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Hail Varsity Mailbag
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Mailbag: Husker Video Game Challenges, End-of-Year Starters and More

August 18, 2020

It’s Wednesday. Wednesday is Mailbag Day. Here’s the mailbag.

Everyone always talks about projected two-deep to start the year. I want to know how we’re looking at the end of (hopefully) a full season. Give me your starting offense and defense on Nov. 27. (@Sal_Vasta3)

Jacob Padilla: This is tough. Like you said, I’ve been focused on “opening day starters” any time I’ve put together a lineup. Not having anything to judge by with the newcomers and young players makes it tough. Here’s my best guess with left guard, third wide receiver, defensive end (opposite Ben Stille) and outside linebacker (opposite JoJo Domann) as the spots I’m least sure of.

QB: Adrian Martinez

RB: Dedrick Mills

OL: Brenden Jaimes, Boe Wilson, Cam Jurgens, Matt Farniok, Bryce Benhart

WR: Omar Manning, Wan’Dale Robinson, Alante Brown

DL: Ben Stille, Damion Daniels, Deontre Thomas

LB: Garrett Nelson, Will Honas, Collin Miller, JoJo Domann

DB: Dicaprio Bootle, Marquel Dismuke, Deontai Williams, Cam Taylor-Britt

Derek Peterson: This is assuming health, which is never a safe bet but also projecting injuries is dumb. I’d have Adrian Martinez and Dedrick Mills in the offensive backfield. Brenden Jaimes, Trent Hixson, Cam Jurgens, Matt Farniok and Bryce Benhart are my linemen. Omar Manning, Wan’Dale Robinson and Zavier Betts are my wideouts, with Travis Vokolek as the first tight end up. On defense, I’ll go with Ben Stille, Damion Daniels, and Ty Robinson on the line, and then the same linebacker and defensive back groupings as Jacob. The back end of the defense seems pretty solidified to me.

There has been lots of talk about increasing the value of the TE in the Husker offense to help with the bottom line and recruiting of the position (see: Fidone). What should we see if they want to increase the TE value this season? How would you address this? (@Corn_Huskers)

JP: That’s one of the biggest questions I think Scott Frost, Matt Lubick, Mario Verduzco, and Sean Beckton will have to answer this year, especially without a wide receiver group deep in experience. I think Beckton likes his group of tight ends and he talked in the spring about the specific things they needed to improve, but I think this will be more on the offense and Martinez than anything. If Jack Stoll and Austin Allen don’t take a step forward, then Travis Vokolek will run right past them up the depth chart. There’s talent, depth and competition there. But it doesn’t matter unless the tight end becomes a bigger part of the offense. Whether that’s the coaches making the tight end a bigger target in their play design or it’s Adrian Martinez getting through his progressions more than just locking on his go-to receiver, the tight ends will need to be responsible for more than 17% of Nebraska’s targets or catches in 2020.

Greg Smith: Adding in legit tight end usage just helps open everything up in this offense. The tight end doesn’t need to be option 1 on every play but he should be a threat. Like Jacob said the issue is two-fold. You have to design plays for the tight end and Martinez has to look their way. The group also has to earn his trust. I think that’ll happen more this year led by Travis Vokolek. But the group overall has good depth.

DP: A point worth making: Martinez needs time to get to the tight end. Few designs had Jack Stoll or Austin Allen as a primary read. Martinez can take his checkdowns a little better than he has in the past, but let’s say Vokolek is a secondary read, he’s got to have built-up trust there but Martinez also needs to have the time in the pocket to survey the field and get through his progressions. That hasn’t always been the case. I’d also say that with the wideout talent NU has, I don’t think we should be clamoring for an 800-yard season from a tight end. Something like 30 catches for 450 yards (15 a pop, totally doable) would be about what Jordan Akins gave UCF in 2017 and would go a ways toward selling the spot to future guys.

