Hail Varsity Mailbag
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Mailbag: Reacting to a Rush of Transfer Portal Entries for Nebraska

January 27, 2021

It’s Wednesday, so let’s get to the mailbag.

Scale of 1-10, how much is the sky falling, and do you still have faith that Frosty can fix it? (@InDaWilderness) 

Mike Babcock: No, the sky isn’t falling. My concern is how “fix it” is defined and again, the time frame. Greg understands this better than I do, but it seems as if losing a couple of high-profile guys in Wan’Dale and McCaffrey could hurt recruiting, the perception of the program (also losing a co-captain). Losing records won’t be the norm and Nebraska could challenge in the Big Ten West division, maybe on a consistent basis. That’s my definition of “fix it.” 

Jacob Padilla: The sky isn’t falling. The program is still making progress in certain areas, even if it’s not as much or as quickly as fans (and Frost) were hoping for. That being said, the more I see the less faith I have that the current staff can fix all the issues that keep popping up in short order. I’m at best a 5 until I see Frost start to make some adjustments in how he handles things. 

Derek Peterson: I don’t think the sky is falling at Nebraska, but I do believe Frost is in a pivotal year when it comes to proving what he is a coach.  

How do you feel about the QB room with its current players, including Haarberg? (@TwinTwisterDad) 

Greg Smith: Nervous. I generally just get a bit nervous when the primary backups at quarterback are so inexperienced. History shows us that Martinez will miss time during the season. Long-term I like the group. Smothers and Haarberg need to be ready quickly.  

MB: Not a good situation, of course, when the back-up who has taken lots of snaps with the first team, and started a couple of times, the quarterback of the future leaves. Proven depth at any position is important, but the quarterback controls the offense. Nothing against the potential in the room. But the current situation? I don’t feel good about it. 

JP: The combination of what we do know about Adrian Martinez after three years and what we don’t know about Logan Smothers and Heinrich Haarberg makes it hard to feel great about that room heading into the 2021 season. Is Martinez suddenly going to clean up all his deficiencies and be the quarterback Frost needs? There’s no indication of that. Are either of the back-ups ready to push Martinez? I doubt it. 

DP: The way I feel today is unchanged from the way I felt a week ago. Luke McCaffrey, as we saw this past season, was going to be a long project at quarterback, not someone who was going to take Adrian Martinez’s job. They tried it, it didn’t work. I get being concerned about a lack of experience behind Martinez, but Logan Smothers and Heinrich Haarberg are both capable quarterbacks. Remember, people were calling for Smothers at the tail end of 2020 and not McCaffrey. McCaffrey’s a good kid with a lot of talent, and I don’t think he’s running away from competition, as a someone alluded to on Tuesday, I just don’t know how much competition he was providing to Martinez in the first place. I scored the group on Tuesday. 

Are we seeing Frost evolve/adapt his schemes? With giving up (some) play calling, recruiting different player types than originally thought he needed, etc. do you think he’s making the necessary changes to win, like Moos and fans are expecting? (@Sal_Vasta3) 

GS: I think we are seeing small hints at scheme changes but we need to see it for multiple weeks during the season before we can say Frost is actually adjusting.  

MB: He needs to stay with what he believes in, commit to something and stay with it. That affects recruiting as well. Does he need to adapt? To the Big Ten, yes. That should’ve been apparent after the first season. So presumably the evolution began then, however subtle. 

Brandon Vogel: I might be in the minority in that I don’t think the scheme needs to change. Nebraska’s big issues over the past three years were not scheme-related, but more issues of execution. I think the plan when taking over Nebraska was to take the existing model from UCF/Oregon and upgrade the physicality. The physical upgrade needed was, perhaps, even larger than what the staff may have expected, but Nebraska has been collecting more of the body types needed, as you note. Is that enough to make a difference on its own? I don’t know. The big fight here for the Huskers in my mind is not what they run, but how well they run it. 

If I told you that the 2021 Huskers will be top 4 in defense and 7/8th in offense (in the B1G), what would you estimate our record to be? Those numbers seem a bit optimistic, right now, but doable. (@InDaWilderness) 

BV: That’s Iowa territory right there. No, really. I looked at this two ways. From a yards per play perspective, there were four Big Ten teams that hit those thresholds over the past three seasons: 2020 Iowa (6-2) and Penn State (4-5), 2019 Iowa (10-3) and 2018 Michigan (10-3). From a points per game point of view, no teams over the past three seasons have hit those marks exactly. The closest two both had the ninth-best scoring offense, 2020 Wisconsin (4-3) and 2019 Iowa again. So, back to the yards per play list for a moment: This small sample indicates the ceiling for such a good defense/middling offense team might be a winning percentage of .750. But, both those Iowa teams were top 10 nationally in red-zone scoring and each was plus-nine in turnovers on the year. The 2018 Michigan team was 36th in the red-zone scoring and plus-five in turnovers. The one losing team here, 2020 Penn State, was 107th in the red zone and minus-eight in turnovers. My main takeaway there is that if your offense is going to be average, you better be pretty good at finishing drives and either lucky or good in the turnovers department to flirt with double-digit wins. Nebraska over the past three seasons has been top-third nationally in the red zone twice, but has yet to have a positive turnover margin at the end of any of those seasons. Barring big jumps in both categories, I’d probably put good defense/middling offense Nebraska’s 2021 record at 7-5, which I think almost anyone would take right now. 

