This week, Nebraska kicks off spring practice for the 2021 season. We made it. Interest in this program—as Nebraska enters not quite a make-or-break year but pretty darn close to it—still feels ridiculously high considering the struggles the past few seasons, so here’s 2,000 words on spring storylines. Figured you’d all read that no problem.
These are numbered more for organizational purposes, not to signal importance.
#1: Who’s taking those captain positions?
This is the conversation we have every new year, right? What’s the leadership situation on your team like? Who is the vocal leader, the rah-rah guy that will inspire the team or get others to fall in line if they’re breaking ranks? We have a pretty good feeling this will be quarterback Adrian Martinez as he enters his fourth year with the program.
Martinez is exactly the kind of leader a coach dreams up. Don’t need to waste a ton of proverbial ink here, we’ve all seen the Martinez-led pre-game speeches Nebraska has shared.
But Martinez is the only captain returning.
Five guys earned captain status last season, voted into the role by their peers—Martinez, right guard Matt Farniok, wideout Kade Warner, inside linebacker Collin Miller, and defensive back Dicaprio Bootle.
Four of those guys are gone. Bootle and Farniok are preparing for the NFL. Miller was forced to medically retire. Warner transferred.
Each guy, in their own unique way, was pretty important to the fabric of the team. Who replaces them? I have a hunch for a few. Nebraska, perhaps more than anything, needs a captain group and a leadership group this year who can command a room but then also lead on the field. If you tell me what to do, but aren’t necessarily doing your job, it’s going to be hard for me to listen too intently.
I’d assume Zach Duval’s winter conditioning program has a way of separating the boys from the men, and in that grind coaches and teammates alike find out who their go-to guys are. We might find out here soon.
#2: The staff’s spring
Lots was made last offseason about an intensive self-scout. Everyone looked within. But when the season got rolling, what was talked about wasn’t shown. Nebraska didn’t have a downfield passing game and for stretches it didn’t have base stuff available on a reliable basis. Special teams had it struggles, compounding problems in certain situations.
We aren’t making excuses by acknowledging the role the lost spring period had in that. Matt Lubick is about to go through his first full spring period as Nebraska’s offensive coordinator.
Maybe I’ve said this before now, but I think Lubick is a sneaky (and deep) darkhorse for assistant of the year this season. How much control does Lubick have over things this season? What is he focused on this spring? The wideout room is interesting. The running back room is interesting. The tight end room figures to be awesome. Everyone who needs to be part of things this fall is here in the spring. What is Lubick up to?
On the other side, what does the special teams situation look like? Who’s doing what?
#3: What are Greg Austin’s goals for the spring?
Nebraska ranked 31st nationally in run rate last season. Among Power Five teams, it’s was run-heavy relative to peers. This was an average rushing team in a lot of ways, with a roadmap to being a really good rushing team in meaningful ways this year. But Nebraska relied on three non-running backs to run the ball and two of those guys are gone now. Everything head coach Scott Frost has said since season’s end would suggest the third guy (Martinez) won’t be running as much.
So the team needs to be better in the traditional run game.
Nebraska was 114th nationally in terms of yards per point, meaning it was just a grind to put points on the board. Nebraska had to march.
If the passing game is once again going to be more of the nickel and dime variety, the run game has to be explosive, and 26th nationally in explosive run rate is good but probably not good enough to get the offense where it wants to go.
What does Austin have to do with all this? The offensive line is the swing piece. That group is going to stir the proverbial drink. If they’re really good, Nebraska’s offense can do the things it wants. If they’re inconsistent (which wouldn’t be a shock considering the youth expected to play), Nebraska will be inconsistent on the whole.
Farniok is gone, left tackle Brenden Jaimes is gone, and reserve right guard Boe Wilson is gone. Does Austin want to find his starting five this spring? Or does he want to find the seven or eight guys who are going to be at the front of the line come fall?
Bryce Benhart and Turner Corcoran and Ethan Piper and Cam Jurgens are going to be on the line. Is Brant Banks filling that fifth spot? Is a guy like Matt Sichterman or Broc Bando going to finally make that move? If it’s the former, that’s a lot of youth up there on the line. It might be more beneficial to settle the group as quickly as possible and let them gel.
#4: What is the next step for Adrian Martinez?
In his third year, Martinez set a program record for season-long completion percentage. The California native has been literally all over the board in his starting years. As a freshman, in the 60s; as a sophomore, in the 50s; as a junior, in the 70s.
Most assumed the sophomore slump was just that, a slump, and not necessarily indicative of Martinez’s ability. He bounced back nicely late in 2020, but the production still wasn’t really there. Nebraska ranked 93rd in yards per pass attempt and 98th in explosive pass play rate.
