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Mailbag: Sorting Out the Nebraska Quarterback Situation

October 14, 2020

It’s Wednesday, and the mailbag is full. Let’s crack it open.

Do you guys really think that McCaffrey has a legit chance to start or is Frost just trying to keep Martinez on his toes and as sharp as possible? (@thawildbunch) 
AND 
What percentage would you put between (a) Frost knows Martinez is going to start but wants to keep pushing him to the very end and (b) he genuinely doesn't know who the starter will be? (email, Justin Taylor) 

Brandon Vogel: We had an extended staff Slack conversation after yesterday’s availability about the Martinez/McCaffrey question. It’s a tough one to tackle succinctly, so I’ll try to boil it down like this—the path for McCaffrey to win that job is straightforward. If he’s the same passer as Martinez but more dynamic as a runner/playmaker, then you might be willing to sacrifice experience. (Also, there’s some intangibles in here you might want to account for, but those are even tougher to talk about because, well, they’re intangible.) The tough thing with McCaffrey is we have a decent idea of his explosiveness as a runner and almost no idea of his ability as a passer. But his coaches should have an idea of his ability to “make all the throws,” or at least most of them. As for Justin’s question, I’d say it’s Category A 62%, Category B 38% with a margin of error of 6%. 

Mike Babcock: Didn’t participate in the Slack discussion, so I’d be surprised if Martinez isn’t the starter going into the season. My sense is, he would have to lose the job by his play in a game (experience). Plus, Frost was a quarterback, under Tom Osborne, and knows the value/importance of having a coach’s trust. He earned the job. It’s Martinez’s to lose, on the field. That hasn’t happened yet. 

Greg Smith: I’d really hope that this all isn’t for show to keep Martinez on his toes. I don’t get that feeling though. I believe McCaffrey has a legit chance to start. I agree with Brandon’s points highlighting McCaffrey’s path to get there. This might also end up being a case of if McCaffrey truly makes the offense more dynamic what is the point of waiting to make him the starter? I don’t think we’ll truly know until the team kicks things off against Ohio State.  

Jacob Padilla: You can read me working my way through this question here

Derek Peterson: (Deep breath.) Look, I’ve said time and time again throughout this offseason I believe Adrian Martinez is due for a bounce back. You might call his freshman campaign overrated, you might call his sophomore campaign underrated, you might simply think he’s an average to above-average quarterback. I won’t argue with you. I believe, though, the potential is there for him to be very successful in a run-first offense that utilizes his size and athleticism as a runner to set up the play-action game. Simplify the input for him, stay on schedule, and I think he can be really good. I’ve written this and said it on podcasts and radio spots many times. All that being said, at no point throughout this offseason have I felt more like Luke McCaffrey actually has a shot at this thing than when listening to Scott Frost talk on Tuesday. Availability last week with Nebraska’s quarterback coach raised my ears up a little, but Frost’s comments Tuesday have me thinking this battle is legitimately right there for McCaffrey to take it. If Frost was needing to keep Martinez “on his toes” or “fired up” or anything else you might want to say this close to a road season-opener against Ohio State, if Martinez wasn’t already intrinsically motivated enough by the nuance of the situation, that would be a major red flag. But I don’t think that’s the case.  

Which leads me to believe this is more about McCaffrey kicking the door open. A year ago, the coaching staff raved about his work ethic in coming in and learning the offense. That he played snaps at wide receiver as a true freshman in this offense is no small feat to be glossed over. So if he spent his summer working out with his brother, came back with that same kind of workman-like approach, and made the mechanical improvements Mario Verduzco wanted to see, it’s not crazy to think he’d be right there. McCaffrey is a talented kid. And while we only have 12 passes to base our evaluations of McCaffrey on, we’re not watching the practices the coaching staff is. It would seemingly help McCaffrey’s case that he won’t play in a hostile environment as a first-time starter, so you might not even have to worry about nerves like you would in a normal year.  

