Photo Credit: John S. Peterson

Actual Football Topics We Can Finally Return to for Nebraska in 2020

September 22, 2020

It feels like ages since we’ve been able to ask Scott Frost an actual football question. It actually has since we’ve been able to ask Ryan Held about his running backs or Travis Fisher about his embarrassment of riches. So much of the conversation for months has centered around contact tracing and testing schedules and votes.

(Those things are all important and necessary, especially if a football season is to be successfully pulled off in full, but we didn’t sign up to write science and you didn’t sign up to read about protocol. If I never have to talk about the voting body that is the COP/C again, it’ll be a good thing.)

The Big Ten is going to attempt to play a football season in the fall now. Daily testing in the conference begins on Sept. 30 and the season begins Oct. 24. Football is coming. Which means actual football discourse around the league can begin again in earnest.

Here are three topics right at the top of the mind.

The 2019 Class

Let me just run through the list of the arrivals from the 2019 recruiting cycle really quick: Wan’Dale Robinson (WR), Bryce Benhart (OT), Nick Henrich (ILB), Ty Robinson (DL), Noa Pola-Gates (DB), Luke McCaffrey (QB), Demariyon Houston (WR), Ronald Thompkins (RB), Jackson Hannah (ILB), Rahmir Johnson (RB), Dedrick Mills (RB), Jamin Graham (OLB), Jamie Nance (WR), Myles Farmer (S), Chris Hickman (WR/TE), Garrett Nelson (OLB), Mosai Newsom (DL), Quinton Newsome (DB), Garrett Snodgrass (ILB), Michael Lynn (OL), Javin Wright (DB), Brant Banks (OL), Ethan Piper (OL), Jimmy Fritzsche (OL), Keem Green (DL).

Huge class.

Looking like an absolute stud of a class, just based on first-year performances and what the coaching staff thinks of the individual pieces.

If you sit down at Kinkaider for a beer and a conversation with your buddy, and the topic veers into “Player X that might make a surprise impact for Nebraska in 2020,” there’s an above-average chance “Player X” is someone from the 2019 class.

Remove the obvious names—Wan’Dale Robinson, Dedrick Mills, Garrett Nelson—who have already played, already carved out roles, and already proven they either are what they were thought to be or can offer even more.

You’re still left with quite the crop of talent.

Benhart appears set to start at right tackle as a redshirt freshman, not a fact that should be glossed over regularly. The 6-foot-9, 295-pound tackle has been in line to earn that spot all offseason; the Huskers have tinkered around him to try and provide the best environment for him to grow into what they hope he can become, but they haven’t yet tinkered with his actual place.

Since his arrival, Benhart has been talked about as the piece that can unlock both Matt Farniok (a senior tackle-turned-guard) and the greater o-line. Nebraska hasn’t had a padded practice with that duo as the right guard and tackle, so we have absolutely no clue what it looks like in practice, but in theory it has NU excited.

Ty Robinson is a player Nebraska talks about like it’s a matter of when, not if. Can he turn into the kind of dominant edge rusher the Big Ten routinely pumps out? Nebraska’s been left on the sideline for that party of late. He’s certainly got the frame; a 6-foot-6, 315-pound dude as a redshirt freshman. Imposing presence.

The Huskers are also super keen on Mosai Newsom. Defensive line coach Tony Tuioti cross-trains just about everyone, and wants to run out an eight-man rotation for his three spots this season. Casey Rogers, Tate Wildeman and Green, a late-arriving JUCO transfer a season ago, have seniority but Newsom is flying a little under-the-radar.

Ronald Thompkins, a 5-foot-11, 195-pound Georgia native, is now fully healthy. This is a running back Nebraska truly believes that had it not been for a torn ACL suffered his senior year in high school, they would have been out-recruited for his services. If Sevion Morrison and Marvin Scott have advantages in physical profile, Thompkins and Rahmir Johnson have the edge on scheme familiarity. That No. 2 back is so up for grabs the Atlanta Falcons’ onside recovery team is even aware of it.

Myles Farmer hype is reaching fever levels. Ethan Piper has a legitimate shot at cracking the two-deep at one of the guard spots, maybe more. Chris Hickman, Jamie Nance and Demariyon Houston have been here and know what they’re doing; as much as you hate to say it, with the way NU is recruiting pass-catchers it might be make or break time for the latter two.

Point is this: Nebraska won’t be relying on the 2019 crop of kids this season, per se, but it sure would help if a large percentage of those guys made leaps from “exciting on paper” to “figure out how to get them on the field.”

Development in that class might raise this team’s ceiling this season.

Think about it. If Robinson takes the next step from Big Ten star to household name, a la Rondale Moore, Nebraska is the better for it. If Benhart runs with the job, Nebraska’s offensive line becomes a real strength. If Robinson becomes a clear and present weapon, Nebraska’s defense starts to make a ton of sense. If Nelson takes that next step… If Hickman takes that next step… If one of Thompkins or Johnson takes that next step…

This is a young Husker team still, with a smaller-than-average senior class. Nebraska will go as the Frost recruits go.

