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Mailbag: Pay-to-Play, the I-Formation, the Next Four Games and More

October 02, 2019

Nebraska lost to Ohio State. No one was happy about it. But you guys have lots of questions about what happened, how it impacts things moving forward and a lot more. So the Hail Varsity staff is back to answer all those questions.

Which loss will ultimately serve Nebraska better in its future: last year's blowout at Michigan or this year's Ohio State game? (@AsianJoeEvans) 

Mike Babcock: Not sure either will serve better. Both were humbling experiences, and in that sense, maybe last year’s blowout at Michigan, just because the Huskers knew they had a long journey to take. Deep down, they probably thought they had progressed beyond such blowouts, losses yes, but blowouts to that degree? Of course, Ohio State’s strength has to be taken into account. Nevertheless, it seems like a big step back, right? 

Brandon Vogel: More than a step back, I look at that game as an accurate account of just how far the Huskers have to go to catch up with the truly elite in this sport. For that reason, I look at the loss to the Buckeyes as more valuable. Nebraska should be at a spot where they can use that information. I’m not sure that was the case last year with Michigan given that things were so early in Frost’s tenure. For those players that still have years left in this program, the Ohio State game needs to sting all through the offseason regardless of what happens the rest of the way in 2019. 

Greg Smith: I too think Ohio State has more value. Michigan was bad but there wasn’t much to be gained there. Everyone was viewing the Ohio State game as an opportunity to see how far away Nebraska is. For better or worse, we saw that. There isn’t really a need for the team to freak out about the result and let the rest of the season get away but getting to the level of that team should be on their minds moving forward. 

Based on the overall play of the offensive line and the possibility of seeing more I-formation, what type of plays would you design and call going forward? (@Corn_Huskers) 

Jacob Padilla: Scott Frost is trying to build something for the long term, he’s not looking for a quick fix. He’s not going to abandon what he does five games into his second season. He’ll continue to adjust to his talent and look for things that will work for this team, but he’s not going to run someone else’s offense. The only way to get better at something is to work on it. I also think people might be slightly over-reacting to the I-Formation stuff. Ohio State wasn’t ready for it. If Nebraska continues to use it, defenses will adjust, and it will come down to the Huskers executing better than the defense just like with any other kind of play or formation. 

BV: It’s on tape now, which is good and bad. Good because opposing defenses now have to at least prepare for the possibility. Bad because, well, now they’re prepared for the possibility. I don’t think Nebraska’s planning to change anything about its core philosophy, but it’s an intriguing wrinkle. Those Tom Osborne/Milt Tenopir blocking schemes were pretty nifty in how it all snapped together and one play looked like the next in a lot of cases. That’s something that’s portable. Of course, Frost already knew that when he had full control at UCF to construct the offense he wanted. I’m sure there was already a lot of overlap there when it came to blocking plays, it was just almost exclusively out of a shotgun. 

Derek Peterson: “Run someone else’s offense.” Considering he prepared this team by showing them his own clips of running the offense at Nebraska, it’s not like he’s just stealing stuff from a random coach and trying to teach it on the fly. Guys on this coaching staff know how to teach this. Saying they should do more I-formation isn’t saying they should abandon the shotgun. As a complement, it worked really well. Plus, if Nebraska continues to use I-formation and double-wing sets, that means defenses are spending time preparing for it throughout the week, which means their focus is split. That can be a good thing. I would want to see more option concepts involving all three of Martinez, Mills and Robinson. Mills looked incredibly comfortable and explosive in that role. Matt Farniok said it was fun and, given the score of the game, him saying something was fun is worth paying attention to. This fits where they’re at right now, so if dialing it up more often means the offense is playing with a little more comfort and confidence, that’s worth it.  

How important are these next four games? (@tklim2430) 

MB: Very important, if for no other reason than fan perception of where the program is headed. With some fans already calling for Vedral to be the quarterback, a couple of more losses before Wisconsin would really challenge folks’ patience. I don’t necessarily expect four wins, but three seem reasonable based of what my expectations for this team are. If not at least three, the Bill Moos preseason observation that 6-6 and a bowl game would appear to be spot on.  

BV: It feels like the perfect month of games at the perfect time based on where this program is at. None of the games are against Big Ten powerhouses, but Nebraska’s not either right now. All four look like virtual tossups. The Huskers can win them all, but they’ll have to play well to win any of them. October is sorting season. Nebraska can either be towards the front of the pack in the division race coming out of the Purdue game, or it can be stuck in the middle. Which one is it going to be? The Huskers have more of a say in that than they had in beating Ohio State. 

Greg Smith: I completely agree with Brandon. Also will add that the expectation should be 4-0 over this stretch. 

