The last play anyone saw from Nebraska football—more than 10 months ago now—was a fumble. It didn’t much matter at that specific point. Iowa had already taken a 27-24 lead with just 1 second left. The Huskers’ only hope was a kickoff return, but the kickoff was fumbled and that was that. No bowl, no more football.
But nobody would’ve thought at that point just how long the “no more football” would last. Those days are nearly over now. Nebraska has been back at practice and, in yet another sign of the coming season, Scott Frost made his first radio appearance for the monthly Nebraska Football Show.
One of the first questions the head coach was asked was if this team was different than the team that ended 2019.
“I don’t know if it’s a different football team,” Frost said. “I’ve said all along that we’ve had a long way to go and I think we’ve been getting better and better. We’re definitely a few steps ahead of where I think we’ve been from a talent perspective, a depth perspective and certainly an attitude perspective.
“We’re not going to get all the way there in one year or six months, but we’re definitely moving it down the road.”
Progress is the sort of thing you have to show rather than say, something Frost seems acutely aware of this offseason, and the Huskers will get that chance at sixth-ranked Ohio State on Oct. 24. But that’s enough preamble for now.
The real meat of Frost’s hour-long appearance, during which he took a few calls from fans, was a detailed position-by-position breakdown of where the Huskers stand now. Here are the highlights.
Offensive coordinator Matt Lubick said last week that if Nebraska played today Adrian Martinez 2 as well in Luke McCaffrey.
Frost said he’s been “really happy” with the quarterbacks progress so far. “Both Adrian and Luke have had a really good summer and fall. I’m really looking forward to watching those guys play.”
Senior Dedrick Mills was Nebraska’s leading rusher in 2019 (745 yards) and if things go according to plan he will be that again in 2020, but the coaches are starting to think hard about who else they will lean on in the run game.
“The depth has improved and the talent has improved,” Frost said of the running backs. “We’ve got to decide who the No. 2 back is and the No. 3 back is and move forward with those guys. That doesn’t mean others won’t play but we need to start concentrating the reps.”
Redshirt freshman Ronald Thompkins continues to draw buzz after missing last year due to injury. Fellow redshirt freshman Rahmir Johnson has the most game experience after earning 21 carries in 2019. Then true freshmen, Sevion Morrison and Marvin Scott III, have “shown flashes.”
Frost said Nebraska needs more production at wide receiver than what it got last year, but he’s optimistic about a young group of receivers.
“I think we have right guys now,” he said. “A lot of the guys that have been here have taken pretty big leaps forward and then we have a lot of young talent and new talent and it’s going to be a matter of getting those guys up to speed.”
One new player who might be essential to the wide receivers as a whole taking a step forward is Omar Manning, the top junior-college receiver in the 2020 recruiting class.
“Omar is doing great,” Frost said. “He’s missed a little bit of time for health reasons and personal reasons that’s maybe delayed his progress a little bit, but we all know what we have in him. Looking forward to him being a big part of the team in the future.”
The Huskers have plenty of depth at tight end with the top three from last year—Jack Stoll, Austin Allen and Kurt Rafdal—returning. Nebraska also has Rutgers transfer Travis Vokolek available and the coaches have mentioned his name often this offseason.
“Of all the position groups on the team, that one is performing maybe as well or better than any of them,” Frost said.
An emerging trend of Nebraska’s return to practice so far has been praise for the offensive line. Lubick mentioned his optimism surrounding the group, Frost did last week and then Frost did so again Wednesday night.
“We definitely have more depth there. I think we’re going to get some good play and I’ve seen some improvement in some really key areas from that group. I have high hopes for them.”
Nebraska’s three starters from 2019 are gone, though there’s some experience returning with senior Ben Stille and juniors Damion Daniels and Deontre Thomas. Nebraska has dialed up the physicality in practice to compensate for the longer-than-usual layoff this offseason, but Frost said defensive line is one of those positions that’s just hard to evaluate until you get into game action.
“I think it’s kind of wait and see with them. We’ve gotten to see ourselves in pads a little bit here, but you really aren’t going to know how well the defensive line is going to play until you see live football.”
Stille is the “anchor” of that group according to Frost who also mentioned that Daniels has had a good camp. Frost also mentioned that Nebraska’s is getting “good returns” from a group of former junior college players that includes Keem Green, Pheldarius Payne, Jordon Riley and Niko Cooper. Cooper is listed at outside linebacker and Payne has been working at the position as well.
Frost confirmed that sophomore walk-on Luke Reimer is now on scholarship. Reimer and redshirt freshman Nick Henrich are expected to compete for snaps behind Will Honas and Collin Miller, two veterans at inside linebacker. Junior college transfer Eteva Mauga-Clements also drew some praise and Frost said he’ll definitely be a factor on special teams.
The bigger question lies at outside linebacker, where Mike Dawson returns as position coach after a year with the New York Giants. He inherits some experience with JoJo Domann, Caleb Tannor and Garrett Nelson returning after playing snaps in 2019.
“Our outside linebacker group underperformed last year,” Frost said. “If nothing else, he’s going to get guys playing hard, using the right technique and being in the right spot. There were a lot of times when mistakes at that position cost us in the run game and a few times in the passing game.”
Nebraska ranked 13th in the Big Ten in rushing yards allowed per play and sixth in passing.
Nebraska announced last week that cornerback Braxton Clark is likely out for the season with injury and the result of that is Cam Taylor-Britt is a “full-time” corner now. But that’s still good experience paired with seniors Dicaprio Bootle, Marquel Dismuke and Deontai Williams.
There’s also an intriguing second wave of players making an impact.
“We’ve just got a gang of young talented guys that are just fighting for playing time and trying to work their way up,” Frost said. “I feel really good about the secondary. We’ve got to do a better job getting a pass rush and some other things to help them, but those guys have done really well in camp.
The less said about Nebraska’s special teams play in 2019 the better. We’ll focus on 2020 instead.
“It’s going to be better. We’re going to make it better,” Frost said. “I like the group we have better now. Will Przystup and Daniel Cerni are battling to be the punter. Quite a few guys that are battling for kickoff, probably led by Tyler Crawford. I’ve definitely seen improvement.”
No specific mention from Frost of who might hold the lead for place-kicking duties, though Crawford, a true freshman, is likely in the mix there as well. Nebraska also added LSU transfer Connor Culp, Iowa Western transfer Chase Contreraz and freshman Ryan Novosel to the roster since last season.