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Mailbag: Defensive Improvement, Impact Freshmen and New Starters

July 18, 2018

In a new mailbag, Brandon Vogel, Erin Sorensen, Jacob Padilla and Derek Peterson answer questions on their gameday routines, new defensive starters and more.

September 1st, Lincoln will be buzzing a little louder than past years… going to be a night game, which means you fellas will have a little time to kill before clocking in. What's your day look like before you get to work for real? (@TheWeeksy)

BV: For some reason Chris Schmidt hasn’t kicked me off yet, so I typically make a Saturday morning appearance on Hail Varsity Radio. Then the goal is to use that late kickoff to watch as much other football as possible. Typically I’m at the stadium about four hours early, and it’s usually still pretty empty at that point. I’m kind of particular about my game charts, so I use that time to get those ready, watch more football and chat more football as people filter in.

DP: Similar to Brandon, I like to watch as much football as I can. I have a few specific teams I try to watch each and every week. I try to get to the stadium anywhere between three-and-a-half and three hours early.  

ES: I’m not a fella, but I’ll still chime in. My day will consist of me waking up early and catching most of College GameDay. I’ll then watch the start of the 11 a.m. CT games before getting ready and packing up for Lincoln. I like to be in the press box at least four hours early, so that means I’ll try to leave Omaha around 2 p.m. Traffic isn’t bad if you leave early enough, and I like to get to the stadium early so I’m not fighting crowds. From there, I’ll watch some more football in the press box, meander around the stadium, spend some time on the field and get something to eat.

Which starter from last year can you see losing their starting job this year? How many and who are the true freshman that make an impact this year? (@captainwaller)

BV: Both cornerback spots could be up for grabs, but that’s a position where I’m actually in wait-and-see mode with the talent coming in. Early reports are positive on Cam Taylor, who could challenge at corner, but overall I don’t look at the group of likely freshman corners and see play-right-away candidates the way I do at other positions. (I like the safeties better, for example.) It’s actually tough to unseat returning starters for me at this moment. I think Caleb Tannor and Cam Jones play this year. Will they be starters? I’m not ready to predict that yet. Throw in the new redshirt rule and that changes thing, but just doing a quick, gut-check count I see at least 10 true freshmen I could see playing significant snaps in 2018.

DP: I would venture to say the starting linebacker unit on Sept. 1 will look something like this: Luke Gifford, Dedrick Young II, Will Honas, Breon Dixon. Meaning Alex Davis is no longer one of your starting outside backers. To me, Dixon’s combination of experience and fit makes him the most-likely newcomer to steal a starting spot right off the bat. In talking with Greg Smith about the profile of an outside backer in Chinander’s 3-4 scheme, Dixon seems like a hand-in-glove fit. He was getting significant snaps in the spring even before they knew about his eligibility. I’d be surprised if he doesn’t start.

On the freshmen, Cam Taylor, Cam Jones, Caleb Tannor and Casey Rogers feel like instant-impact guys on defense even if they don’t start right away. On offense, I’m looking at Justin McGriff and Miles Jones at the skill positions and Cam Jurgens at tight end. McGriff was one of the guys staying late after every single spring practice working with Tristan Gebbia and that became hard to ignore. Jones was brought up pretty much every time one of the offensive coaches talked. Jurgens, when he comes back healthy, feels like he could play a significant role in the offense.

JP: It’s pretty tough to nail down clear starters at a lot of positions despite so many players with experience returning. Lamar Jackson, Eric Lee and Dicaprio Bootle all rotated snaps last season at corner and none of them are guaranteed to start. The base defense starts two defensive ends. Carlos Davis and Freedom Akinmoladun are returning starters, but Ben Stille was the most productive pass-rusher on the team last season in a limited role. What happens with that group? Derek already mentioned the linebackers. Alex Davis was the starter for the last five games, but that was only after injuries to others and it seems like Breon Dixon might be the guy at one of those spots while Luke Gifford should be the other if he returns to full strength and stays healthy.

As for freshmen, I could easily see Adrian Martinez, Miles Jones, Cam Jones, Cam Taylor, Barret Pickering and Cam Jurgens all making an impact at one point or another this coming season. I’m still in wait-and-see mode on Caleb Tannor; we expected Guy Thomas to play right away last season (and Mike Riley even said he would before proceeding to not play him all year).