Will the short stuff, the swing passes and screen passes and underneath stuff, continue to be the way Nebraska goes with the passing game or will it try to take more shots down the field?
It’s Martinez’s job to lose in the spring, a departure from the competition he went through last offseason, which means the offense will be built entirely around his strengths and weaknesses from the very get-go.
This wideout room looks more suited for a vertical game on paper, which means the most important question worth asking is if Martinez can make those throws on a consistent enough basis?
We won’t get an answer to that in the spring of course, but we will probably find out if Nebraska is going to try and find out.
#5: Great, now give me more turnovers
Not much talk about the defense so far. Understandable, I hope. They’re going to be good, and a lot of that unit is already a known. We know who’s going to be where. We know what those players look like. Bootle’s spot is the only one that needs replacing; if a returning starter loses his spot it’s because the guy under him is better, which means the defense will be better.
They do need to create more turnovers, though. Nebraska was 63rd nationally in havoc rate last season. It forced five interceptions in eight games and recovered only two fumbles (granted the recovery rate was unusually low). That’s not good enough, especially when you factor in the talent on this defense.
Go get the ball.
Those habits start now. Nebraska forced seven fumbles—theoretically a 50/50 opportunity to recover—and only came up with two of those. Go get the ball.
#6: How much of a boost will Daniel Cerni provide?
Nebraska gave up 12 yards a return on punts last season. Just 21 teams were worse The big selling point with Daniel Cerni has been his ability to hang kicks in the air and give his coverage unit time to force fair catches.
Twelve of NU’s 33 punts were returned; that’s after only 11 of Isaac Armstrong’s 59 punts were returned in 2019. With Armstrong, Nebraska was one of the best in the country at limiting opponent punt returns (2.3 yards allowed). Will Przystup filled in as a utility guy with Cerni missing his entire first year. Nebraska needs more, though.
Can Cerni provide that? NU needs someone on special teams who can flip the field.
#7: One last ride for the culture conversation
Nebraska made a concerted effort this past winter to both build some camaraderie within the team and advertise that it was doing so. Early returns suggest this team is very close.
Is the much-maligned culture finally where Frost wants it? If so, time to see what it’s worth.
#8: Are the new pass-catchers the real deal?
Thomas Fidone. Samori Touré. Omar Manning applies here. Can Nebraska get high-level play from those guys this season in the passing game? This one is pretty simple. Nebraska needs more from the position, and this spring period should help answer whether or not it’ll get what it needs.
#9: Who is the next Nebraska running back?
Ryan Held cares about the position too much for it to be mediocre. The offense is designed in a way to where the position can’t be mediocre. The talent on hand suggests it won’t be mediocre. And yet since Devine Ozigbo left, Nebraska hasn’t seemed comfortable just giving it to a guy and letting him run, and we’ve seen pretty modest numbers from the true running backs on the roster.
Everyone in that room can be a starter. Held has done a really nice job assembling the pieces.
Who’s going to step to the plate with Mills now moving on?
And will they get a chance to really take some swings?
The battle for the top running back spot should be one of the most contentious position battles all offseason, and in a rare occurrence for Held, everyone who will factor into it is already on campus and available for these 15 spring practices.
#10: What is this football team’s identity?
OK, so maybe I saved the most important for last.
Nebraska isn’t fast anymore. It didn’t use tempo in 2020 the way it did in 2018, and certainly not the way UCF did in 2017. That was the hallmark for Frost. It isn’t here.
It doesn’t have a smash-mouth run game. It doesn’t have an explosive passing game. Most people watching have no idea what the team is going to look like week-to-week.
Nebraska runs the ball, sure, but it runs the ball with its quarterbacks and then faces a team with a ghastly run defense and tries to throw around it. This defense is probably not ready to be the calling card, and longterm that’s not what the plan was.
So what is Nebraska Football?
Is it disciplined? It hasn’t been.
Is it explosive? Hasn’t been that either, at least not consistently.
Is it a bulldozer? Eh.
What does Nebraska football want to be? That’s maybe the question. It has a quarterback capable of efficiently throwing it and making a defense pay by running it. It has a stable of quality running backs. It has a receiving corps it thinks can be great. It has an o-line with a lot of potential.
What’s the repeatable thing that will lead this team to success every Saturday? What’s the crutch you lean on when other stuff isn’t working? What’s the thing at the top of the opponent’s defensive gameplan? Do we know the answer to that? Does Nebraska? Perhaps the most important question this spring.
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.