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Hail Varsity Mailbag
Photo Credit: Quentin Lueninghoener

Mailbag: Favorite 2021 Signees, Who’s on the Board Still, and More

December 17, 2020

We’re a day late on the mailbag but Wednesday was the start of the Early Signing Period in college football and with so much happening, we figured we’d just wait a day and let the dust settle. Now, the Hail Varsity staff turns its attention to the future for a number of signees from Wednesday, who might still be on the board, and a bunch of other topics.

Name your favorite ’21 signees (besides Thomas Fidone) on offense and defense. (@Go_Big_Red) 

Erin Sorensen: On offense, I’ll take James Carnie. He has a great story. Under-recruited player who needed visits and the camp circuit to get attention, had that taken away from him with COVID-19 but keeps working and finally gets that offer from Nebraska. It’ll be fun to watch his story continue to evolve. An honorable mention to Heinrich Haarberg. I enjoyed getting to know him through Derek’s coverage all fall, and I think he already seems like a leader for this team. On defense, I’ll take both Randolph Kpai and Koby Bretz. Kpai was born in Liberia and moved to the United States a few years after he was born. He’s talked about the bullying he faced as a child learning English with a thick accent. It’s an old article, but you can learn more about him here. As for Bretz, he grew up a gymnast and diver and was even a nationally-ranked diver before deciding to focus on football. 

I swear I didn’t do this on purpose, but all of those mentioned (with the exception of Carnie) were featured by Derek and Greg in signing day videos that you can watch now. We have no idea what will or won’t be on the football field for any of the 2021 signees, but that doesn’t change who they are as people. I’ve long said the people are what make this job as great as it is, and a quick look at just the four mentioned above highlights that once again. 

Mike Babcock: Always enjoy getting in-state athletes, so Teddy Prochazka and Koby Bretz top my list. Also, Marques Buford Jr. 

Greg Smith: On offense, I’ll go with wide receiver Latrell Neville. He’s a kid that loves hard work and enjoys getting up at 5 a.m. to work out. That work ethic and his athleticism are a fun combination. Seth Malcom is my pick on defense. It’s tough to make the transition from 8-man football to the Big Ten. But he’s a really talented player and great kid. I’m looking forward to seeing his career player out.  

Brandon Vogel: I’ll go with Mike on Prochazka on offense. He was a big get, but because he committed so early he gets a little bit overlooked, in my opinion, based on his actual talent. Defensively, Malik Williams. He played against a high level of competition in Georgia and I think we’ll soon see just how much talent Nebraska has been able to bring in in the secondary. 

Jacob Padilla: I’ll stick with my brand and highlight a walk-on here: I think Creighton Prep wide receiver/defensive back Alex Bullock is a steal for the Huskers. I’m not sure which side of the ball he’ll settle at, but he’s a fierce competitor and a good athlete who is polished on both offense and defense.  

Derek Peterson: I’ll echo Mike and Brandon in saying Prochazka. The young man is a 6-foot-8, 300-pound athletic freak. He strikes me as one of those dudes who could end up on Bruce Feldman’s Freaks list some day. The profile for a Nebraska offensive lineman under this regime seems to be “unreasonably large human with more athletic ability than should be allowed given the size.” That’s Teddy. He’s a really exciting prospect. I also have to break the rules here and give two on offense. Because I’ve gotten to know Heinrich and his family a little more than other guys in this class, I feel pretty comfortable speaking to the young man’s character. He’s exactly the kind of guy you want. The combination of size and arm talent he possesses sets the ceiling rather high, I think. Like Frost said Wednesday, with work he can become a really, really good quarterback. He’s wanted to emulate Justin Herbert, and the guy is willing to work. Switching to defense, I’ll say Kpai. I don’t know him well but he seems to be a really positive person with a killer mentality on the football field.  

Which Avenger would be the highest rated gridiron recruit? (@SipplesLostT) 

JP: At first glance, Hulk seems like a guy that would jump out to talent evaluators. However, as devastating as he could be on either of the lines, he’s just too wild and would be a flag magnet. There’s no way he doesn’t get ejected for targeting early in every game. Iron Man’s suit wouldn’t be allowed, so take him out. Thor could be a good football player, but I’m not sure he has any idea how to play the game. The answer has to be Captain America, right? He’d be a good fit for the military-esque culture of football and with his superhuman physical abilities he could be a difference-maker at literally any position. Good luck covering that guy downfield or trying to stop him rushing off the edge. 

DP: Yeah, the answer is Cap. Can’t tackle him, can’t cover him (remember he’s also hella fast), incredibly disciplined so you won’t have to worry about mistakes. He has All-American linebacker/running back written all over him for obvious and punny reasons.