DP: Northwestern at home, Minnesota on the road, Indiana at home, Purdue on the road. There’s a bye week sandwiched between the two, then there’s another bye week after Purdue before Wisconsin. Losing to Colorado doesn’t break the season, losing to Ohio State (no matter how bad it looked) doesn’t break the season, going 2-2 or 3-1 in this four-game stretch breaks the season. At least as it relates to the team goals. If Nebraska were to go 4-0 here, that’s 7-2 entering the Wisconsin game. Everyone would feel so much better about where the program’s at, the loudmouths on social media would be a lot quieter, and Nebraska would have mojo entering an “earn it” stretch. I would classify these next four weeks as a “prove it” stretch. We see progress, coaches talk about progress, go out and prove that against the tier of Big Ten teams you’re currently a part of but want to move on from. 

What are your thoughts on the ability for student-athletes to profit off of their image/likeness and endorsements, etc? (@JJStark8) 

MB: I’m philosophically in support of such a measure, whatever benefits the student-athlete. But the benefits of allowing that would probably be realized by a relative few—quarterbacks, running backs, etc in football, for example—and of greater concern would be the collapse of competitive balance, schools using such an enticement in recruiting, assuring endorsement money put up by big boosters. Moving away from amateurism would ultimately kill intercollegiate athletics, of course. It’s a slippery slope, ultimately turning college athletics into professional sports. Plus, Title IX would have to be factored into any such change in rules about profiting. 

BV: I support it. There’s still much to be sorted out before it becomes a reality, so I’m not really thinking about what it could look like of what it would mean at this point. But in principle this feels like a good first step. 

Erin Sorensen: I also support it. There are plenty of things to worry about as Mike shared above, but I think there’s a way to make this work. Nebraska volleyball, for example, has some incredibly influential people on its team. Shouldn’t they be able to turn that influence into something? I go back to that UCF kicker who was ruled ineligible for a YouTube channel. Why? Because he was good enough at something for people to want to pay him for his work? It doesn’t make sense to me not to allow them to profit off their image and likeness. Are there concerns to work out? Sure, but I think we can get to a place where it makes sense for the universities and the athletes. 

JP: I definitely support it. I truly don’t understand why so many people seem to have an issue with athletes getting paid to play, in whatever form that takes. News flash: It’s happening right now. Allowing the players to make some money on the side isn’t going to change the actual game play, so if you enjoy watching the game now nothing should change if the players are getting paid. One argument against it is that it would only affect a very small percentage of athletes. My response is so what? As long as the opportunity is there, let the market bear itself out. If there are people that can make their lives better as a result of their hard work and talent, I’m all for that. Why are we artificially capping what these athletes can receive in return for their hard work? A debt-free college education is incredibly valuable, but they have to put in far more work than a typical student in able to retain that scholarship, and why should that be all they’re able to get if someone is willing to give them more? The money involved in college sports has risen exponentially since the amateurism rules were written, yet those rules haven’t changed all the much while the salaries for the adults and the revenue for the schools have continued to rise. As for the argument that it would wreck fair and competitive balance, news flash again: that doesn’t exist now. The relationship between college athletes and the NCAA is symbiotic: yes, athletes benefit by having the brand of their schools attached to them, but those brands wouldn’t be worth much if the schools didn’t have top-notch athletes leading their teams to success year in and year out. The athletes should get a bigger piece of the pie than they’re getting right now. Sure, there are a lot of things that need to be figured out before making such a drastic change, but the change should be made. If the NCAA weren’t so rigid about amateurism in the first place and had it chosen to be progressive and stay ahead of the game, maybe there wouldn’t be so many people that hate it. 

How important will the new facilities be in growing the football program? Any idea of how coaches/admin are selling it to future recruits? (@Sal_Vasta3) 

JP: Every little bit helps. It seems like a lot of recruits are already blown away with what they find at Nebraska now, so upgrading on that should only help the Huskers stack up against the best of the best. As for recruits, some are already taking note. 

DP: It’ll be very important. And Nebraska is already selling it to kids. This class would get two (or three depending on a redshirt) years in the new digs as long as things stay on schedule.  

GS: It’s critical. I know that the moment they were announced, coaches were sending messages to recruits with that video of the facilities. It’s being sold as an overall investment in the student-athletes at Nebraska to improve their daily lives.  

It’s agreed that it’s hard to get those top 10 in the country guys. What does NU need to do or progress it needs to show to get one of those commitments? And what year do you think it does happen? (@Sal_Vasta3) 

JP: For context, just 20 schools have signed top-10 recruits over the past five years (2015-2019). Those schools are Alabama (8), Florida State (6), Georgia (6), Ohio State (4), Clemson (3), LSU (2), Tennessee (2), Penn State (2), Stanford (2), Ole Miss (2), Auburn (2), Florida (2), USC (1), Oregon (1), Oklahoma (1), South Carolina (1), Texas (1), UCLA (1), Michigan (1) and Houston (1). So my first suggestion would be to relocate the university to the South or one of the coasts. Honestly, for a school like Nebraska to land one of those truly elite prospects it probably either needs to offer a large sum of money or get lucky enough to have one of those players grow up a Husker fan, whether because he lives in the state or he is a Husker legacy. 

