Hail Varsity Mailbag
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Mailbag: As Jim Halpert Once Said, ‘What is Going On?’ . . . with Nebraska Football

January 13, 2021

It’s been an eventful week so far, and there are a bunch of questions in the mailbag about the departures Nebraska has witnessed in just the last few days. The Hail Varsity staff is on hand to make sense of them. Let’s get to it.

Simple question: WHAT IS HAPPENING? (@TwinTwisterDad) 

Erin Sorensen: It depends on “what” you are referring to. A lot is happening right now but I assume you’re talking about Nebraska and the current trend of good news, bad news, good news, bad news. Losing Wan’Dale Robinson isn’t great for Nebraska and warrants a “what is happening” reaction. I’d recommend reading what Jacob had to say about that in Padding the Stats. There’s plenty that Nebraska will need to answer but it might be some time before we have the availability to ask. With that said, we know the transfer portal is booming right now. Players are always going to transfer, but the 2020 season and the NCAA allowing an extra year of eligibility for those that want it has made things even more interesting. It’s going to be a wild offseason with all the movement and that’s not specific to Nebraska. So, I guess that’s what is happening. At least part of it. 

Derek Peterson: We have officially entered into College Football’s Silly Season. Blame the eligibility freeze for things being sillier than normal. 

What is the primary reason to be optimistic for the 2021 football season? (@dmhusker1) 

Greg Smith: The defense should continue to get better. They’ve improved every year under Chinander and return several key pieces. You might be able to hang your hat on solid play from the Blackshirts in 2021. 

Brandon Vogel: There are reasons for optimism on offense, too, they just require more qualifiers. The easiest way to put it might be this—Nebraska has “won” 45.23% of its offensive plays over the last three seasons (based on success rate thresholds). That ranks 24th nationally since 2018. Every team above Nebraska in that ranking but one (Texas Tech) ranks in the top-50 in winning percentage. Offense, obviously, is only part of the equation, but the point is this—the offense has achieved at a top-25 level on a play-by-play basis over three seasons at a clip that should produce more wins. But, it has also been prone to pretty spectacular failings, so it doesn’t. The Huskers need more big plays. They need fewer turnovers. They need to be able to better overcome penalties, which are impossible to eliminate entirely. The foundation for the offense we all thought we’d see is there and, I believe, it’s strong. Framing out the rest of the house, however, has been maddeningly inefficient. 

Jacob Padilla: With Deontai Williams and Marquel Dismuke both announcing their return, the defense is definitely where reasons for optimism begin. The hope is the defense is stout enough to give the offense time to figure things out.  

DP: The defense should once again be good enough, as a baseline, to keep Nebraska in every game it plays even if the offense sputters, probably with the exception of Ohio State and maybe with the exception of Oklahoma. I think the defense will continue to improve, like it has done both statistically and visually every year under Erik Chinander, so the thinking is that the Blackshirts would raise Nebraska’s floor. If the offense can ever figure it out, Nebraska can flip the two-year trend of two losses more than wins to two wins more than losses, and then you can go from there. But you can’t bank on those guys doing it, they have to earn that trust first. So, be excited about the defense. 

With Wan’dale’s departure, what kind of pressure does this put on Frost and the staff for next year? Bowl game or forced staff changes? Actual growth and identity of offense? (@Sal_Vasta3) 

GS: The noise around the program has certainly increased since the Robinson news. But let’s be honest. Pressure is mounting anyway because Frost is 12-20 at Nebraska. The fact that the realistic goal right now for 2021 seems to be a bowl game says a lot about where the program is. Within that I do think Frost needs to figure out an offensive identity and execute it consistently.  

Mike Babcock: The pressure was already there, as Greg points out. Not only does Nebraska lose Wan’Dale’s talent, his departure is something of a public relations issue; another proven player bailing on the program. Lack of an offensive identity seems to have been a factor in Wan’Dale’s decision. Frost has some advantage because of having played at Nebraska, and being from Nebraska. Consider if that weren’t the case with a 12-20 record over three seasons. 

