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Mailbag: Assessing Nebraska’s Passing Game, Non-QB Runs, and More

November 11, 2020

It’s Wednesday. Wednesday means mailbag time. Let’s get to it.

As we know, the (not so popular) swing pass and the screen pass are an extension of the run game. These plays are vital to Frost’s overall concepts but they have been unsuccessful far too often. Why do they struggle so much with these plays? Is it time to change the plan? (@Corn_Huskers) 

Jacob Padilla: On Saturday, to be honest, I think the problem was Adrian Martinez. There were two different screen plays for Wan’Dale Robinson that were set up for nice gains based on the numbers. But Martinez put the first pass in the dirt and had the second one knocked down by a defensive end. Right now, I think one of the strongest arguments for making a quarterback change is that Luke McCaffrey seems to be completing those “layup throws” at a much higher rate than Martinez. That being said, it’s not always been on the quarterback. At times, the blockers have struggled to get in position or sustain their block long enough to spring the ball-carrier.  

Greg Smith: I can say with a lot of confidence that the swing pass is never going away in the offense. The plan needs to be to execute it better. It’s not a hard play to execute and is pretty symbolic of the Huskers’ overall problem which is doing the basics well. It needs to be blocked well consistently and the throws need to be on time. Both have been problems. It’s puzzling how this is still an issue in year three. 

Derek Peterson: Greg’s right about the swing pass moving forward. Which is why I’d agree with Jacob’s conclusion. 

Super broad question: why does it seem like Martinez has regressed. Was the situation around him just that much better in 2018 compared to now? (@InDaWilderness) 

Brandon Vogel: I don’t even know if he’s regressed that much from what he was as a freshman so much as he’s regressed from what many thought he’d be as sophomore and junior, which is to say he hasn’t progressed enough. Some of that is perception. A strong 2018 season was viewed as even stronger because he was a true freshman. Some of it is Nebraska’s struggle to build talent and depth at wide receiver. To me it looks like Martinez doesn’t feel the same freedom to just play as he did in 2018. A lot of the time, I feel like I can see the gears turning, a blinking “still processing” message as he works through passing plays. Could that be lacking a receiver that provided what Stanley Morgan Jrand JD Spielman did? Maybe. Some of it is probably also a loosen-up-instead-of-grip-tighter type of thing, though that’s easy to say and hard to do. “I think there just needs to be some decisions that are made a little quicker and more efficiently,” Scott Frost said this week. “Then a few balls that we’re just errant or out of bounds that needed to be put on the money, but for the most part I think it’s just processing information quickly, getting the ball out on time where it’s supposed to go at a better clip, and just eliminating the plays that are killing us on drives and just a couple plays here and there that will kill you in a game.” It was perhaps the most telling answer from Monday’s press conference. 

Mike Babcock: Brandon has a good breakdown. In simple terms, I think Martinez is required to process so much more now; as a result, he doesn’t have the same freedom he did as a freshman. Where ignorance is bliss . . . In some ways, he was just playing. Now, he’s processing first. Also, as Brandon indicates, the players around him aren’t proven in the way they were his freshman seasonand I would include Ozigbo with Morgan Jr. and Spielman.  

Does Scott Frost have a loyalty to Adrian Martinez that is keeping him from throwing Luke McCaffrey into the starting role or even more of a shared role as we saw against Ohio State? (@Jeremy_J_KCSR) 

BV: It would be strange, I think, if a coach didn’t feel some loyalty to his starter, but particularly your first starter at a new job. There’s also Frost’s history having played the position, so he is more acutely aware than most of just what impact his decisions might have on the player. That said, Frost sure seemed like a coach this week who knows he might have to make that difficult decision. At the very least, I don’t think we’ll go a whole half without seeing McCaffrey again. 

MB: Frost has relied on experience first to this point, I think, and with only two games played, that might still be the determining factor. This reminds me so much of the discussion following the Central Florida game in 1997, with Frost the returning starter and Frankie London the rising-star sophomore (in the fans’ eyes). Of course, some fans, maybe many, resented the fact Frost had gone to Stanford first. But Osborne was adamant Frost was the starter. 

Do you think Frost would use the two quarterbacks like he did in the first game again, but switch roles? Luke as the quarterback, Adrian more of a running back? (@TwinTwisterDad) 

JP: It’s worth a reminder here that Martinez and McCaffrey were only on the field together for six plays against Ohio State. We saw so much of McCaffrey because Martinez had the chinstrap malfunction early and then the fourth quarter was mostly garbage time. That being said, as talented as Martinez is in certain areas, I’m not sure he has the same kind of versatility or top-end speed that makes McCaffrey effective in that running back/receiver role. If Frost is going to start McCaffrey, it might be best to just give him the keys and let him drive the car on his own. 

GS: I agree with Jacob here. I wouldn’t do the split quarterback thing with Adrian playing the McCaffrey role. If you are going to make the switch, just give the keys to Luke. 