The money quote from yesterday was when Frost said, “He's a quarterback. I want to make that clear. Right now, our offense moves exceptionally well when he's at quarterback.” If you’ve listened to Frost carefully this offseason, you’ve noticed a man more guarded with his words. We aren’t really hearing things like “best practice ever,” and he’s often said something like “I’m careful to say too much because people will run with it.” That probably comes from the hype machine that ran off the rails last year. Maybe Frost overcorrected, but I don’t think I’m reading too much into it when he says the offense is moving “exceptionally well” in practice with one guy in particular. I think this job is much closer to 50/50 than anyone previously thought it would be a week and change before the season. 

Did anyone else think the preceding practice must have been garbage based on Frost's demeanor OR does he just want to stop and answering questions and play some football? (@Corn_Huskers) 

DP: I certainly came away from the Zoom call feeling like he was irritated, at least more so than had been the case during our previous interactions. Just seemed off. My best guess is that stems from the question above now being a legitimate question.  

Erin Sorensen: We’re a week and a half from the season and the team is in pads for the first time in 10 months. I’m guessing Frost’s demeanor yesterday was a combination of things. He might be tired. He might have been annoyed at the quarterback questions (as Derek noted above). It might just have been a bad practice. Whatever the case, it was just one of those days and Frost wears his emotions and thoughts on his sleeve more than I think people sometimes realize. 

MB: Add to what’s been said the passing of his father and other issues with which we’re all dealing because of the pandemic and it’s not so hard to understand his demeanor. There were two dozen-plus reporters on the Zoom call asking questions.  

Can you speak to the status of special teams for this upcoming season? We had some issues last season, and I'm curious about the new players coming in as well as any improvements being put in. (@Goooobigred) 

MB: About all we know for sure is, Frost was (understandably) adamant that special-teams play has to improve. He made that clear. How incoming players might impact that, it’s difficult to say. We never know a lot about the composition of special teams until we see them in games. 

JP: Scott Frost on the special teams yesterday: “That needs to be a lot better. Special teams has been a thorn in our side for two years. I’ve seen better production from the specialists themselves. I think we’re kicking and punting the ball better. I’m looking forward to seeing live bullets, some improvements made on our cover teams and block teams. I don’t think we’re there yet, but we do have more athletes out on the field so I expect it to be better.” 

Nebraska certainly put a lot of resources into upgrading its kicking game, and with a handful of candidates for both the kicker and punter job I’d expect that to be much improved (not that last year’s performance would be difficult to improve on). Everybody knows what Jovan Dewitt went through last offseason; I’d expect having an analyst in Jonathan Rutledge focused exclusively on special teams will give the Huskers a better chance at identifying the best candidates and the best coverage schemes to put Nebraska in position to win the field position battle far more often than it did last year. 

What's the real story on Omar? Lot of internet rumors out there on opting out, injury, etc. Also, how serious are Alante and Wan'Dale 'nicks'? (@HuskGuys) 
AND 
How serious are Wan’dale and Alante’s minor injuries? (@HuskerTom1997) 

ES: I’m going to point you to my answer on Omar Manning in last week’s mailbag. Rumors are rumors, and rumors may sometimes be true. In this case when it directly involves a player’s health (as Frost noted on Tuesday), I’m not going to speculate until Nebraska says something. As for Wan’Dale Robinson and Alante Brown, Frost said both of their injuries were “minor” and that neither is a long-term worry. 

“I’m pleased overall with the depth and the play at that position, but that needs to work itself out pretty quickly—who’s healthy and who’s available—and we need to get dialed in for the first game,” Frost said Tuesday when asked about the group.  

Time will tell. 

MB: Nothing to add except that reporters, I think, were reluctant to ask about Manning. I thought Brian Christopherson presented the question properly, as part of a larger question. 

Notwithstanding everything we fans read and hear in the days leading up to the season opener is Kool-Aid, it seems as if Frost's desired culture is very close to actually being in place finally. Again, this is just from what we are hearing. Agree? Disagree? (@thawildbunch) 

ES: I certainly think it’s close to where he wants it. I don’t think that’s drinking the Kool-Aid to say. However, that culture needs to shift away from just strong camaraderie and into a winning one. You can work hard in the weight room and in practice and enjoy spending time together in the film room and outside of the stadium, but it needs to be more than that. This team must figure out how to win. That, in my opinion, is the one missing piece to the culture Frost wants.  

