Happy Sunday. Here’s a Monday column.
When Stanley Morgan Jr. was in high school, he had a relative tell him to stand out. Don’t do what everyone else is doing. When he’s on a football field he needs to hand the ball to the official after the play and when he isn’t involved he needs to be blocking his tail off while the other receivers stand around.
High school can be self-serving in some respects. You want that scholarship to go to the next level, so you need to set yourself apart. Morgan learned physicality early. It helped that he was as physically well-put-together as any receiver Nebraska has had in recent memory, but after getting to know Morgan, I’d bet my life savings on a 5-foot-7 version of him still throwing his body into defenders if it meant opening a lane for his teammate.
Morgan, as stars do, set the example.
Nebraska was not a premier perimeter blocking team in 2018, but it made strides down the stretch and it had Morgan spearheading the push. The now-pro baller showed up early to work every day, made the most of his targets, hit people when he wasn’t the first option, and didn’t leave the facility until he was good and ready. (Or class. Stupid classes.)
Morgan spoke to the media. Morgan spoke for his teammates. He carried the room. He brought along the youth.
Nebraska misses that.
I can’t speak from experience on who JD Spielman is behind the scenes, and I won’t once question his heart, but Spielman isn’t Morgan.
Wan’Dale Robinson, a freshman, was the voice of the wide receiver room from Day 1. He spoke damn near every time Nebraska asked him. It was not his responsibility nor his obligation to do so. As the veteran of the room, and the best player of the bunch, that role is supposed to fall to Spielman. He questioned when he was requested. “What do they want to talk to me about?” Well, anything. People want to know who this kid is. Someone in the NFL is going to get to write Spielman’s story—maybe, if he lets someone get close enough—and there will be plenty of canvas because none of it was used in Lincoln. That’s not to complain, we still wrote plenty about him, just to set the scene.
He’s the first Nebraska player to have three 800-yard receiving seasons in a career and we don’t know much of anything about him. He’ll leave inside the top-5 on Nebraska’s all-time career receiving yardage leaderboard. He finished a bowl game away from breaking 1,000 yards as a junior. He goes over the middle, he catches a pass, he gets lit up, he falls and he gets back up again. He is, in every sense of the word, a fantastic receiver.
But if he’s not involved, he fades. He goes off script. He looked like he was going through the motions at times against Iowa.
He’s not the reason Nebraska has struggled to turn those 5-yard swing plays into 5-yard touchdowns, but he’s symptomatic of the bigger issue. Nebraska doesn’t have a Morgan, thus Nebraska doesn’t have a tone-setter. Kanawai Noa was one of the few who would dirty his nose and he didn’t play against Iowa. His absence was felt.
Nebraska threw swing passes seven times against the Hawkeyes and averaged 1.4 yards per play on them. Almost entirely dependent on your perimeter guys opening space.
Scott Frost said often throughout 2018 the mark of a great team is perimeter and downfield blocking. Nebraska’s longest play against Iowa on the ground was 14 yards. It had one pass that gained more than 20 yards.
Guys need to care about it. There were a number of things I saw in the final week of Nebraska’s season, with an extra game on the line in the event of a win, that made me question whether every single person in the locker room cared enough to get it done. The seniors did. And it was their last game.
If that wasn’t Spielman’s as well, he needs to give Nebraska a little bit more of the other stuff in his last year. Nebraska needs him to be a leader and a tone-setter for a receiver room that’s going to be incredibly young. I wonder how, 25 years from now, a receiving career that was one of the best in school history will be viewed when it was in conjunction with one of the worst stretches of school history. Will it feel like Nebraska wasted a talent or will it feel like empty calories?
It seems fitting that the last game of 2019 will feature a pretty porous performance from the pass-catchers. That group had one of the most disappointing seasons of any on the team.
A Wasted Defensive Effort
Here are a handful of defensive numbers Nebraska improved on from Year 1 to Year 2: points allowed per game, yards allowed per run, yards allowed per pass attempt, yards allowed per play, yards per point, points per play, sacks, tackles for loss, takeaways, third-down percentage allowed, and red zone trips allowed.
Nebraska outscored its schedule by three points.
This offseason, the Huskers will lose 38% of all total tackles to graduation—not attrition, just graduation, meaning that 38% is a baseline that could rise—and 44% of their tackles for loss to graduation and 57% of their sacks to graduation and 40% of their pass break-ups to graduation and 64% of their interceptions to graduation.
Six of the 11 defensive starters were seniors.
There is probably going to be slippage next season as the Huskers reload.
Nebraska’s ability to figure out the offense this offseason is probably going to determine how long this rebuild will last.
Nebraska’s best offense for weeks has been giving the ball to Dedrick Mills and letting him run someone over. He hits the other team and moves a guy or two or occasionally a pile backward. If there isn’t an opponent around, he hits his own blockers.
Of all the Big Ten runners to average at least 10 carries a game, Mills’ 5.2 yards-per-carry clip ranked fifth. In games were he got at least 10 carries, he averaged 5.8 yards a run. In his final three games as the featured back, Mills produced 347 yards and two scores. His 188-yard performance against Wisconsin is going to be a highlight all offseason.
Nebraska will have a senior Mills next season, Rahmir Johnson and Ronald Thompkins as redshirt freshmen, and Sevion Morrison and Marvin Scott as true freshmen.
Mills deserves first crack at the leading gig.
Someone needs to alert the Academy. Jack Stoll needs an Oscar.
An Individual Moment to Shine
Wyatt Mazour was understandably upset Friday night. A few quick thank yous in response to congratulations over his late third-quarter touchdown, but the senior running back was upset his Nebraska career came to an end the way it did.
Mazour deserves some love.
He was a high school star as a dual-threat quarterback, then walked on and played running back. He saw the field four times in his first three seasons on campus. Frost arrived and gave the local kid a chance, and twice he earned a scholarship as a result of his work. Mazour is a six-time scholar-athlete honor roll member, a four-time member of the Tom Osborne and Brook Berringer Citizenship teams and a two-time Academic All-Big Ten member.
Everyone was ecstatic to see him find the end zone on Senior Day.
That’s Damion Daniels out there with him!
Mazour is one of the guys I’ve come to respect the most. His work ethic and commitment are special.
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.