Veteran players like Ben Stille, Brenden Jaimes, Matt Farniok, Collin Miller, DiCaprio Bootle, and, to a lesser extent, Dedrick Mills will probably keep the floor relatively high (side note: measuring the team this year off record just won’t yield anything representative) but development in the 2019 class of Huskers might ultimately set the potential.

What’s to be Done with Luuuuuuuuuuuuuuuke?

Did you think he’d be mentioned briefly with the ’19’s and then never returned to?

The expectation is that junior quarterback Adrian Martinez will be the starter. He looked somewhat slimmed down in the brief clips we saw from him before shutdowns happened, and he’s got something to prove this year. Some are expecting a return to his 2018 form, with the added development you’d expect a quarterback to make year-over-year.

If that is indeed the case, Nebraska has a giant McCaffrey-sized question standing over on its sideline.

As a true freshman quarterback, he completed nine of his 12 passes for 142 yards and two touchdowns. He ran the ball 24 times for 166 yards and another score. He also caught one pass for 12 yards while playing a few snaps of wide receiver. In total, he saw 51 snaps at quarterback in four games.

The sample size is incredibly small, especially when throwing the ball. (He attempted only one downfield pass from the pocket. Jacob Padilla had a complete breakdown on each throw here.)

But we’ve seen enough, know enough, and heard enough about the athlete McCaffrey is to know he’s a weapon Nebraska would be foolish to let waste away on the sideline. McCaffrey in a role where his only expected gameday contributions are a play or two here and there if Martinez’s helmet comes off, or a drive or two if the game is beyond doubt, seems like a misuse of his talents.

One benefit of all this extra time to sit and wait for football is Nebraska’s coaching staff has had a lot of time to sit and think about what that football is going to look like. We already know this staff underwent a deep self-scout this offseason. Did that continue into summer months and what should have been fall camp?

A tenet of the Oregon system Frost and OC Matt Lubick came up in is using all of what you got. Both men are regarded as two of the best offensive minds in the game. It seems likely they’ll have something cooked up for McCaffrey if Martinez holds onto the job.

What might that look like?

McCaffrey is regarded as one of the hardest workers in the program, and someone who has completely dedicated himself to learning every little intricacy in the Husker playbook—he was able to play multiple positions as a true freshman, not easy to do. Combine that with his athleticism and Nebraska has to use him in some form or another, right?

The Defense’s Teeth

This is much more of a thought experiment and less something Nebraska is actually planning on doing.

Nebraska’s defensive strength is in its secondary, right? Most assume that to be the case.

Three seniors in Dicaprio Bootle at corner, and Deontai Williams and Marquel Dismuke at safety gives defensive coordinator Erik Chinander a trio of guys on the backend he doesn’t have to worry about. They’ve played a lot of ball between the three of them. They figure to be leaders on the team, let alone the defense.

Cam Taylor-Britt has had a role from the minute he stepped on campus. The junior corner seems the heir apparent to the spot vacated by Lamar Jackson, since gone to the NFL. Taylor-Britt has dabbled at safety and some outside linebacker in his first two years in Lincoln, but his best position seems to be corner.

Nabbing a late commitment from one of the best JUCO players in all of the country last season, defensive back Nadab Joseph, gives secondary coach Travis Fisher six plug-and-play guys immediately.

Fisher’s propensity for cross-training all throughout the backend opens up a world of positional flexibility for him.

It means he can theoretically slot any one of those first six guys in a new spot to make way for a Myles Farmer, Quinton Newsome, Noa Pola-Gates, or Braxton Clark off the bench. He’s got promising true freshmen in Ronald Delancy III, Tamon Lynum, and Isaac Gifford.

Question for the masses: does defensive back feel like a steadier group than linebacker?

If so, would mixing in packages that feature only three linebackers—let’s say Collin Miller, Will Honas and JoJo Domann—and five defensive backs interest anyone? Something similar to what Matt Campbell and Jon Heacock did upon arrival at Iowa State? The Big 12 is much more Air Raidy than the Big Ten, and you can get away with playing smaller there whereas you can’t really do the same against the Iowas and Wisconsins of the world.

But the proliferation of the spread throughout college football hasn’t ignored the Big Ten. Maybe you can surprise some of the more modern offenses in the league. What if you bust out a completely new look against the Buckeyes?

That extra defensive back could be a rover safety of sorts. At 6-foot-3, 205, is Farmer sturdy enough to play a dual linebacker-safety role? Perhaps. His development this offseason would make that a possibility.

Having three corners you feel really good about helps a ton when you go nickel, as Nebraska can use Nadab Joseph—rangy but also quick—in a number of ways.

If the Huskers get a consistent pass-rush from the defensive line, maybe they can afford to experiment with the backend to ensure the best 11 guys are on the field at once. Or, perhaps, a guy like Caleb Tannor makes that jump NU coaches are waiting for and Fisher can continue to methodically develop the younger guys behind his veteran DBs.

Nebraska has options to get creative, should it want to.

Perhaps this isn’t the offseason for such ideas, what with how restricted on-field workouts and padded practices have been.

Or, perhaps this is the perfect offseason for such ideas. Nebraska has had a lot of time to sit and think. If those defensive backs really are as advertised, maybe it’s not the worst idea to build around them.

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