We keep hearing about progress so I wonder if this year’s Nebraska team played Scott Frost’s first Nebraska team who do you think would win? (@jeffbeitel) 

MB: I’m picking his first team, mostly because of Adrian Martinez, with Devine Ozigbo, Stanley Morgan Jr., and JD Spielman on offense. 

BV: I think it’s still this year’s team, though it’s a narrow gap. The 2020 Huskers might be, say, a three-point favorite over the 2018 team we saw at the end of the season. The defense is further along, though as Mike notes the skill-position talent on the other side is certainly in the 2018 team’s favor. 

During the game on Saturday, they said Nebraska has lost 11 (now 12) one-possession games since 2018. That’s an incredible stat, both frustrating and baffling. How do you feel about that? Do you read into that much? Is it encouraging to you? Second question, how did Bo Pelini and Mike Riley do in this area? (@JacobKrueger5) 

ES: I don’t know if it’s encouraging, although maybe it is. I’ve long thought Nebraska has forgotten how to win. When the game gets close and all you have is that final drive, the Huskers just can’t seem to hang on. I don’t think I read into it much more than that, but it is frustrating. It feels like a win is so close, and yet it’s not. There’s an old saying that first you lose big, then you lose close, then you win close and then you win big. When Nebraska started losing close, it felt like the close wins would follow. We’re still waiting on that, right? As for Pelini and Riley, I don’t remember a lot of really close games with Pelini. There were some that stand out, like the 27-24 win over Northwestern or the 23-20 overtime win over Penn State in 2013. You also have things like the 70-31 loss to Wisconsin in 2012, but Pelini also has a lot more years to work with. For Riley, it felt like there were a lot of close losses. Take that 2015 season for example. Nebraska lost 33-28 to BYU, 36-33 to Miami, 14-13 to Illinois, 23-21 to Wisconsin, 30-28 to Northwestern and 28-20 to Iowa. By 2017, the losses became a little more significant. All of this to say, close losses (and some close wins) have plagued Nebraska for some time now. It’s a much more complex issue than me simply summing it up as not knowing how to win, but the mental aspect of a game is an important one. I can’t say fixing that fixes everything, but it can’t hurt. Right? 

BV: Pelini went 16-13 (.552) in one-score games, but after his first three seasons at Nebraska he was 3-8 (.273). That means the Huskers went 13-5 (.722) in one-score games in the Big Ten, which is about as far outside the norm as going 3-8 was over the first three years. That’s why, I think, the Pelini era felt like a decent success (and more than that in comparison to what has come after) but it wasn’t unquestioned success. Overall, 30.8% of games during the Pelini era were decided by one score. Riley went 8-10 (.444) in one-score games—just one win short of exactly what you’d expect any team to do over a long enough span, which is go .500—and 47.4% of the 38 games he coached were decided by a possession. Frost is 4-12 (.250) and 51.6% of his games at Nebraska have been decided by one score or less. Again, most coaches should be pretty close to .500 in one-score games. Even the best in the game are only a little better than that.  Nick Saban is 24-17 (.585) in such games—that’s why people keep bringing it up with Frost—but just 22.1% of all games have been within that margin. Maybe that’s the better way to look at this: What percentage of your losses are one-score losses? Because that’s the ideal scenario, right? That’s Alabama under Saban. The Tide steamroll teams most of the time, and when they lose it’s almost always a game that could’ve easily gone the other way. Saban’s lost 23 games total at Alabama and 17 of them (73.9%) have been by one score. He’s that close to being close to perfect. 

The Big Ten years of the Pelini era were defined not by getting to nine wins, but by big, embarrassing losses. For his entire time at Nebraska, Pelini had 48.1% of his losses come in one-score games. Riley had 52.6% of his losses come that way. Over a shorter stretch than Riley (in terms of total games), 60% of Nebraska’s losses under Frost have come by one score. So, yes, I read quite a bit into that and do view Nebraska’s record in one-score games under Frost as encouraging at this point. I also understand those who might view it as proof of a long-term problem. That’s really what we’re talking about here. How many games do you need to play before a .250 winning percentage in close games feels less like an outlier (or a run of tough breaks, if you prefer) and more like a sign that this staff lacks the minute focus required to turn the short-term trend around? Personally, I’m not there yet. It’s still early enough that the frequency of close games is more of a positive than a negative. 

What players left on the board does NU have a legitimate chance of landing and on a scale of 1-10 how confident are you that land them? (@InDaWilderness)
Who is the person(s) that we should look for to sign in February? (@Go_Big_Red) 

GS: There is the Hawaii trio of linebacker Wynden Ho’ohuli, defensive lineman Zhen Sotelo and wide receiver Titus Atimalala-Mokiao. Las Vegas defensive lineman Tia Savea is on the board. Cornerback Avante Dickerson is currently on the board. My confidence that Nebraska lands Ho’ohuli and Savea is 7. I’d put Sotelo and Dickerson at a 6 with Atimalala-Mokiao at 4. I will say though that it would not surprise me if any of them committed. It would also not surprise me if Nebraska missed on them all. That’s unlikely though.  