MB: Ultimately, the winning component is all that matters, and not just winning but winning to the extent that the program returns to consistent national relevance, a place it hasn’t really been since Solich, in other words, a long time ago. That can’t happen in one season, of course, or three or four. But the rest of it ultimately doesn’t mean much, if anything. That might seem cynical, but I’ve seen it, even during Osborne’s 25 seasons. 

JP: There really is no excuse for that culture not to be in place by now. With all the roster processing that’s gone on, most of the players on the team have been recruited by this staff, and the upperclassmen that weren’t (Ben Stille, Matt Farniok, Brenden Jaimes, Dicaprio Bootle, etc.) are the guys who seem to have fully bought in and have emerged as team leaders, the ones who set the tone for that culture. Like Erin and Mike said, however, now they need to win in order for that culture to stick and continue to strengthen. 

DP: I’d agree with you that the culture Frost would like to establish within his program is in place.  

If the Huskers continue to either miss or struggle recruiting outside linebackers, at what point does the staff look at moving away from their labeled 3-4 Defense? (@Corn_Huskers) 

BV: Honestly, that answer might depend as much on the offense as the defense. Nobody looks at the last two years of defensive football at Nebraska and comes away totally impressed, but the Huskers have done some things I think they hope to do. They’ve been a solid havoc-rate defense at times in both years—negative plays, opportunities for takeaways, etc.–and that’s sort of how this thing is built. But it needs to be paired with an offense that scores more than 29 points a game. I’m not saying score so many points that the defense doesn’t matter. The aim here is more symbiotic than that. If the offense is capable of producing a lot of points in quick succession, it allows the defense play even more freely. So far, Nebraska’s been stuck between what it wants to be and what it was and it’s trying fight out of that in a conference where the style of play offers a little resistance, too. Over the last two seasons, according to SportsSource Analytics, Nebraska’s defense was in a three-man front on 90% of snaps, so this staff seems pretty committed to it. I don’t see a change happening soon. 

GS: A full change away from the 3-4 isn’t happening without a change at defensive coordinator. That change also isn’t happening any time soon. That being said, Erik Chinander has described his defense as multiple. We may get a chance to see that in action this season. It’s also a matter of developing outside linebackers too. This is the first year I feel like we will have some concrete answers on how this staff develops the position too. 

Did the Huskers alternate uniform video released today all but tell us they will be worn on Halloween for a night game? (@Corn_Huskers) 

DP: They will not be worn on Halloween.  

MB: They should be worn for a road game. No fans allowed, anyway, and white on black is a road combination. I find it interesting that though the defense hasn’t exactly distinguished itself of late, we continue to see tributes to the Blackshirts. Must be a function of age, expecting schools to honor school colors. I might have a different opinion if the defense were more dominant. I’d be in favor of suspending that tradition until further notice, though earning one might help foster competition in practice. 

This year has had SO MANY upsets. Do you think that's related to the weird off season, and if so, would you expect that it could level the playing field a bit in the B1G this year (maybe give us a shot to take Iowa or Wisconsin)? (@InDaWilderness) 

ES: It absolutely has to do with the weird offseason. We’re seeing firsthand how important spring football, summer conditioning and traditional fall camp are. Without those, teams are going into a season mostly prepared. I would just call a lot of what I have seen so far as sloppy. That doesn’t apply to everyone, of course, but a lot of teams have hit some major speed bumps and I think it has to do with the lack of a traditional offseason to prepare. That’s why I never had an issue with Nebraska getting Ohio State right off the bat. Do I think the Buckeyes drop one to the Huskers? No, but I also think Nebraska could make it a game. 

MB: Ditto. Playing Ohio State first is something of a benefit, yes. 

BV: The stranger-than-strange offseason always had the potential to make for a chaotic season, and I think that’s in play to some degree. I also think it has made returning production—which is important in any season—an even greater edge so far. The biggest upset of the year so far by point spread is Kansas State (+27.5) over Oklahoma. The Wildcats didn’t have a ton of returning experience (76th in the initial rankings) but Oklahoma was even lower (82nd). Mississippi State won as a 17.5-point dog and wasn’t experienced either (110th), but LSU had the most to replace of any P5 team in the land (127th) not named Utah. That’s far from enough to draw any sweeping conclusions, but it could tie-in with 2020 CFB Chaos Theory. And it’s here that I note that Nebraska ranked 17th in those initial returning-production ratings, Ohio State 93rd. 