With the recent news of various players going to the portal, how does this change our recruiting for the 2021-2022 cycle? (@dmhusker1) 

GS: One thing I feel like we can always count on with this staff is getting as close to 25 players per cycle as possible. The recent attrition just gets them closer.  

In a few sentences, what do you think the football teams offense should look like next year? (@iheartwinona) 

GS: I think it should look like the offense did against Rutgers. Use the run, stick with it, set up the pass with play action. Then run it some more. Lean on the offense line which is the emerging part of the offense.  

BV: Nebraska’s offense needs to look like a powerful rushing group, primarily led by the running backs, that is able to gobble up yards through its constraint plays, mostly downfield passing with a dose of QB runs. I think that’s what they want it to look like. (Also, that was basically 1990s Nebraska, though the plays looked much different.) For this 2021 group to get there, it probably needs two running backs to emerge, some long-awaited hits from wide receiver recruiting and a touch more efficiency throwing the ball from the quarterback. 

What the heck is going on with all these offensive players hitting the transfer portal? Our defensive guys are coming back though. (@19D4LIFE) 

MB: Despite all the positive things the departing players have tweeted about their experience at Nebraska, there has to be some disaffection for them to leave. What has caused that, who knows? The transfer portal has also changed the mindset of student-athletes, I think, like free agency in professional sports. Nebraska isn’t the only school losing players—for undisclosed reasons. Wonder if back in the day had there been the transfer portal if Brook Berringer would’ve been around to lead the Huskers to the Big Eight title in 1994, after Tommie Frazier was sidelined. Berringer was special in so many ways. 

Erin Sorensen: I think the offense at any program is going to be more susceptible to transfers than the defense. If you’re a quarterback, for example, and you don’t see a pathway to starting? You’ll look at possibly transferring. Defenses often allow more room for rotation. That’s not always the case, of course, but I’m generalizing. I just think an offense is always going to battle the portal more. 

What are some things you have been able to do or glad you could do during the last 10 months that you hope to continue doing as we work back to normalcy? (@Corn_Huskers) 

GS: Great question. One thing we discovered during all this is that our dog loves to go on walks. She was always a couch potato with little bursts of energy so we just didn’t do them. We’ll definitely keep that up and it became a really fun part of the routine.  

MB: Read more books of substance, not just John Grisham, late at night. 

BV: Cycling became a much-needed way to safely get out of the house and go somewhere. It’s still pretty leisurely for me, but I don’t think I could stop now even if I wanted to. 

ES: We finally decided to get a Peloton at the beginning of the pandemic when our gym closed and it’s been a really great thing for me physically and mentally. I have found a groove with Peloton, and use more than just the bike. I plan to keep up with this for a long time because it’s time where I can focus on me. I need to keep that up, even during football season when it’s hard to spend time focusing on myself. 

Will the spring game be open to fans like before the pandemic or will it end up being like last year? (@TurboHall01) 

GS: My best guess here is that it will have limited fans. May is still enough time for the situation to change for the better but probably not enough time for things to be back to full normalcy.  

MB: If Nebraska has the call, probably limited fans, as Greg says. If the Big Ten has the call (more likely), who knows. 

ES: Moos said he doesn’t expect any significant number of fans in stadiums until fall, so I can’t imagine we’ll see many beyond family members until then. 

Do you think that all of the players returning on defense could have any negative effects on younger players who may think that it is “their turn”? Or possibly some kids were expecting to have a bigger role than they are going to because of all the returning production? (@gus_kathol) 

MB: We haven’t seen any more young defensive players in the transfer portal (after the Florida recruits bailed). That’s a good sign. Plus, saving the season of eligibility is a plus for those youngsters already here. 

JP: I wouldn’t be shocked to see some defensive attrition after the spring. That is the tradeoff of allowing seniors to come back. Maybe a defensive back or a linebacker goes through spring, doesn’t like where he falls on the depth chart and decides to move on at that point. But I think the coaches are happy with the defensive players who chose to return, even if it means a couple of younger players choose to look elsewhere.  

How many wins do you expect the men’s basketball team to win in the Big Ten for the rest of the season? (@dmhusker1) 

MB: A question to precede that is, how many more games will the men play? Given that uncertainty, I’ll say two, maybe. 

JP: Man, it’s hard to pick them to win any game at this point based on how they were struggling before the pause and how much time they’ve missed now (and that isn’t just games; they haven’t been able to practice or do anything as a team). I see a couple winnable games, but it’s hard to pick them to actually win them until we see what they look like coming off this pause. 

If Ron Brown doesn’t retire in 2021, Frost said that he could be a position coach. What position do you think he coaches? (@CarnesRegg) 

MB: Ron could coach on either side of the ball. He began his coaching career on the defensive side (he played defensive back at Brown). The more significant question would be, who gets replaced? (Truth in advertising, I’m a Ron Brown fan.) 

JP: Unless I missed it, I don’t think Frost actually said that. From what I saw, he said he could be involved with a number of things, but I don’t remember seeing anything about making him a full-time position coach. 

Do we know any more on the person or a timeline for when we will know about this director of player personnel role Frost mentioned? (@tschmidt723) 

ES: No, but I know why you’re asking. The rumors about someone Frost worked with at Central Florida coming to Nebraska to fill that spot are circulating, so it feels like something is happening. I don’t have any direct intel yet but usually where there is smoke, there is fire. I’d just keep an eye on it. 

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