” doesn’t mean good. Considering the program’s margin for error, hurting yourself on kick coverage or punt return can be deadly. 

Nebraska started drives, on average, 75.3 yards away from the end zone. Only two programs—Arkansas and Arizona—had worse starting field position on offense. Opponents started 67.9 yards away. Nebraska won the field position battle only twice in eight games (Penn State and Purdue). 

Now a year into the job, can Rutledge do the same thing he’s done everywhere else: turn special teams into a serious strength? Nebraska absolutely hopes so.

3. A Pass-Rusher

This has been Nebraska’s white whale for years. 

Erik Chinander wants that double-team-forcing edge guy that can make everything else work in his 3-4 system. We’ve seen the Husker defensive coordinator scheme his way to improved play without having that kind of guy—lots of the 2-5-4 package this year for one—but to take the next step as a defense, Nebraska needs the guy. 

Interestingly enough, Nebraska was a better defensive unit in 2020 despite being worse than the 2019 iteration of the team at causing havoc plays (tackles for loss, passes defended, and forced fumbles). Last year’s team, led by the Davis brothers on the line and Lamar Jackson in the secondary, ranked 11th nationally in overall havoc rate. Nebraska produced a TFL, a defended pass, or a fumble on 26.2% of plays. 

This season, NU’s havoc rate dropped to 17.3% (64th nationally).

Why then did the unit feel like it took a step when statistically there were fewer splash plays and the success rate stayed nearly identical (41.514 to 41.516%)? From a numbers standpoint, you can point to improved third down and red zone efficiency. 

From just a feel standpoint, you can point to the secondary. That unit was really good. Nebraska got to third-and-longs and they bowed up. The secondary will potentially lose three senior starters though and the fourth guy—a junior—might have played well enough to open the NFL door up early. 

How does the defense continue the upward trajectory it’s on if the backend takes a step back? Keep an eye on those havoc plays, particularly in the front seven, where Nebraska posted a havoc rate of 17.6% with its linebackers and defensive linemen in 2019 and just 11.9% in 2020. 

Is there an individual guy on this roster that can take that needed step toward becoming a dominant edge-rusher in the Big Ten? 

What about someone like Pheldarius Payne or Garrett Nelson? Both outside linebackers really turned up their play late in the year. What about Jordon Riley or Casey Rogers? There doesn’t look to be a ready-made force in this recent crop of signees, and Payne was the only linebacker from his 2020 class to get significant playing time on defense this year.

Is Ty Robinson, going into his third season, going to become that guy? His ceiling looks as high as anyone’s on the team, and after a year of being a full-time starter, Nebraska can fairly easily talk itself into believing Robinson is ready to make the jump. 

That’d be nice, wouldn’t it? The LEGO Death Star of Christmas surprises.

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