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Hail Varsity Mailbag
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Mailbag: Taking Stock of the Husker Running Back Room this Spring

April 08, 2021

We’ve moved the mailbag to a new day so we can get both days of weekly spring football media availability in. Still, same premise. You asked questions, and the Hail Varsity staff is here to answer them.

What is the biggest reason to be optimistic about this upcoming football season? (@InDaWilderness) 

Greg Smith: The defense has improved steadily under defensive coordinator Erik Chinander. The group has the potential to be salty because they are deep on the defensive line and return a wealth of experience in other spots. The defense could be legitimately good. 

Brandon Vogel: A defense that is yet another step better is probably the most concrete example right now. On offense, I’ll pick up the same mallet and beat the same drum I have been since Year 3 ended—Nebraska has earned more than it has gotten on that side of the ball. The Huskers do certain things at a high enough level that it’s the low win total that sticks out more than any long-term weakness to me. Eventually, you would expect those same numbers, barring collapses elsewhere, to produce more wins, and I do think when things swing in a more expected direction they have the potential to swing pretty big. This is a really boring answer. It’s like I’m talking about a stock or something, though that’s not that different from how I actually view it. Nebraska’s offense has markers of success, they just haven’t produced the results yet but I’m continuing to beat on the validity of the markers. 

Derek Peterson: I will direct you to last weekend’s column

Whose absence from (Wednesday’s) practice will most impact the WR corps? (@Simba_Simms) 

Mike Babcock: Given his junior college success and what was expected, I’d say Omar Manning’s absence (again) is a concern. He apparently was never completely healthy last season and now, though he was among those whose absence wasn’t likely to be extensive, there might be questions again. He thought he would be an impact player. Still waiting. 

With Stepp out for spring, things are really wide open in that room, right? If you had to bet money, which RB would you pick to take the majority of snaps this season? (@InDaWilderness) 

GS: I am buying all the Gabe Ervin stock that I can get my hands on. So I’ll go out on a limb and say the Georgia native gets the most carries at running back this season.  

MB: I’ll follow Greg, although I think we heard similar praise for Rahmir Johnson and Ronald Thompkins (when he eventually got healthy). Ervin, but we’ll see. 

DP: Well, Gabe Ervin Jr. and Marvin Scott III were the only scholarship guys going through the practice we just watched, so it makes this difficult. Either not practicing or not out there were Markese Stepp, Rahmir Johnson, Ronald Thompkins, and Sevion Morrison. (Or, I guess I should say I didn’t spot the last two.) Stepp is expected to be available again for summer stuff, and he’s still the guy with the most experience at the D1 level, so he still probably has to be the favorite. I’m in the early stages of researching true freshman running back production at the P5 level for a story to come later on, but the hypothesis is that you’re just not going to get true freshman production from 90% of guys. Could Ervin fall in the top 10%? Maybe. Maurice Washington is really the only true running back who has had production as a freshman under this staff. We’ll see. Smart money is on Stepp, still, though.

Which position will be the strongest on offense next season? Which will be the strongest on defense next season? On special teams, what will be the best—kickoffs, kick return, punt team, punt return, or field goals? (@CarnesRegg) 

GS: Offensive line, defensive line, field goals. This combination could produce some interesting results for the Huskers in 2021. The team’s ceiling would be raised if you could guarantee that they’d dominate or compete in the trenches every week. 

MB: Offensive line, secondary and, I’ll take Greg’s wisdom, field goal kicking. 

BV: Give me tight ends, linebackers and, for the sake of variety and to make an underdog pick, give me the punt team. I am ready for the Aussie punting era to begin at Nebraska. (Now we just have to hope it does.) 

DP: Quarterback, secondary, and punt return.

Huskers over/under 30 points per game this fall? (@Cty2CtyLyle) 

MB: At this point, under. Too many questions at running back and receiver. Also, can Martinez eliminate the mistakes? If those question are answered in a reasonable way, maybe over. But that’s for a later response.  

Erin Sorensen: I’d probably take the under too. My mindset is similar to Mike’s. I’d also add the questions on the offensive line. There were more mistakes there in 2020 than I suspected, so will the line be improved? That’s a crucial piece as well. 

DP: Nebraska was at exactly 30 in 2018, Scott Frost’s first season in charge, then at 28 in 2019 and down to 23 last season. Trending the wrong direction, for sure. And there are reasons to doubt. That being said, I’ll hesitantly say over. I expect a better defense and more of a field position advantage for Nebraska, which will help. I also put stock in the notion that the sheer necessity for it to be better makes it more likely it will. It’s like pro players in a contract year. I hope.

