All this week the Hail Varsity staff will be selecting its Best of 2018 in multiple categories across any sport the Huskers played. It’s a way to remember the year that was, but also some of these selections may have notes of the future for Nebraska athletics and we’re all thinking at least a little bit about the future right now, right?
Here are our picks for the Huskers’ Newcomer of the Year.
Jacob Padilla: In 2015, redshirt sophomore Kelly Hunter took over as Nebraska’s starting setter and proceeded to lead the Huskers to three straight Final Fours and two national titles. By the end of her time in Lincoln, she had become one of the best setters in the sport, leaving massive shoes for Nebraska’s next setter to fill.
Enter Nicklin Hames, a true freshman from Maryville, Tennessee. Hames arrived in Lincoln with plenty of fanfare – she was the top-ranked setter in the 2018 class, an Under Armour All-American and a five-time state champion in high school (the first coming before she was even in high school as she competed at the varsity level as an eighth grader).
However, none of that guaranteed immediate success in a conference like the Big Ten. Coach John Cook had never had a true freshman starting setter during his time at Nebraska, but Hames changed that when she won the job in practice leading up to the season.
She proceeded to start every match, setting a program record for double-doubles (not just for a freshman, but for any player) with 25 and leading the Huskers right back to where they had been the previous three seasons with Hunter at the helm.
Nebraska fell just short of winning a third national title in four seasons, falling to top-seeded Stanford in five sets in the Final, but there’s no shame in a national runner-up finish for a team featuring four freshmen in its rotation, including one in the most important position.
MORE BEST OF 2018: Best Play | Best Player | Best Win | Best Quote
Hames struggled at times with her location early in the season but got better and better as the season rolled on and as she built up more of a connection with her hitters, and she was a defensive dynamo all year, averaging over three digs per set.
The best part for the Huskers is that Hames should only get better from here on.
“We’re in good hands with Nicklin,” senior setter Brooke Smith said after championship match. “She’s such a fighter and a competitor and is just a workhorse. She brings it every day. She’s an incredible one; she’s one of the best. The team’s going to be in good hands the next three years.”
I can’t really say it any better than that. Hames had a spectacular freshman season that should have Husker fans everywhere excited about what the future holds for the volleyball program with Hames leading the way.
Erin Sorensen: I remember how unsure we all were about running back Maurice Washington’s future with Nebraska last summer. The freshman was a 4-star prospect with all the potential, earning MVP honors after scoring three touchdowns in the Under Armour All-American game in January.
But there was a big academic question mark next to his name. Scott Frost was confident Washington would complete the work he needed to join the program, but many were not as confident. It seemed like an academic redshirt was on the horizon, or possibly junior college as a nonqualifier.
Instead, Washington was made it as a full qualifier on Aug. 1 and the rest is history.
Washington ended the 2018 season with 455 rushing yards on 77 attempts, averaging 5.91 yards per carry. He also had three rushing touchdowns. He added another 221 yards and one touchdown receiving, averaging 9.21 yards per reception. He also contributed on kickoff return (13 returns for 204 yards).
Despite how Washington arrived, Frost always knew.
“He’s had probably a dozen big plays, spectacular plays already in this camp,” Frost said early in fall camp. “He’s definitely opening some eyes and I think he’s got a bright future here. I’d say, at this point, he’s better than what I expected.
“It’s amazing. He hadn’t worked out much. He was focused on academics, he was working. I don’t think he was eating and getting all the nutrition he needed. He showed up quite a bit lighter than he was on his recruiting visit. So, we didn’t know what we would get but he’s going to be a special player.”
Yes, Washington is going to be special. He showed that in 2018, and that was just the tip of the iceberg. It’s going to be fun watching Washington evolve as a player, especially after a full offseason in strength and conditioning coach Zach Duval’s program.
Brandon Vogel: On that note, my pick is Zach Duval and we’ve only seen a fracition of the impact he’ll have on Nebraska’s football team to this point.
But I saw the one thing I was expecting to see in 2018: Not a stronger team, as that’s harder to measure (though that was likely true too), but a healthier one. That you can measure.
Over two seasons at UCF, the Knights were remarkably healthy as measured by missed starts. Or, in this case, the lack thereof. That part translated to Nebraska right away.
By my count, and there are some subjective calls to be made here, Nebraska’s regular starters on offense and defense made 252 of 264 possible starts. That’s 95.5 percent. What I considered the Huskers’ starters in 2017 made 79.5 percent of the possible starts for the team.
As Nebraska football continues to improve, staying healthy could be one of those small advantages that make a big difference in the biggest games. Credit not just to Duval for that, but the entire S&C, training and nutrition team the Huskers have built.
Derek Peterson: Everyone but Brandon took players, so I’m going with a coach as well.
Frost is the single biggest addition any Nebraska team made this year and has been the single biggest addition a Nebraska team has made in years.
Greg Smith: When quarterback Adrian Martinez committed to Nebraska last December, it concluded a whirlwind recruitment that saw cFrost flying cross-country multiple times even while being sick. It turns out that all of the effort was worth it.
After he verbally pledged to Nebraska, Martinez’ high school coach George Petrissans explained how Martinez would fit into Frost’s offense.
“When we came in, we implemented an offense that is a tempo offense. It was patterned off of Oregon and some of the things they were doing," Petrissans said. "We snap the ball within about 5 seconds of the ball being placed. So, I know the tempo that Frost has implemented in Oregon, has at UCF and I’m sure will be similar at Nebraska will be a fit. Adrian knows how to play fast. What also is a fit, in the run game he implements a bunch of quarterback runs where the QB has to read defenders and whether or not to pull on the run and when not to. I think that’s going to be a huge fit for Adrian because that’s a learned skill that a QB’s eyes are on the end man and line of scrimmage, he is reading whether or not to give the ball to the running back or pull it and run it around the corner. That’s one of the best things that Adrian does. He can be involved in the run game.”
Now it looks like Martinez’ fit was even undersold a bit. The numbers were certainly there. The freshman signal-caller completed 64.6 percent of his passes for 2617 yard and 17 touchdowns with 6 interceptions. He was also the team’s second leading rusher with 629 yards and 8 touchdowns. He was second in the Big Ten in yards per game with 295.1. The numbers don’t tell the story of the feeling surrounding Martinez’ future.
He has popped up on many way too early 2019 Heisman watch lists and at some point in the future I’d bet he will be in New York as a Heisman finalist. There was clearly an excitement surrounding the program when Frost took over the program last year. Now there is a sense of urgency and electricity because of No. 2 having the controls of the offense for years to come.