Hail Varsity Mailbag
Photo Credit: Quentin Lueninghoener

Mailbag: Assessing Nebraska Football’s Skill Positions, Jersey Talk and More

September 08, 2021

It’s Wednesday, so that can only mean one thing: another Hail Varsity Mailbag. Today we dive into a little Husker football—thoughts on the present and future—and touch on white uniforms at home, Husker volleyball and a hypothetical women’s sport at Nebraska.

So, without further ado, let’s roll.

If Frost is here in 2023 and Smothers is QB1, give us his college football QB comparison. (@Borgy___) 

Drake Keeler: I don’t know if I’m as high on Smothers yet as others may be. For that reason, the best comparison I can give at this moment is Luke McCaffrey. They have similar builds, and seemingly the same strengths and weaknesses. We have only seen Smothers play in the spring game and against Fordham, so I could easily be wrong here, but he seems to be another skilled runner that is less impressive through the air. He completed four of his seven passes against the Rams, but a few of those were noticeably off target and he also lost a fumble. Adrian Martinez also shares some of these traits, but I feel he’s a bit better in all of these areas. That being said, 2023 would be Smothers’ fourth year in the program and there’s reason to believe he has a lot of upside.  

Steve Marik: This is a heck of a question. I like it—makes you think. Ever heard of Jason Bean? If you haven’t, I don’t blame you. He was a quarterback at North Texas from 2018-2020 before transferring to Kansas, where he started last Saturday in the Jayhawks’ win over South Dakota. I see similarities between Bean and Smothers. Both are great athletes who are more runners than passers right now. Bean is 6-foot-3, 189 pounds while Smothers is 6-2, 195. While splitting reps with another guy in eight games with the Mean Green last season, Bean completed 54.5% of his passes (79 of 145) for 1,131 yards with 14 touchdowns against five picks. He also rushed for 346 yards and five scores. It’s hard to tell what Smothers is going to be, because we just haven’t seen a lot of him and he hasn’t had the chance to develop with game reps. Me comparing Smothers to Bean isn’t a slight, either, because I like Bean and what he did at North Texas. Make all the jokes you want about Kansas. But it has a real coaching staff now and I’ll be excited to see what Bean can do in the Big 12. Yes, I really just said that sentence. 

Greg Smith: The first comparison that came to mind for me is Joe Ganz but with more speed. I think that’s the ultimate upside for Smothers. A quick decision-making quarterback who isn’t going to wow you with arm strength. In high school, Smothers was really good in the run game. If he can stay healthy, which will be a question because of his size, then he’ll have a chance to make plays with his legs, too.  

Are we going to see four running backs come into every game? (@Peyton51533) 

Jacob Padilla: Unlikely. Nebraska only played three backs in the season-opener against Illinois, and I’m not totally sure we would have seen the third guy (Rahmir Johnson) had things gone more smoothly in pass protection. The quarterback is always going to eat up a good number of carries in this offense, so we can probably expect an average of somewhere in the 17-22 range in carries per game for running backs, which would be tough to successfully and productively split between four guys. 

Steve: Four? Probably not. Nebraska’s coaching staff is waiting to see who steps up at that position and takes control. We may have just seen who that might be—Markese Stepp—against Fordham. But if you consider the personnel decisions made by the staff this season and last, and their comments about playing the ones who are consistent in practice, it’s really hard to tell who’s going to get the ball each game.  

Drake: Like the others said, I probably wouldn’t say four in every game, even with full health. But I will say it’s more likely than some think. Stepp and Gabe Ervin Jr. are probably locks to get carries every game, unless Ervin continues to really struggle. The wildcards right now are Sevion Morrison and Rahmir Johnson. Morrison is a guy I think the team wants to get involved, and I could see him getting at least a couple carries consistently. Johnson is probably the one most people would leave out here, but I think he also could surprise people with how much he sees the field. Frost mentioned after Illinois that he brought Johnson in down the stretch because of his receiver skills. The Huskers could be in a significant number of pass-heavy situations this year, and Johnson might be the top back for that. I don’t think four playing consistently is necessarily a good idea, but I think it’s somewhat possible. 

Mike Babcock: No. Frost has to settle on one or two—Stepp and Ervin Jr. That’s tough with several talented backs. And someone will probably end up in the transfer portal. But it’s a little like center, or quarterback. You want to identify the best and stick with him, again, two at most. 