Wan’dale said 50% of the decision was family, and 50% was to get used correctly and to develop as a WR for the NFL. How damning is that on this staff? Why would major recruits come here if the best player says they aren’t using him right or developing? (@Sal_Vasta3) 

MB: Greg can answer this better, but I think the pandemic has impacted Nebraska recruiting, not being able to bring recruits in to see 90,000 in Memorial Stadium and the passion of Husker fans (which seems to be diminishing a bit). Plus, recruits are less interested in going a significant distance from home. And they want to play for championships, of course. To lose first JD Spielman and then Wan’Dale doesn’t reflect well, regardless of the reasons given. Recruiting at Nebraska has gotten more difficult over the years. When the NCAA limited TV appearances, the Huskers were always at the max and had that exposure. Plus, they were nationally relevant. Now every team is on television and Nebraska isn’t nationally relevant. It hasn’t even been in the hunt in the Big Ten West of late. And now Wan’Dale’s departure reflects yet another problem, again, on the heels of JD’s leaving. 

DP: Here’s the quote Robinson gave to ESPN’s Adam Rittenberg: “It was about 50-50 with my mom and how I was used at Nebraska. I loved the touches and the way I got the touches. Sometimes they don’t translate to the way I want them to for the NFL.” He went on to say his ideal offense would use “option routes, choice routes, over routes. Things to really see exactly what I can do with the ball in my hands.” Alarms should be sounding in Nebraska. That’s a pretty problematic statement. Essentially, thanks for trying but it’s not working. These next 12 to 18 months will be pretty crucial for Nebraska as far as perception of the program. If, like you said, high school prospects don’t think this is a place with an NFL Draft pick at the end of the tunnel, Nebraska’s going to have to work to change that. 

Finish this sentence: “If the QB has the second most carries and yards next season, NU will have a ______ season.” (@Sal_Vasta3) 

BV: “ . . . a similar season (to the three before it).” Which is to say, four or five wins, maybe six with a little luck. I don’t the ideal version of this offense leans as heavily on the quarterback run as it’s had to, so there’s that. There’s also this—Adrian Martinez is a strong runner, a weapon you want to lose, but the fumbles are also just part of his game at this point. I don’t think you can expect that to just disappear over the course of the offseason, so the only way to try and minimize might be reducing the exposure. 

MB: Agree with Brandon: “. . . will have a .500, or so, season.” And if the quarterback doesn’t have the second-most carries, the record will be about the same, though more likely sub .500. 

After listening to the pod Derek, Brandon, and Greg put together this afternoon it made me ponder the running back room. Is this truly the turning point for more of a power spread offense? (@tchristensen43) 

GS: I’d hope that the Rutgers game was that turning point. I’d like to think serious evaluation of the program leads Frost to this change. I am dubious that it will happen though.  

Is it time to panic yet? Seriously, though, should we be worried about the direction of this team given the high caliber players that don’t stick around? (@InDaWilderness) 

ES: I’m not one to panic ever, just because it’s not in my nature. I prefer to just take things as they come. 

BV: Similar to Erin, “panic” isn’t one of my factory settings (usually). There are some big reasons to be asking some big questions, however, at this point. I really do think Nebraska has made progress on both sides of the ball in terms of on-field play. Not enough progress, but it’s not regressing, so that’s something. The bigger issues seem to be off-the-field, and that’s usually the case for teams trying to change their fortunes. You have to create a culture that doesn’t false start. You have to create a culture that respond as well after a win as it does a loss. You have to create a culture that makes your key players want to stick around. It’s hard to do, but this is what defines winning in college football. Only a few teams are every really “there” at any given time. Everyone else is trying to get there. Without that, you’re really just adrift on the football sea, pushed this way and that by the game’s inherent randomness. Alabama is Alabama because it has a great players and perhaps the greatest coach, but the biggest reason it is what it is, in my mind, is that it removes the most randomness from the game. You can only do that if every detail is locked in. On that front, Nebraska doesn’t seem particularly close. 