I love 2AM, but it seems so much like he just doesn’t have the arm talent to make the throws he needs to, and we saw that right now Luke doesn’t either. We got some great WRs. But we can’t get them the ball! What is the chance that Logan or Heinrich could be the guy in 2021 or 22? (@InDaWilderness)
It seems like both of them are a bit more of a traditional pocket passer, kind of going away just a bit from what Frost was after in 2AM and Luke. Is that because he saw the need for a better thrower at that position? (@InDaWildernes) 

BV: By all accounts, the staff is pretty high on Smothers. That said, he’d still be a redshirt freshman in 2021 who has yet to see any college action. But I would expect the spring to include a totally open competition that includes Smothers. Martinez is so close, I think, to being what Nebraska needs but we just haven’t seen the progression in his ability to see what the scheme is providing in the passing game. That’s a bigger deal to me than having the arm talent or accuracy to “make all the throws.” The question I’m asking myself entering 2021 is, “Would you give up everything Adrian or Luke offers in the run game (and that’s a significant sacrifice) for a guy who could and would take the throws that are there the majority of the time?” More and more, my answer to that question is yes, but Nebraska’s hand-off run game would also have to get better to account for what you might lose from the quarterback runs. Maybe Smothers isn’t much of a dropoff. He was an extraordinary track talent. Based on what we’ve seen through three seasons, the ability to operate in the passing game feels like one of Nebraska’s biggest needs in 2021. 

DP: Brandon’s question is the key one, I think. And I’d probably answer yes as well. Theoretically, you’re still getting rushing success with Smothers, just a little less frequently, but you should be able to counteract that with the running back talent you have in the program. At some point Nebraska is going to have to rely on one of these actual running backs to fill the role or it’s going to become harder to recruit high-end running backs to come play in the system. If you’re getting a quarterback that can “make the throw” it makes life so much easier on everyone else; you don’t necessarily have to rely on the quarterback run—the only area Nebraska really ever consistently has a numbers advantage—to move the ball. 

JP: Are we sure Smothers is a better passer than Martinez or McCaffrey? Or is he similar to Martinez and McCaffrey where his athletic gifts are ahead of his quarterback skills? I suppose we can’t know that until we see him as the starter. I know the quarterback run game is important to Frost’s offense, but it’s never been better than when Marcus Mariota and Mckenzie Milton were running the show and while both guys could run, they were definitely pass-first guys. Maybe I’m spoiled as a football fan because I’ve gotten to watch Aaron Rodgers play for my team for the last 13 years, but I’ll always take the guy who can consistently make all the throws over a better athlete (not that Rodgers can’t run). This (plus Martinez coming off the injury that cost him his senior year of high school) is why I thought Frost would give Tristan Gebbia the first crack at starting when he arrived in Lincoln. Frost’s offense gets a lot of guys open and he needs a quarterback to hit those throws to keep things flowing. That being said, I’m just not sure I see Frost skipping over both Martinez and McCaffrey to go with a freshman. 

With all 19 commits signing today, what do you expect for the rest of this recruiting class? Any positions still in need? (@tschmidt723) 

GS: I expect Nebraska to land 1-3 more high school players this recruiting cycle still. Outside linebacker and defensive back could use another guy. So could defensive line if the Huskers want to really start a nice pipeline there to go with the young defensive linemen they have on the team. 

Any buzz around the transfer portal for Nebraska? (@iheartwinona) 

GS: Yes. I could see Nebraska taking between one and three additional transfers. The team already has one with grad transfer linebacker Chris Kolarevic from Northern Iowa. Running back, wide receiver and defensive back will all be considered. Everyone wants an impact pass rusher if they can land one, too. 

What is going on with the recruiting in Florida? (@PattyPowles) 

GS: A combination of things. Nebraska pulled a lot of talented players out of the state last cycle which is good. It’s obviously bad that almost all have left the team. Some of this is homesickness in a tough year. Another part of it is the staff evaluating fit of players off the field better. Another part is Scott Frost doing a better job of finding a way to balance keeping players happy while instilling discipline.   

What are our chances with Avante Dickerson? (@SteveWestra42) 

GS: I’d say the chances are pretty good that Nebraska lands him. The early signing period still goes for two days so the Huskers are certainly hoping to get him to sign now. The chances take a bit of a hit if he takes it all the way to February. New schools from all over the country will enter the mix for him if that happens.  

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