Well, now we really have a long wait ahead of us before football.
The Huskers’ 2020 Spring Game wasn’t actually a live football game, but it was something Nebraska football-adjacent folks could look forward to. With the COVID-19 pandemic halting the sports world, most in a decision-making role are stuck in a state of limbo. Who knows when the college football world will have answers about when football will happen, what it’ll look like, and how much of it we’ll get?
Let’s try and cling to some normalcy for as long as possible.
Even without spring practices, the Hail Varsity staff—Brandon Vogel, Erin Sorensen, Greg Smith, Jacob Padilla, and Derek Peterson—got together to share some informed guesswork with regards to the Huskers’ two-deep on both sides of the ball.
We’re projecting what we expect things to look like on that opening week depth chart that gets handed out.
Here’s the offense.
|RB2||Scott III||Johnson||Johnson||Johnson||Scott III|
|LG1||M. Farniok||M. Farniok||M. Farniok||M. Farniok||M. Farniok|
|C2||W. Farniok||W. Farniok||W. Farniok||W. Farniok||W. Farniok|
Will there be a for-show quarterback competition in the fall or a legitimate competition that carries toward the season?
ES: I don’t believe the quarterback “competition” will be all that legitimate. It’s Adrian Martinez’s job to lose and I don’t see him losing it. With that said, I could see there being a competition at the backup spot. I went with Noah Vedral—he’s talented and he knows Scott Frost’s style of play better than maybe anyone—but I don’t want to count out Luke McCaffrey. It’ll get interesting there, but it’s pretty solid at the starting spot.
GS: It’s 75% for show and 25% legit in my mind. Will Adrian Martinez need to be sharp in practice to hold on to his job? Yes. Is he in real danger of losing that job? Not in my mind. Part of that is his ceiling being quite high still and I also believe he has a big bounce-back season in him.
BV: The time for that competition to happen in earnest was the spring and that obviously wasn’t possible. If there ever was a tight race to be had here—and there might’ve been—I think getting a later start to the 2020 season, or at least a compressed one, favors the incumbent.
DP: I keep going back and forth on how to feel about the integrity of the quarterback competition we were going to witness and probably still will in some shape or form in the fall. I’m on the Martinez bandwagon and auctioning off seats at this point below market value, but I still feel like the guys behind him are more than capable of making things tight. I think that’s the undervalued storyline here; a competition might mean Martinez isn’t up to snuff, but it could instead mean Nebraska has four starting-caliber level quarterbacks in its room. Could Logan Smothers as a freshman start at Nebraska in another situation? I think so. Could Luke McCaffrey, based on the limited sample size that was 2019, do the same? I think so, too. Could Noah Vedral outright win the job? He wasn’t a throw-in with the Frost hire, he’s a quarterback to be taken seriously. So, will there be a for-show competition? I don’t think so, but I don’t think that should reflect poorly on Martinez. And I absolutely expect the QB in the opener to be the QB the rest of the way through.
JP: Like Brandon said, if there was going to be an extended competition it would have happened in the spring. They’ll all get reps early on whenever football resumes to show what they can do, but I expect Martinez to start getting the bulk of the reps before too long. He offers the best combination of talent and experience and the guys behind him will have to very clearly beat him out in order to take that job. As for the back-up spot, if we’re talking about opening day depth chart here I’m still giving the vet in Vedral the edge. I want to see if McCaffrey can make reads and go through progressions as a pocket passer in addition to being a threat with his legs before I give him the job straight up.
What are your general feelings on Nebraska’s pass-catchers? Excited? Concerned? Optimistic? Uncertain?
BV: Uncertain is the only one I’d ascribe to myself at the moment and it’s the least interesting one. But even penciling in receivers above indicated just how up-in-the-air things feel right now. Robinson in the slot is the only one I’d put in ink now. I could easily flip Warner and Betts. Chris Hickman is in the mix somewhere. And it wouldn’t shock me if one of the other freshmen—Marcus Fleming or Will Nixon—snuck in here, too.
GS: Cautiously excited. There is a lot of talent and potential to work with there assuming everyone who signed with Nebraska ends up on the roster this fall. The look and dynamic of the group should be totally different which is a good thing. There are a lot of scenarios that I can see playing out with that unit but the good thing is there is nowhere to go but up.
Toughest position for you to project, be it because of competition or a lack of clarity?
GS: The second unit of the offensive line. It feels like Nebraska has built up some real good depth along the offensive line. Even with the group I picked, Boe Wilson is left off and so are any of the young 2019 linemen. We also don’t know yet if transfer Nouredin Nouili will be eligible. If he is then I think he can be a factor. Greg Austin will have some difficult choices to make which ultimately means his room is in healthy shape.
ES: The backup quarterback spot. I’m not joking. However, if Noah Vedral ends up as the No. 2 guy, I’d expect to see Luke McCaffrey appear as a receiver a bit more throughout the season. I think he could also have some interesting packages drawn up for him, so he’d be pretty versatile no matter what. Who would have thought I’d be struggling to sort out the depth at quarterback? I'd like to go back in time and tell myself this very dilemma in 2016.