If 2AM goes down pre-season or in the first couple games, what are our odds of winning any of the rest? In other words, how conservative will play calling be to protect 2AM? (@howard_parkert) 

BV: I don’t think Nebraska is in a spot in its three-season trajectory where it can go into the season limiting itself offensively in hopes of protecting Martinez a bit. The coaches need to have the option of running whatever they think gives them the best chance of success, and I’m sure they will. Injuries happen and, on a broad scale at least, there’s not a lot anyone can do about them. That said, if Martinez were to miss some time, I don’t know that I would drastically dock the Huskers’ expected win total. The staff is by all reports very high on Logan Smothers. For the rest of us, he’s a total unknown at the college level, but until I get to see him operate the offense I would be hesitant to immediately alter my expectations. 

Jacob Padilla: I think Brandon nailed it. While I do think Nebraska would like to get away from the quarterback ground game being its best running play, I don’t think Frost can afford to course-correct dramatically in an effort to keep Martinez healthy. He has to call the plays that will help Nebraska win that particular game. Ideally, they’d be able to run the ball better with the backs this season to lessen that risk for Martinez naturally.  

You’ve been picked to be the guest DJ for a spring practice. What 3 songs do you play knowing your songs could be the difference between 3 wins and 3 losses? (@Corn_Huskers) 

MB: At my age, no one’s picking me to be a guest DJ. But I’ve got one, which the players would tune out so it wouldn’t be of use even though the message is clear: “Ants Marching,” Dave Matthews Band. Put in the work, grind it out, keep moving forward. 

BV: Ever heard of the band Manowar? If not, they’re most comically stereotypical of all metal bands—seriously, seek out some videos—so we start this three-song suite with “Warriors of the World Unite.” We transition out of that into Freddie Gibbs and Madlib’s “S****ville” because it stomps but is also somewhat melodic in a very nice way that will help the team strike the balance between aggression and execution necessary to win the “middle 8.” We close with “Lowdown” by Tom Waits, the audio equivalent of the grit necessary to grind out games in the fourth quarter. To be clear, the players would hate this, but it would entertain me. I also know these selections contain the magic that is the difference between three and nine wins. 

ES: Just a rotation of Taylor Swift’s catalogue, of course. Also, and this is side note of course, one of my favorite things during the Bo Pelini era was that different days were assigned to different position groups to play music. The video crew would then load the songs for practice. The offensive line notoriously selected country music. I learned that the team did not like offensive line day, because a majority didn’t want to listen to country music for all of practice. 

JP: “Photograph” by Nickelback on repeat. 

Husker baseball is currently #77 in the Warren Nolan RPI rankings, which places it third out of the B1G (Ohio St #44, Iowa #54). Since there were no non-conference games this year, how many teams do you think the B1G will send to the postseason? (@GoBigRedCast) 

MB: I’d be surprised if the B1G gets more than a couple the way things stand right now, as you point out with the rankings. Without non-conference games and without respect for the B1G going into the season, the teams that will make the postseason will need lots of wins. And from what we’ve seen, the conference is competitive. Balance isn’t a good thing without non-conference games by which to measure the teams. 

How does the loss of Alvarez affect Wisconsin in the short term and in the long term? Do they keep chugging on, or will this have a more noticeable impact? (@InDaWilderness) 

MB: As much as I respect Barry, I’d guess Wisconsin athletics have a solid foundation. The important thing is that his replacement doesn’t make sweeping changes, and maybe consults Barry regularly during the transition.  

BV: Alvarez’s biggest achievement, in my mind at least, is that he has built one of the steadiest athletic departments in the country. Football’s success almost looks coach-independent at this point, which is insane. Basketball is a tournament fixture. Volleyball enters next week’s tournament as a heavy favorite. Simply introducing any new ingredient creates the opportunity for something to change. Wisconsin has to replace the primary ingredient. I suspect the Badgers will keep chugging along for a while, but it’s just hard to maintain the level Alvarez produced at in Madison. 

DP: I think Alvarez was the foundation in Madison. Change didn’t stir the pot too much because Alvarez was the rock of the foundation. Hard to lose that and not wobble even a little. They’ll be fine, but you don’t lose someone as important as he was and not feel it.

Why has Nebraska not offered Zane Flores? (@NebraskaCody) 

GS: I would assume they don’t view him as a system fit since he is more of a pocket-passer. It’s also worth noting that he doesn’t hold a Power Five offer yet. There is a long way to go in his recruitment though. 

JP: For those that aren’t aware, Flores is a 2023 quarterback at Gretna. He started as a freshman and was prolific this year as a sophomore, averaging 240.8 yards per game while completing 69.4% of his passes and tossing 18 touchdowns with three interceptions. I’ve seen him in person twice; he was phenomenal the first game and struggled the second when he didn’t get the kind of great protection he’d enjoyed all season. He basically doesn’t run the ball at all for Gretna outside of goal line sneaks (eight rushing touchdowns this year but only 17 net rushing yards), which is where the scheme fit questions come into play. Flores is a terrific talent and is definitely a guy worth tracking over the next couple of years, but like Greg said, we’ll have to wait and see what happens once his recruitment takes off with some offers. 

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