How would you evaluate Nebraska’s ability to develop talent on offense? (@bethanyadw) 

GS: It hasn’t been good so far. It’s almost confusing because I think Nebraska does a good job of attracting talent on offense. Yet once they arrive in Lincoln something is happening. Offensive line has had the best overall development as a unit. At the skill positions we’ve seen a lot of up and down play. I think Austin Allen might be Nebraska’s best case for the staff’s ability to develop skill talent. We expected Wan’Dale Robinson to be good when he arrived. 

MB: Until an offensive identity is established, “developing” talent will be difficult. And I haven’t seen a clear offensive identity. “Defense wins championships” doesn’t hold these days. You have to be able to score, and score a lot. That requires an offensive identity, and an offensive line that can ensure it works. 

JP: Looking at the whole team, I think defensive back, tight end and defensive line are the positions we’ve seen the most development in over the last three years. Every other spot needs to pick it up, and that will be even more important on the offensive side after what we saw this last year in particular. All of these issues can’t simply be poor evaluation on the recruiting trail; the coaches — particularly those in charge of the running backs and wide receivers — have to find a way to develop their young guys enough to get them on the field.   

Where does the Husker offense go from here? Who are the guys that are going to step up and fill the void? (@tmorriss515) 

MB: Those who can answer that with any certainty probably deserve consideration for a place on the coaching staff. If there’s real spring practice at some point, it will be very interesting—and presumably extremely competitive. If there’s not . . . well, let’s hope there is. 

JP: Zavier Betts, and hopefully Alante Brown, should be more involved now that they have a year under their belts. Samori Touré isn’t coming to Nebraska to ride the bench and he put up more yards last year than I think Nebraska’s entire receiving room has in their collective careers. Thomas Fidone isn’t coming to Lincoln to sit and watch. I have no idea what to make of the running back room, nor do I have confidence in what the quarterback play will look like going forward. Those are the biggest questions Scott Frost needs to answer heading into 2021. 

Do the Nebraska women’s basketball team have enough left to finish in the top half of the Big Ten? (@dmhusker1) 

MB: That answer depends, in large part, on whether Isabelle Bourne can come back at anywhere close to full-speed quickly. The Huskers can’t afford to lose her, obviously, even if the roster numbers weren’t already what they are. They’re eighth right now but have shown a scrappiness that could serve them well—with Bourne—during the remainder of the Big Ten season. Of the five Big Ten teams currently ranked, Nebraska plays only two, I think—Maryland and Northwestern, which already they defeated. They also play Michigan State again, which they knocked out of the Top 25. So the schedule is probably reasonable enough. But they’ve got to have Bourne and continue with the scrappy, never-quit play. 

DP: Issie Bourne, like Mike said, is really key. Nebraska has seen Trinity Brady and Ruby Porter deal with injuries, and MiCole Cayton and Nailah Dillard unable to make their debuts for similar reasons, but with all due respect to those four, they’re key pieces of a rotation and not stars of a team, at least at this point in their careers. Bourne is a focal point offensively (averaging 14 a game) and a crucial piece defensively because of her quickness and length. Nebraska’s been able to weather the storm this last month—admirably, it needs to be pointed out—because of the defensive output of its three-forward lineup and the sheer awesomeness of Sam Haiby’s offense. It’s hard to play they way they’re playing right now for a full season and sustain a high level of play, so they’ll need to start getting back some of those perimeter pieces that have been unavailable and cross their fingers Bourne doesn’t join them. All that being said, Amy Williams and Haiby and Kate Cain and Bella Cravens and Ashley Scoggin and Whitney Brown off the bench and Porter and Annika Stewart deserve a lot of respect for the way they’ve played to this point. I think they’ve earned the benefit of the doubt; they can win ugly games. Ride with them until they give you a reason not to.

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