The big question for Nebraska football as it begins its second spring under Scott Frost is pretty simple: How do the Huskers make a big jump from 4-8 in Year 1 to something better, perhaps much better, in Year 2?
The answer, or at least part of it, might be small changes.
When senior cornerback Lamar Jackson showed up for a position meeting this offseason, defensive backs coach Travis Fisher asked all of the players to turn in their phones. No distractions during meetings. “Everybody’s engaged,” Jackson said.
That’s not a team-wide policy. Frost said the coaches aren’t trying to run a “police state” and not to read too much into the change, but it served as an early marker for Jackson of the difference between Year 1 and Year 2.
Additional changes are also born of simple familiarity. Sophomore quarterback Adrian Martinez mentioned the Huskers know how to warm up for practices now, blistering-pace practices that, Jackson noted, aren’t the shock to the system they were a year ago when it was all new to anyone in a helmet.
Being comfortable in the system and culture was one of two things Frost said he noticed right away on the Huskers first day of practice on Monday.
“Number one, the guys knew where to go. We weren’t teaching everything for the very first time. We weren’t teaching guys where to go, where to line up in stretch, how we want them to be dressed, what the names of the plays were. It kind of took off from a point that looked a lot like the end of fall camp last year,” Frost said.
The other big, day-one difference? Size. Strength. The benefits of a full year in Nebraska’s new strength and conditioning program.
“Zach Duval and his staff are the best in the country, in my opinion,” Frost said. “Our guys have gained an average of 100 pounds in their lower-leg strength in the squat, over 50 pounds per man, on average, upper-body [strength] and put on close to 10 pounds per man of lean muscle. They’re in better shape, they can run longer, they can practice like we want them to practice a lot more efficiently. That was obvious in Day 1 of spring ball.”
Junior defensive lineman Ben Stille said he currently weighs 288 pounds. He was listed at 255 on last year’s roster. Senior linebacker Mohamed Barry said he was at 225, is now at 232, “and it’s very lean. I just feel extremely powerful.”
Small changes. The expected changes, in many ways, if a team is to improve, but the sort of changes that could lead to big results.
Extremely powerful isn’t a bad way to put it.
On to some other notes from Frost’s press conference:
>>Sophomore running back Maurice Washington is a “limited participant” in practice this fall as he faces charges of distribution of child pornography as well as a misdemeanor charge under California’s “Revenge Porn” law stemming from a text message he sent last spring.
“We hope we gain a lot more clarity on the matter real soon,” Frost said. “To my knowledge that process is moving along . . . We’re trying to keep him in as close to a normal routine as a student athlete as we can in the meantime. Any time anybody on our team behaves in a way that isn’t consistent with the values of our team or our university they run the risk of losing playing time or putting their status on the team in jeopardy.”
That decision, whenever it should come, isn’t made by Frost alone. It’s made by Frost in conjunction with the university, Frost said.
>>With Washington limited, the Huskers have just one scholarship running back on the roster, sophomore Jaylin Bradley, and a former walk-on, now on scholarship, senior Wyatt Mazour. For the weeks ahead, that will mean some additional backfield reps for freshmen wide receivers Miles Jones and Wan’Dale Robinson, though Frost said they’ll “both be primarily receivers.”
The Huskers are also a “little thin” at linebacker, per the head coach. On the inside Nebraska will look to Barry and Collin Miller to carry the load this spring as Will Honas works his way back from injury—Frost said he’s “limited” this spring—and some young linebackers like Nick Henrich get their feet wet in the weeks ahead.
On the outside, Frost mentioned that JoJo Domann spent the first day of practice at linebacker but could also help the Huskers at safety, his original position.
You can put wide receiver in the “thin” group, too, as the Huskers must replace Stanley Morgan Jr. JD Spielman (818 yards in 10 games) softens that blow somewhat, but Nebraska will need more than one top-of-the-line option out wide.
Frost seemed optimistic on that front.
“We’ve got a ton of talent around JD,” he said. “I don’t need those guys to be All-Americans overnight, I just need them to improve.”
Frost mentioned Jaron Woodyard, Mike Williams, Andre Hunt, Jamie Nance and Robinson specifically in that group.
>>There was no hesitation from Frost when asked if there was one thing he wants to see Martinez improve upon as a sophomore.
“The number-one thing Adrian’s got to do is be the leader of the team. He’s going to be whether he wants to or not because of the position he played and how well he played last year. He can’t back into that. He’s got to take it on, accept it and embrace it. He’s naturally going to be one of our leaders, but I want to see it go beyond that. I want to see him be the guy that’s setting the tone for the entire offense and the entire team.”
It’s not just Martinez who has those expectations. Frost said he called in a group of players he identified as natural and necessary leaders for the season ahead. That group included Damian Jackson, Carlos and Khalil Davis, Dicaprio Bootle, Matt Farniok, Boe Wilson, Jack Stoll, Lamar Jackson, Mohamed Barry and “I’m leaving some out,” Frost said.
>>Over the course of Tuesday’s availability a number of names came up as Day 1 winners, players that impressed during the Huskers’ first spring practice. Here’s at least a partial list: freshman wide receiver Wandale Robinson, redshirt freshman defensive back Cam Jones, freshman quarterback Luke McCaffrey, redshirt freshman offensive lineman Will Farniok, junior linebacker Collin Miller and junior linebacker/safety JoJo Domann.
We’ll have much more from Tuesday’s availability throughout the day.