Why haven’t we seen the non-QB run have a bigger part in the red zone? Especially on that Luke INT, that would have been a great play to have just run the darn thing. Is this an extension of Mills not playing well or just Frost’s preferred play-calling? (@InDaWilderness) 

BV: It was puzzling last week to say the least. So far in the Frost era, the Huskers have run the ball 68.7% of the time in the red zone. Those rushes have been successful 53.2% of the time. That’s good. Problem is, red-zone passing has been atrocious. That was even true in 2018, though that season was merely below average from a passing perspective while everything since then could more accurately be described as “poor.” I think the lack of singular talent at wide receiver is a big part of that. You’ve got to win one-on-one down there when things get compressed. Teams know this and can play run first. I think that’s what we’re seeing now. It’s not like Nebraska’s rushing plays in the red zone were doing much either on Saturday. Even Mills’ 3-yard touchdown run required a pretty big individual effort to stretch it in. I agree with you, however. I thought the Huskers could’ve kept it on the ground on the play that resulted in the interception. Maybe even on the next play, too, given that it was four-down territory. But the larger issue is that if teams don’t have to fully respect the threat of the pass, it’s going to be tough sledding. 

JP: I agree with most of what Brandon said, but I also think it’s worth noting there have been open receivers that both quarterbacks have just missed in the red zone this season.  

If you had to pick one special team for the Husker you expect to show the most improvement the rest of the season, which one would you pick: punting, punt return, kickoff return, or field goals? (@dmhusker1) 

GS: I’ll go with field goals. I think Connor Culp is pretty good. Getting to the point where 40 yards and in feels automatic would be big for the team. 

DP: I think you’ll see the punt game improve as well when Daniel Cerni settles into the role he’ll undoubtedly have when available. The punt return game, though, is what needs to improve the most. Nebraska can’t be getting nothing from either of its return units.  

Which senior Husker Football players do you predict will return for next year’s season? For those who do return, are they still on scholarship and can that scholarship be used for graduate courses? (@Corn_Huskers) 

Erin Sorensen: Let’s start with your second question. Yes, scholarships can be used on graduate courses. That’s actually fairly common. A number of players will try to graduate with their undergraduate degree in three or three and a half years so they can start their graduate studies on scholarship. Many end up leaving college with both their undergrad and graduate degrees. Not a bad deal. 

As for the seniors that might return, I couldn’t even begin to give you a guess. Maybe someone will return if they think another year will give them a better shot at the NFL, but would someone like Dicaprio Bootle do that? Or, would it make more sense for someone like Bootle to start training and just move forward? I’m guessing we’ll see a player or two stick around but I don’t think it’ll be many. 

GS: I’d be surprised if more than one or two come back. How about Jack Stoll? Missing a chunk of his weird senior season might make him want to return.  

Why do we pull Farmer for Williams in the second half when Farmer was having a great game and Williams only wants to blow people up and not wrap up? I like Williams as a safety, but Farmer was having a game. (@benklausen) 

BV: I didn’t have a problem with the switch at halftime. You certainly could play the “hot hand,” but it’s also tough to ask Williams to sit when he “lost his spot” due to a spurious targeting call. It’s a “you can’t lose your job due to injury” sort of thing. That said, with the way things were going I think Farmer had shown enough over the first 30 minutes to get a series or two after Williams struggled a bit. 

JP: I also think that as impressive as the two interceptions were, Farmer also had some issues with run fits and making tackles himself (the 41-yard touchdown by Drake Anderson was the biggest example, but it wasn’t the only one)Nebraska was really high on Williams before his injury and the coaches need to give him time to settle in and see if he can be the player they thought he was. Farmer is just a redshirt freshman; his time will come. However, he did show enough for fans to get excited about his future and it might be worth rotating a bit back there like Brandon suggested.  

As Mahomes has emerged as one of the best QBs and players in the NFL, his various throws and throwing motions have been copied by players at every level. Are we seeing Martinez attempting to do the same thing which has to led bad mechanics/technique and inaccurate throws? (@Corn_Huskers) 

DP: I don’t think what we’ve seen in Adrian’s throwing motion has anything to do with copying a style. Could be wrong on that, but I’d say those side-arms we’ve seen have more to do with comfort level.

What do you think the Huskers chances of getting Bryce McGowens? (@dmhusker1) 

JP: Any time a player cuts his list down to a final two, I’d say both finalists have a pretty good shot. It’s a Nebraska-versus-Georgia battle for the 5-star 2021 guard. Tom Crean can sell his history with guards like Dwyane Wade, Victor Oladipo and Anthony Edwards in addition to proximity to home (McGowens is from South Carolina). Matt Abdelmassih can sell Fred Hoiberg’s NBA pedigree plus the friends and family angle with Trey McGowens and Elijah Wood already on the roster. The consensus seems to be that Nebraska is in the lead here.  

If you had a Golden Window, and could fill your bubble with 8 different Nebrasketball teams (current squad & teams from years past), how’s the seeding look? Who makes all-tournament team? MVP? Winner? (@Simba_Simms) 

MB: No. 1 seed: 1990-91; No. 2 seed: 1965-66; No. 3 seed: 1993-94; No. 4 seed 1992-93; No. 5 seed: 1985-86; No. 6 seed: 2017-18; No. 7 seed: 1997-98; No. 8 seed: You pick it. All-tournament team (two centers)Dave Hoppen, Rich King, Stuart Lantz, Eric Piatkowski, Tyronn Lue; MVP: Eric Piatkowski; Winner: No. 1 seed: 1990-91 team, with a close victory over the No. 2 seed: 1965-66. 

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