Will Omar Manning’s snaps continue to increase even if Oliver Martin is back? (@danno_s_h) 

Jacob Padilla: I suppose it depends on what Manning and Liewer continue to show the coaches, both in practice and in the games. Samori Touré and Martin appear to be the team’s top two wideouts based on both snap count and production. That third spot seems to be up for grabs with Liewer and Manning as the prime contenders.  

Steve: If Oliver Martin is back from whatever it was that kept him out against Fordham, I think you’ll see around the same number of snaps from Manning, unless something happens to the core guys in that starting receiver group (Samori Touré, Martin and Wyatt Liewer). The coaches harp on being consistent at practice, so it depends on who impresses them during the week. I do like what Manning has showed through two games, however.

Mike: As indicated, Manning will compete for the third spot if/when Martin returns. Results over reputation. It’s that simple. 

Greg: Yes. His impact and upside is clearly higher than others who have played ahead of him. He’s starting to show that on the field. Hopefully he can keep showing that in practice.  

Hello. Long time reader, first-time questioner. Assess the wideout play so far. Should we be seeing more of Nos. 4, 5, and 15? (@DrPeteyHV) 

Jacob: In order for Nebraska’s offense to approach its ceiling I think Alante Brown, Zavier Betts and Omar Manning likely need to be a bigger part of the game plan. The coaches seem to think they’re not ready for that at the moment, though, and they get to see a lot more about what those guys are doing than I do. I think both Oliver Martin and Samori Touré have shown a good connection with Adrian Martinez and the ability to make plays. As a whole, though, the wideouts probably need to create more separation than they did against Illinois. 

Steve: What Jacob said. It’s spot on. The coaches watch the receivers at practice, and we do not. So, to the coaches, the offense has a better chance to move the ball and produce points with the ones they play the most—Samori Touré, Oliver Martin and Wyatt Liewer—instead of Alante Brown, Zavier Betts and Omar Manning. Now, with that being said, yes, the idea of having Brown, Betts and Manning getting more targets is intriguing.  

Drake: The wideout play has been really intriguing so far. Two wide receivers — Martin and Touré — have already had a 100-yard showing. Last year, Nebraska only had one guy that seemed capable of that, so that’s improvement. Personally, I would love to see more of Alante Brown and Omar Manning. What I think this group might be missing in the starting rotation is a guy that will make a man or two miss most plays, and Brown can be that. I hope he works his way into more playing time for that reason. 

Brandon Vogel: I tend to take a no-fun approach when it comes to personnel. The games are like 10% of what these players have to do, but they’re the only 10% we really get to see. The other 90% is behind the curtain, and we’re only allowed to peek in through coaches’ comments on players we largely haven’t seen. Because there’s no incentive to offering an honest appraisal in those comments, it sets up a scenario where we hear a lot of good things about players—because there’s a strong incentive to keep people happy—who we don’t see much on game days. I tend to side with the coaches in these scenarios. Any coaches, not just Nebraska’s. They’re the ones who see everything, and, unless they’re just bad at this, leaving players who could help them on the sidelines for no reason would be career suicide. And, if that truly is what’s happening, that’s what it will be eventually. TL;DR – I’m always going to give a staff the benefit of the doubt

What can we take (positive or negative) from the Fordham game in preparation for this week’s game against Buffalo? Will we see a new punt returner and/or kickoff returner? (@Corn_Huskers) 

Jacob: The negative is probably the struggles of the offensive line to dictate things early on. Big Ten teams aren’t going to wear down the way Fordham did in the trenches, so Nebraska is going to have to be much better to have success against the rest of the schedule. On the positive end of the spectrum, I’d say the connection between Adrian Martinez and Samori Touré is something to be excited about. If Nebraska can keep Martinez upright, between Touré, a healthy Oliver Martin and Austin Allen, Nebraska has a chance to produce a pretty reliable passing attack. 

Steve: A positive? I guess the fact that Nebraska actually went out and scored 50-plus on a team it needed to is a plus. It’s like if you are having an off night on the basketball court and you see the ball go through the hoop on a free throw. You just feel better about yourself next time down the court, and maybe it helps. So taking care of business like the Huskers did against the Rams may have made the team feel better about itself and gave them a, “Yeah, we can do this,” feeling. A negative? Not shoving around the Fordham defense for about a quarter and a half wasn’t great to see. Nebraska has issues on the offensive line which will need to be worked out.  As for a new punt returner, I think Martin should be the full-time guy back there if healthy. Will we see Cam Taylor-Britt back there for Buffalo’s first punt? Yes, I think the coaches stick with him.