I think the staff has added a lot of talent this year (and looking like the same next year). Therefore, I think NU should be more confident in burning redshirts for skill players this season. Who do you think will burn their redshirt this year (assuming a full season played)? (@Sal_Vasta3)

JP: I think all five JUCO transfers will likely be in the mix to play this year. I’m expecting Logan Smothers, both offensive linemen and both freshman defensive linemen to redshirt. With the talent returning at defensive back and how little Travis Fisher rotates, I have a hard time seeing any of those DB recruits burning their redshirt unless it’s a Quinton Newsome situation where he plays primarily for special teams and mixes in a little work on defense. Unless Rahmir Johnson just blows the coaches away and eats up every non-Dedrick Mills carry available, I’m expecting one of the two running back recruits to be in the mix while the other redshirts; I’m just not sure which one is which. I wouldn’t be shocked if both Blaise Gunnerson and Jimari Butler redshirt, but if the guys ahead of them falter one or both might have a chance to crack the lineup like Garrett Nelson did last year. Keyshawn Green has the talent, but if he’s no better than fifth or sixth on the depth chart a redshirt might be the smarter move. At wideout, I’m expecting at least two of those freshmen (Alante Brown and Zavier Betts are at the top of my board) to be on the two-deep with an opening for at least one more to see the field. If I had to guess, I’d say we see two wideouts and a one running back play right away for sure, with potentially a linebacker and a defensive back in that mix as well. The other side of adding more talent, however, is it becomes tougher to earn early playing time. It might be tough for someone like Jaiden Francois to jump ahead of the likes of Newsome, Myles Farmer, Javin Wright and Noa Pola-Gates from last year’s class.

GS: Jacob pretty well covered it so I just have one thing to add. It’s not about Frost and the staff not being confident enough to burn redshirts. It was a deliberate plan to redshirt as many guys as possible to build up depth for the long run. As part of the blueprint for long-term success, this staff believes they need to develop well and rely on being an older team (eventually) versus throwing every new guy in. Based on the natural ceiling of recruiting at Nebraska, I think the strategy is wise. But it takes time to bear fruit.

Do you think that the Nebraska Shrine Bowl Game will be the major starting point for college football? I mean we already know we will have a season, but how it looks is another question. (@Go_Big_Red)

Erin Sorensen: Do we know we will have a season? I’m in the camp that believes college football will kick off—in some way or another—and it’ll either get to Thanksgiving and be done then (i.e. no bowl games or playoffs) or end abruptly. As for the Shrine Bowl Game in Nebraska this Saturday, I think it’s just a game. People will be keeping a close eye on it (partially because it’ll be the first football game in the country in a long, long time) but I don’t know how much it’ll affect what college football does or does not do. We know Nebraska—alongside any non-Week 0 teams—can begin “preseason training” starting July 13. I think that is the major starting point, because that’s no longer voluntary. This whole thing gets a lot more serious when student-athletes are required to report.

Mike Babcock: Folks will pay attention, certainly, particularly about what happens to those involved afterward. And I emphasize afterward. If there are issues for those involved, it might influence colleges. I’m still not convinced there will be a college football season, despite things ramping up next week, though the money involved will drive that determination, too. Consider the Ivy League’s decision to move schedules. Major colleges are considering the implications of that. Nebraska has begun an American Legion baseball season, and it appears things are going OK, so far. But baseball is different. So, I’m surprised the Shrine Bowl is even being played.

JP: The number of people involved and the protocols in place will be very different for college football than a standalone high school all-star game. If things go south after the game with the spread of the virus, that would be a very bad sign. But if they pull the Shrine Bowl off without any problems, I’m not sure we’ll be able to make that direct correlation to the viability of college football.

PickSixPreviews released an early three-deep for All-B1G awards with a Husker representing on offense (Wan’Dale Robinson, Second Team) and two on defense (Ben Stille, Cam Taylor-Britt, Third Team). When do you think we start seeing NU running with the ones and who has the best chance to slide into the ones at seasons end? (@3rdLargestCity)

Brandon Vogel: Brenden Jaimes is probably the best bet to do it this year. The competition is stiff, however, as the Big Ten is always full of good tackles. With a big statistical year, Robinson could probably get there, though he’d have to jump a handful of talented receivers. When I did a from-the-gut ranking of Big Ten receivers back in the spring, I had Robinson at No. 11. If last year was an explainable blip rather than a more long-term indication of ceiling, Adrian Martinez could do it. Dicaprio Bootle could be in contention, too, but that’s kind of the group entering the year in my mind. I would say that by next season, however, you need to see some Huskers start showing up on preseason first teams if this program is going to get back to where it wants to be.