JP: Wide receiver is definitely tough because it involves first figuring out which of the three positions each belongs at and then sorting out a top two for each after that. Wan’Dale Robinson in the slot is the only given. Offensive line is tough for a similar reason. Where does Broc Bando slot in? He held up pretty well at backup tackle last year, but Jaimes said Brant Banks was working behind him on day one of practice. Is Bando at guard now? I feel good at Will Farniok at back-up center and Christian Gaylord at back-up right tackle, but other than that I’m mostly just guessing.
DP: For me, the answers for Question 2 and 3 are one and the same. I’ve officially crossed the Rubicon on this room. I’m excited. Wan’Dale Robinson is, as Greg said on our podcast this week, a threat to become a nationwide household name sooner or later. Omar Manning is so gosh darn enticing as a complementary option. Embracing Chris Hickman as a wideout, and subsequently freeing him from the logjam in the tight end room, has me optimistic about his role in 2020. With those three penciled in, being able to pick and choose between Zavier Betts, Alante Brown, Jamie Nance, Demariyon Houston, Marcus Fleming, Ty Hahn, Kade Warner and the rest of the walk-on crop feels like a good spot to be in. Are they experienced? Not at all, but they’re encouraging, and the collective group checks every other box for me. Thus, I could go so many different ways in terms of the two-deep. Beyond Robinson and Manning, you could make the case for something like five guys grabbing that other starting spot.
. . .
Now to the defense.
Step out on a limb, put your speculator hat on: what factor does Ty Robinson play in the defense next season?
GS: At some point next season Ty Robinson is a starter on the defensive line. He might be Nebraska’s most talented defensive lineman but will he be spending most of his time at end or nose tackle? Nebraska could use him at both given the depth they hope to have. If Robinson takes a leap forward it helps the defense out in a huge way.
BV: I went ahead and put Robinson on the top line now, but I’m with Greg, it wouldn’t surprise me if it took him a few games to get there.
JP: I’m looking at projecting the opening day depth chart here, so I went with Deontre Thomas as the starting defensive end opposite Ben Stille based on his experience, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see Robinson earn that job at some point during the season. It will be interesting to see which one of Robinson or Green jumps ahead of the other at nose tackle (since they’re both being cross-trained from what we were told), or if Jordon Riley will play ahead of them both at the nose.
Will the secondary be a strength in 2020?
BV: I think it’s the most talented group on the defense, so it probably needs to be. There are players I really like in what would be the third spot at both corner and safety. Add in that most of the guys are capable of moving between the two and you’ve got a group malleable and competitive. I like Nebraska’s odds of coming out of that scenario with a strong position group.
GS: I believe so. It’s a talented and versatile group that has a bit of an edge. The unit gets bonus points too because of Travis Fisher and how highly I think of his coaching skills. He’ll find the right mix of guys to put out there. My biggest question will end up being how does he get Myles Farmer on the field with two veteran safeties ahead of him?
ES: If it can stay healthy, yes. I also like a lot of the young depth and potential with the secondary, so I think it has a lot of room to grow too. Again, if everyone can stay healthy, this could be—and should be—a major strength for Nebraska in 2020.
DP: Brandon’s first line: “it probably needs to be.” That’s key. There’s so much talent for Travis Fisher to work with, so much experience, so much leadership. The front seven is going to be a work in progress for a bit, so if the defense is going to avoid taking a major step back, the secondary is going to have to be a strength.
Toughest position for you to project, be it because of competition or a lack of clarity?
GS: Defensive line. There are so many questions marks. There are players to be excited about but no one is proven outside of Ben Stille. You hope that it’s tough to project because there is so much competition, which may end up being the case. We just don’t know yet.
BV: I’ll go with outside linebackers. Domann is a versatile player capable of making the splash plays, but the coaches have said that skill sometimes comes at the expense of being assignment-sound. Tannor looks the part but hasn’t put it all together either. Nelson had the motor and determination to play as a true freshman, which is pretty remarkable. If he looks like a second-year player in terms of comfort and knowledge, he could be a real strength. Those are a pretty easy top three, but none are what you’d call the “total package” based on what we’ve seen in the past, so that opens things up for some young players to make a move.
ES: I have to take the defensive line too. Greg hit most of the points so I won’t reiterate it all. We know the talent is there but we don’t know exactly what it can do. That creates the hesitation for me with certain players. That’s OK though. I think it’s ultimately a position, not a negative.
DP: Linebackers in general. Is Nick Henrich going to hold off Keyshawn Greene? Who wins the Garrett Nelson/Caleb Tannor battle? How ready is Blaise Gunnerson for a role? How ready is Will Honas for a starting role? I might honestly have more questions about the linebacker group than the defensive line; I feel more security penciling in the two-deep I did in the trenches than the one I made for the linebackers.
JP: I don’t know if there’s any one position that was all that much more difficult than the others. What I struggled with most is figuring out what to think of the redshirt freshmen and newcomers in comparison to the returners. Nebraska has a lot of players coming back who saw quite a few snaps on defense. Do I just slide those guys up the chart to replace the departures? Or should I give the young guys the benefit of the doubt? For the most part, I sided with the experience for now.