Mike: Winning is the positive, getting the job done (against an opponent put on the schedule for a win). The slow start was a negative, fumbling obviously. Didn’t think we’d be talking about the offensive line having issues. That’s a definite concern as Big Ten play approaches. The offense has to start there, of course. Nebraska could learn some more things about itself in the Buffalo game. It won’t be Fordham II. Buffalo is a much better program than that. 

Greg: Take the win as a positive. That was Nebraska’s fifth win since Nov. 23, 2019. There is something to be said at this point about just seeing wins. If Oliver Martin is healthy I think you’ll see a new punt returner. If he’s not back before the Oklahoma game, then maybe we won’t. 

Has Nebraska ever worn white jerseys at home before this upcoming game? (@brandon99471369) 

Erin Sorensen: Fell down a bit of a rabbit hole here (and am stealing Brandon’s thunder as the uniform expert on staff) but I have been lightly researching this since you asked. Found this Google Site and it looks like Nebraska may have worn light jerseys at home in 1949. The photos are black and white so it’s tough to tell what color they actually are, but it looks like the home jerseys were light but the away jerseys were dark. From there, I cannot find an instance of light jerseys at home. Nebraska did wear the all-red uniforms in 1986 against Oklahoma (which remains a controversial choice) but that’s not what you asked. Maybe Brandon knows something I don’t though. He is the uniform expert. 

Mike: I’ll take Erin’s research for possible white jerseys. That might’ve been a game in which the Huskers wore white to avoid confusion—Oklahoma may have brought its red jerseys. There’s at least one other game, much longer ago, in which the Huskers wore different colored jerseys at home to avoid confusion, maybe also with Oklahoma? For some reason, I was thinking blue, but I have no idea where blue jerseys would’ve come from. Anyway, the further back you go, the more likely there could’ve been white to avoid confusion if the opponent also wore red. In 1920, Nebraska went to Rutgers, which wore black jerseys much to its fans’ displeasure, because Nebraska had red jerseys. 

Brandon: Mike is correct. Nebraska has worn blue at home—in 1923 against Oklahoma ––but probably not white. In addition to Erin’s research, I did a quick check of the likely instances in a modern context. The Huskers were fond of all-white in 1992, but not at home. Same for 2002 when Nebraska had all-white on the road (gussets!). Mike Riley would go all-white at times, never at home and the Huskers’ one white alternate to this point was worn on the road. I’m comfortable—though not 100% confident—saying the Huskers haven’t worn white at home in, say, the AP poll era which takes us back to 1936. 

Which Husker basketball team has a greater chance to exceed expectations — the men’s or the women’s team? (@dmhusker1) 

Jacob: Before answering this question, we’d have to identify what expectations are, which is somewhat difficult. Amy Williams’ squad was a fringe NCAA Tournament team a year ago and brings back its top two scorers plus a strong supporting cast and adds a talented recruiting class. Fred Hoiberg’s team is coming off back-to-back seven-win seasons but adds a talented group of newcomers led by 5-star Bryce McGowens. I think Hoiberg’s team is probably starting from a lower baseline, so I’ll say the men’s team has a better chance of exceeding expectations. The women’s team very well could win more games, though.

If the Huskers were to add a women’s sport, what do you think it should be and why? (@dmhusker1) 

Erin: Lacrosse would be awesome. Hockey, too. I’d take either because they’re awesome sports. Simple as that for me. 

Steve: I’ll second what Erin said. Nothing better than hockey. It’s a cool thing to go watch, too.  

Jolie Peal: I third the hockey team. I heard there is an unofficial one that anyone on campus could join, but I would love to see an official one that got the recognition.  

What are the three toughest matches remaining on the volleyball team’s schedule? (@huskerfan4life9) 

Jacob: This is an incredibly difficult question because Nebraska has four ranked opponents left in the nonconference and then they dive into the toughest conference in college volleyball. Narrowing it down to just a top three at this point is almost impossible. No. 1 probably has to be the trip to Madison in late November. John Cook said he’d vote Creighton second in the country based on what the Jays have done thus far, and with the Huskers still trying to figure out their best lineup and build chemistry I’m going to put that match at CHI Health Center Omaha on the list. As for the last one, take your pick – home against Louisville, at Stanford, home against Wisconsin, either Penn State match, at Ohio State or at Purdue.

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