MB: Brandon said it, Jaimes. Robinson has the talent; we see it. But there are others as talented.

When practices resume, will the Hail Varsity staff be able to attend just like in the past or will post-practice and weekly Monday press conferences be done virtually? (@Go_Big_Red)

ES: I doubt we will have the same kind of access we did before. When you think about how many people were in small spaces for interviews, it’s really just not safe. The focus is on keeping the student-athletes and coaches healthy, and putting them around a bunch of people four or five times a week in close proximity to answer interview questions doesn’t seem wise. The Monday press conference could happen in person simply because there is a way to distance everyone. Wear masks, sit in assigned seats and do not get up and wander around. The hallway conversations would have to be done for now too. Scott Frost could do a weekly post-practice update via Zoom, but I just don’t know about player or assistant interviews. It’s too risky and when it’s all already risky, why make it harder?

MB: Erin’s right. My expectation is Zoom for Frost, even on Monday, and probably select players/assistant coaches maybe on Monday. Nothing in person. If there is in-person, it would happen with Frost on Monday, with limited media, maybe one per outlet—masks, assigned seats and so forth. There’s still the matter of getting to the sixth floor on elevators. Tough to distance there. Same situation on game day; doubt the things will be sufficiently alleviated by September. The thing I’ve come to enjoy most, talking with players and coaches, will be gone for the foreseeable future.

DP: I’m preparing as though we’ll only be talking to Frost and maybe a few assistants virtually once or twice a week out of an abundance of caution and other reasons.

It might just be me, or a sign of the times and change in social media, but I think there has been a ton more peer recruiting the last two cycles. Is this true? Do recruits factor that aspect in at all, or just fun/friendly? (@Sal_Vasta3)

ES: I think we’re just seeing it more. Peer recruiting has always existed to some degree. Bookie Radley-Hiles (while he was still committed) was peer recruiting on the sidelines of games. That’s been the case for others. They’ll have group texts that include prospects. We just don’t see that. What we’re seeing now is the true Gen Z approach to peer recruiting. I want to be clear: I love Gen Z. They’re smart and social media savvy. They know what social media can do and they use it to their advantage. Millennials and Gen X may have been at the forefront of creating social media, but Gen Z is using it to their power like never before. That access alone is why we’re seeing it. They’re also just allowing us to see it. As for if it matters? Well, it certainly doesn’t hurt.

GS: We have the ability to notice it more. It’s always happened but normally it’s only when visits are lined up to be taken the same weekend. Now through the power of phones and social media, guys can keep in contact on a regular basis. Relationships can be built before those visits and before guys eventually get on campus. It does help because recruits want to be comfortable with the players in their class. It helps more if they think the other commits are good.

With the new mobile ticketing app, will there still be “ticket takers” at the gates or will there be contactless scanners? I mean the whole point of this is to limit contact as much as possible. (@Go_Big_Red)

MB: I’d expect monitors near the scanners to help if need be, with appropriate precautions. And someone has to check what folks carry into the stadium. That can’t be ignored. There definitely will be security in some form. Contact will be reduced. But you’ll see folks at the gates in some way.

The Huskers just released their new Ticketing App beginning this season. What other game day and stadium-related apps would you like to see created for the in-person experience? (@Corn_Huskers)

DP: I don’t know about the in-person experience, but something VR-related for fans watching from home would be unique, and timely considering everything going on.

In 2019 the Huskers ranked 39th in team passing yards/pass attempt with 7.9. Do you think, with the projected WRs for this season, we could and should see that number increase? What are the positives and negatives of an increase in passing yards per attempt? (@Corn_Huskers)

BV: I would like to share an experience with you: Every year when I pull together stats for the Yearbook, I make the simple adjustment of removing sacks and sack yardage from the rushing totals and add them into the passing totals because this is the only defensible way to count those plays (which are meant to be passes). After I do that and see Air Force or Navy leading the nation in yards per attempt, I think, “Man, why doesn’t everyone just run the option?” Often, those teams are near the top of the leaderboard even without removing sacks, because they don’t give up many, and that’s what we’re talking about here. Air Force and Navy were 1-2 nationally without removing sacks last year, but here was the rest of the top 10: Alabama, Oklahoma, LSU, Minnesota, Louisville, Utah, Memphis and Ohio State. All averaged at least 9.1 yards per attempt.