DP: And with that Brandon pushes all his chips in. The phrase you used, Nathan, that this offseason might “level the playing field” is curious because it’s the exact same phrase Scott Frost used when I asked him about this Tuesday. Cam Taylor-Britt talked about it a little, too, saying that he sees a lack of communication from defenses and fatigue playing a factor later in games. It’s probably worth pointing out that Frost also said, “I don’t know if that’ll happen in our league, there’s a lot of really good defenses in our league.” You can talk that as a Big Ten coach taking a little shot at the SEC, or you can take it at face value. Might be a little of both. But, the Big Ten did feature six defenses in the top 25 of Bill Connelly’s preseason SP+ rankings. We’ll see. With home-field advantages really out the window in the Big Ten, it’s going to come down to what Frost talked about: who handled their business this offseason and finds itself more prepared. (And, you know, who has fewer starters missing each week.) 

It seems like our TE room has been getting deeper and more talented every year, despite not showing up on game day yet. If the TE's do have a big year this season as some coaches have mentioned, should we start expecting that to be a permanent fixture of NU, (could we be TE U)? (@InDaWilderness) 

MB: Tight End U might be a stretch, but tight ends as receivers should be an important element of Frost’s offense. They were important under Osborne for different reasons, including blocking and being open on options. His tight ends didn’t catch a lot of passes, but the percentage of touchdown passes was high. 

JP: In 2017 at UCF, tight ends caught 55 passes in 13 games (4.2 receptions per game) led by Jordan Akins’ 32 catches for 525 yards and four touchdowns (for comparison’s sake, Wan’Dale Robinson was Nebraska’s No. 2 receiver and caught 40 passes for 453 yards last year). Akins was the team’s No. 3 receiver and he’s now playing in the NFL. If the Huskers have NFL talent at tight end and a quarterback that will look their way, I’d expect the tight ends to be a significant part of the offense. Tight End U might be a bit aggressive, though. That 2017 UCF team was pretty closely to the ideal version of Scott Frost’s offense, and again, Akins was the No. 3 option. Sean Beckton and the staff certainly seem to be doing a great job of recruiting that position, however. 

DP: With the tight end talent that has been in the area in recent years, and that continues to stand out going forward, there’s certainly a possibility it becomes a bigger part of NU’s plans, maybe even more so than what the UCF track record would project. If Nebraska can add high-end tight end talent each cycle without having to travel outside the 500-mile radius, Nebraska will take it gladly. This year, to me, feels like a turning point for them on the field at that spot. They can sell two years of spotty usage because they’re “still setting things up” and they also have the top tight end committed to them, so they must be doing something right, right? But three years of spotty usage after two years of talking about fixing it probably becomes a tougher sell. I like Vokolek. We’ll see.  

What are the chances the Huskers can snag Micah Riley with three commitments for this class? How about the chances of getting the other top players in the state for 2022? (@JacobKrueger5) 

GS: I don’t think three tight ends in this class will be the deciding factor on Micah Riley not picking or picking Nebraska. Right now I’d say the order of most likely to least likely to pick Nebraska in the 2022 in-state group is: Kaden Helms, Deshawn Woods, Devon Jackson, Micah Riley. Things change quickly though and Nebraska is yet to play a game this season. I would also add that I think Jake Appleget from Lincoln Southeast ends up as an offer guy too at linebacker.   

Do you think the Big Ten will start allowing fans in towards the middle/end of the season? (@CarnesRegg)

DP: I don’t think anything is really off the table this season; if they get through a few weeks without any issues, there will likely be a push from folks to reconsider. BUT, I don’t think the likelihood they get through the first few weeks without any issues is real high at this point. Games are being postponed left and right, and the Florida-Texas A&M game this weekend is potentially going to be a major talking point going forward. Everyone will be monitoring what happens with the Gator players who have since tested positive. I think it’s safe to assume the Big Ten will operate much more conservatively than others moving forward.

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