If you were allowed to ask any BIG coach any question about the SEC, what would it be? (@CoryHonold)

ES: If we could get a non-biased answer, I’d probably ask them if they believe the SEC is a stronger conference. I’d be curious if they’d take that from a win-loss perspective, a strength of schedule perspective, etc. There’s so many ways they could lean with an answer to that, and I’d be particularly curious if anyone felt the SEC was stronger. I doubt they’d even admit that though, so my question is sort of a pipe dream.

DP: I want to ask about the scheduling. Frost touched on the unbalanced schedules P5 conference play when he made an ESPN appearance before the CFP National Championship and it was clear he wasn’t a fan of the SEC playing eight-game conference slates while the Big Ten plays nine. I’d be curious what other coaches in the conference think about the SEC scheduling, particularly someone like Urban Meyer given how last year ended.

Who will start at center? (@harryd68959)

DP: When the coaches did their statewide Husker Nation tour, I went and saw Greg Austin and Bill Moos in Gretna. Up until that point, I think the general assumption was Tanner Farmer might be the guy to slide into the center spot. I asked Austin how that center position looked after Michael Decker’s announcement he was moving on and Austin went right to Cole Conrad. “We have to play the guys that are here and one of the guys that’s here is Cole Conrad,” Austin said at the time. “We’re fortunate to have him and he did some things for us in the spring.”

Which defensive player from last year will be the most improved player? (@btran0524)

BV: I’ve been aboard the Dicaprio Bootle bandwagon all spring, so no reason to jump off now.

ES: I could see Lamar Jackson having a much bigger 2018 than 2017. It all depends on if his tackling has improved, but he was more than aware of his tackling downfalls from last season. I think he sees big improvement (or so I hope, at least).

DP: Yeah, Dicaprio Bootle is going to have a big year.

JP: I’m going with a different kind of answer here: either Freedom Akinmoladun or Ben Stille. If Akinmoladun doesn’t produce this season like he did as a freshman and is merely a guy like he has been the last two years, I think Stille is going to take a lot of snaps from him.

Did Nebraska find a defense in the last eight months? Was it the Diaco Defense that caused last years headache? Technique? (@BTgreen87)

BV: As we get further removed from Diaco’s Notre Dame years –– a.k.a. The Good Years –– it’s worth reevaluating if his "prevent the big play at all costs" approach is still as valid as it once was, but schemes rarely win games anyway. In the right circumstances, that approach certainly could be very effective. Nebraska wasn’t. There seemed to be a breakdown in the players’ belief in or understanding of the scheme (probably both), and Diaco seemed to take a slow approach to Nebraska’s defensive transition. It seemed apparent to me early on that Diaco’s first objective was getting his defense installed, even if it meant taking some hits that stop-gap solutions may have eliminated. That’s somewhat understandable if you’ve got time for a three- or four-year build. Turned out Nebraska didn’t. But I’m confident you’ll see improvements on the defensive side in 2018, mostly based on mindset. You’re taking players from a “be here, do this” philosophy to more of a “go make a play” approach. Which would have appealed to you more? I think we’ll see that difference right away.

DP: Brandon's answer was pretty much spot on, but I do want to build on a point he made at the end. Getting back to that "go make a play" mindset is something players talked about this spring on multiple occasions. The recurring theme, as I heard it, was "this was how we played growing up, this is what is instinctual to us, now we can get back to that." One player described it to me like playing in boxes instead of playing as a connected unit. They're doing the later now and returns should be close to immediate.

Thank the powers that be that Moos was hired to right the ship, but given the 2018 schedule and the trajectory the Riley-led team was heading, what would Vegas set as the O/U for wins were he still in place? Two? (@md_schmidt)

BV: ESPN’s FPI only includes a small adjustment for a new coach, so the 5.5 wins you see that system have projected for Nebraska is based mostly on returning talent, recruiting and recent trends. That being the case, I don’t know how much lower the O/U numbers would go if Riley were still here. Maybe four wins? Based on where Akron, Colorado, Troy and Illinois are currently ranked in FPI, I think those games get counted as likely wins for Nebraska no matter who the coach is. Minnesota’s more of a toss-up, so maybe 4.5 would be the number.

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