MB: Would have to grow up a Husker fan, as Jacob says. The key is to recruit athletes that fit your system and develop them. Osborne did it. It’s harder now, but a program can still be successful.  

BV: Without a regional link, Nebraska probably needs to become one of the hottest teams in the country, a cool place to play if you will. Oregon was that while Frost was on the Ducks’ staff. Clemson is that team now. The Tigers are surrounded by a lot of talent, but they can also go compete for top-10 guys in Texas and California now. That wasn’t the case even 10 years ago. Oregon is probably the most analogous case to Nebraska.  

GS: In complete agreement with Brandon here. It’s about rebuilding the brand while also playing a fun style of football. Then Nebraska has to win and put guys into the NFL. Players want to go where they will be successful. That’s especially true for top-10 type players but don’t discount the lack of a regional link. Consider it from one of those kids’ point of view. Why would they go 10-plus hours away to play ball when there is a regional power closer to them? Nebraska has to give them a reason.  

Frost was pretty clear (in his way) that the O-Line has to get better to help Martinez make the plays. Do we see any shuffling of the line this season? Or is it just what it’s going to be, and hope the many young guys we have developing pan out next year? (@Sal_Vasta3) 

MB: I think the line will be what it is this season. Tossing young guys in if they aren’t ready and allowing them to make freshman mistakes won’t solve the problem this season and it will hurt their development.  

JP: The staff saw a whole lot of Will Farniok in the spring and fall and determined that Jurgens gives them a better chance to succeed. Matt Sichterman and John Raridon have been in the program for a while and neither one has really come close to seeing the field in a competitive situation. Broc Bando is playing behind the team’s best lineman. Beyond that, you’re looking mostly at a lot of freshmen. I just don’t think there’s anybody on that bench that would really make much of a difference. 

ES: It’s going to be what it is and we’re just going to have to live through the growing pains. I suggested to our team this week that Nebraska could always pull a guy (like Cam Jurgens) when they’re struggling to give them a moment to calm down and get back in it. However, I was reminded that doing so could affect the confidence of said player, and that’s a problem. So I think you have to ride with your group (as Frost would say) and allow them to learn with every snap. 

DP: The thing I will always point to when it comes to this conversation: who on the bench will instantly elevate the level of play? Bryce Benhart is not ready or he would have a spot on the top line. Everyone else is very, very green. 

Other than Spielman, Robinson or Stoll, which wide receiver or tight end will be most likely to step up for rest of season to be another main option for Martinez? (@dmhusker1) 
There's a lot on Martinez to perform well, but I feel that the receivers could help take some pressure off. We have a lot of great slot guys, but no real big, jump ball receivers on the edge. Who do we have on the current roster than can help stretch the field in that regard? (@TheseShadows1) 

MB: No one has stepped up to fill Morgan’s role. Kade Warner is a reliable receiver, and he’ll help, even though he’s listed behind Miles Jones on the depth chart. He’s where he needs to be, runs his routes, but he’s not the stretch-the-field guy, I guess. I’ve been perplexed, too, by the fact that, say, Woodyard hasn’t been a factor. He hasn’t even played, and he’s a senior now. And McQuitty, a sophomore, is listed second to Spielman on the depth chart (ahead of Woodyard), yet he’s played in only three games and caught just two passes. Kanawai Noa (5 games, 4 starts, 5 catches), Mike Williams (5 games, 1 start, 2 catches), Darien Chase (2 games, 1 catch). What gives? Maybe Noa gets more involved. 

BV: I think Austin Allen is an option. The ball needs to find him more and I think Nebraska can get creative with how it lines him up. The big receiver, who is actually a wide receiver, is just a hole on the roster at this point. Frost mentioned Darien Chase this week. At 6-1, he’s the tallest of Nebraska’s scholarship signees, but he’s still not that 6-3 body I think the staff would like to have in the near future. 

We are supposedly a “up-tempo” team yet we haven’t seen much of that lately. Do you think that if we went up-tempo more that we would create the mismatches the offense is predicated on? (@BenzelLucas) 

JP: I think going up-tempo is a side effect, not necessarily the solution. In order for Nebraska to play fast and get into a rhythm, the Huskers need to be able to sustain drives. Nearly 40% of their offensive drives have lasted three plays or less so far this season. Whether it’s the blockers, the receivers or Adrian Martinez himself, Nebraska needs to start winning battles more consistently. When that happiness, they’ll be able to speed things up a bit more. 