There’s some promise but plenty of uncertainty for me with the wide receiver group, but I do think that number should go up in 2020. It went up from 2018 (7.3) to 2019 (7.9), and that was with a less efficient offense overall. I think you can chalk that up to quarterback experience. As a QB matures he should have more opportunity (via more robust play-calling) and ability to take some more shots downfield. Should that number indeed increase for Nebraska in 2020, I don’t see much downside to that because to get there it probably means the run game is helping the passing game, which in turn helps the running game. The yards per attempt should give you a decent idea of how Nebraska’s offense is operating as a whole. Go back and look at last year’s top 10 again. There are no Air Raid teams in there. LSU was the closest, ranking third last season in total attempts, but all of the others (outside of the option teams, of course, which are sort of their own animal) were pretty balanced offenses with big-play ability. That’s where Nebraska wants to be.

If conferences decide to cancel fall sports altogether, is it possible (though improbable) that individual teams might say, “we need revenue for us and local economy, so we’re going to play someone” and just create their own weird unique season? (@Sal_Vasta3)

BV: I think you phrased that the right way—possible, though improbable. While it’s on an entirely different scale, the NAIA released its fall sports guidelines last week and one of its guidelines was that half the participating schools were necessary to have a season. If something similar were in place for FBS, you’re looking at 65 schools but the NCAA doesn’t have that sort of top-down control over top-level football, so I still think the most likely scenario could be a conference-by-conference approach. If even that’s not feasible, the last line of defense would be this totally independent approach and I could see some schools take that option. Aside from the safety concerns that would be prompting some teams not to play, it also becomes messy quickly from an eligibility standpoint. What if Northwestern doesn’t play, but Nebraska decides to cobble together an eight-game schedule? Would the players rather play that abbreviated slate or wait for a full year? Who knows? There are so many more questions right now and no sure answers. Point is, I haven’t ruled this specific scenario out yet.

What Husker football-related challenge would you want to replay in an NCAA Football video game? (@Starkastic8)

DP: This is fun. I like this. Because I distinctly remember running through all the Jordan challenges in 2K11. The first would have to be “Finally,” where you capture Tom Osborne’s first national championship in ‘94. The next would be “Stomp the Swamp,” (these titles are going to be cheesy because they always are), where you cement the ‘95 team’s status as the greatest of all time by beating Florida in the Fiesta Bowl by at least 40. The next would be “Keep it Rolling,” where you take control of the ‘96 team with Scott Frost under center and beat Arizona State on the road. Frost talks about the aftermath of that game frequently, so with him now the head coach, I’d think that would have to be included. The next would be “Black 41 Reverse Flash,” where you have to pull off the play and beat Oklahoma in 2001. The next would be “Reclaim the One,” where you play and beat Texas in the 2009 Big 12 Championship to claim the first conference title of the new decade. The next would be “Become a Legend,” where you take over Bo Pelini’s group in the 2012 Big Ten Championship game to try and down Wisconsin. Those are the big ones off the top of my head, maybe there’s something to be done with the 2016 Wisconsin loss or the 2018 Colorado loss. Those are relatively recent, though, with lower stakes.

Why is Dicaprio Bootle the best CB to ever play the game? (@bigredcobcast)

DP: Because of his backpack. (You’ll need the Yearbook for this one.)

I’d like to hear about the nutrition staff for all sports, not just football and what their challenge has been like in the COVID era. (@korupteddonkey)

ES: The challenge has been the same across the board. How do you safely feed a number of student-athletes on campus without taking away the nutrition they need and providing in a safe environment? Anyone who lives in Lincoln can meander by One Memorial Drive and see the to-go setup Nebraska has in place now. It’s pretty slick. Student-athletes can pull up in their cars or walk up to get their meals for the day. There is someone there to check them in and they move the student-athletes through to get what they need. Those orders are placed through an app so the staff working knows what they need for the day. They’ll also deliver to those that need it, or a teammate can pick up as well. Long story short, Dave Ellis and his team are doing a great job navigating this (but they’ve always been awesome). If you want to know more, I recommend reading this and this.

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