Do you feel that this blowout was better or worse in terms of a recruiting pitch? Better in terms of showing prospects that we need help and that’s why we need them. (@natethomas01) 

JP: That might work for some kids, but in year two, you’d probably like to be beyond that point. You want to give recruits evidence that the program is making significant progress towards competing at the highest levels. Saturday was not that. I think getting blown out was a big missed opportunity. That being said, I don’t think Nebraska has to worry about losing its current commits and I think the Huskers will be able to stay in the hunt for a lot of the other guys that have visited or are considering Nebraska. Every kid is different. 

GS: I’ll disagree with Jacob on one big detail on this. You don’t need to show in Year 2 that you can compete with Ohio State. It is about showing overall progress is getting closer to the level of football that allows you to compete for Big Ten Championships. We won’t know that until the end of the season or after these next four games. It’s fair to say at 3-2 Nebraska has shown improvement over the 0-5 start last season, right? The actual game is just one part of the equation when it comes to a recruit’s decision. Always keep that in mind.   

How do you see the recruiting weekend went? If these recruits decide to go elsewhere, where does the staff go with this class? Also, what’s your thoughts on Slusher’s tweet mid-game? (@clawson_tanner) 

GS: Based on talking to a lot of recruits, the weekend was fine. The game result stinks but everything else was great for guys. The recruits in general seem to understand this is a rebuild and it was unrealistic to compete with Ohio State in Year 2. I didn’t love that tweet at all and found it disrespectful but I won’t go too hard on him without talking to him, which I haven’t. I know that Sevion Morrison is still recruiting him to Nebraska. I do not know what the coaches thought. 

What's the latest on Omar Manning? A couple months ago everyone thought he was ready to commit, but it has been radio silence since then. (@Nebraskicker) 

GS: Silence from Manning is not the worst thing. So long as he isn’t taking visits elsewhere, I still love Nebraska’s position. I would call the Huskers his leader but they just need to seal the deal.  

How do you get the casual fan to understand that most of Adrian's issues stem from lack of an OL vs his mistakes? (@WesleyDanger) 

MB: I think the vast majority of Husker fans are reasonable about the situation. But in the social media age, it doesn’t take all that many folks complaining to make it seem as if a multitude of fans are upset with Martinez. Having said that, and I’ve used this example ad nauseum, Martinez has to do some adjusting because defenses are adjusting to him and what he does, having studied a season’s worth of film (and now five games). Like a batter who gets to the big leagues, hits well as a rookie, and then opposing teams have studied how to pitch him. Martinez has the talent. But what worked for him last season won’t necessarily work this season. It’s about adjusting. So it’s the offensive line, the receivers, the running backs (no Devine Ozigbo), a team effort, not just him. But not all except him either. 

JP: I’ve seen some pretty ridiculous statements from people on Twitter, but they’re probably coming from the kind of fan that’s mostly just looking for reasons to be mad; I’m not sure you can change their minds. The protection is a huge part of the issue, but I don’t believe Martinez deserves to be absolved of blame here because he is absolutely making mistakes Nebraska can’t afford even with the unfortunate situation around him. He has to play better, but so do his linemen as well as his receivers. 

Can you equate fan ROI to actual ROI of being a fan? If I invested $X in Company Y over the last 18 years, I’d expect a decent ROI on my investment. Yet, I keep investing cash and emotions in the Huskers with very little (or no) ROI. (@john_bacon) 

ES: Sports are businesses and you, as a fan, have every right to not invest in the business if it’s not making sense for you. However, I think being a fan changes things. It’s easier to say, “Well, maybe next year.” Think about Chicago Cubs fans. How many people continued to show up and support a team that was cursed until it wasn’t? You keep showing up and investing because you hope it’ll one day pay off. Maybe it won’t, yet Nebraska fans’ investments show they still believe in it. Now, there are programs (like Illinois) where fans have clearly shown the product isn’t worth the price. The Illini’s athletic department had to give away free tickets to get the student section to show up against Nebraska, so that’s where they’re at. It doesn’t always make sense, and it’s not comparable enough to other businesses. Sports betting wouldn’t exist if people didn’t have a different level of faith in what could be. 

Where has Miles Jones been? Who do you think will be the next commit? Do you think Hunt and LeGrone will come back on the team? (@huskernation515) 

JP: Responding to the first question, the answer is “down the depth chart.” He’s gotten a couple snaps here and there, but he apparently hasn’t shown the coaches enough for them to think he can help. All of those snaps at his position are going to JD Spielman and Wan’Dale Robinson, the team’s top two receivers. 

MB: I’m with you. Where has Miles Jones been? That’s perplexing. I thought he’d have an impact this season, regardless of what Robinson did. It should be both of them producing, along with Spielman. I have no insight into LeGrone and Hunt other than they’re still listed on the roster, so that would indicate they likely would be back at some point. 

GS: I’ll take the next commit and say Rodney Groce on Friday. 

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