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Hail Varsity Mailbag
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Mailbag: the Big Ten’s COVID Policies, Impressive Debuts, and WR Questions

October 29, 2020

It has been a weird week (what’s new?) and so we decided to push the mailbag an extra day. On Wednesday, the Wisconsin athletic department made the decision to pause team activities within the football program for seven days in order to curb a rise in COVID-19 positive cases in the team. In doing so, the Badgers canceled this weekend’s game with the Huskers.

We had several Wisconsin-specific questions we took out because of the cancellation, and one we added it. Let’s get to it.

So, does Wisconsin convince the B1G to review and change its COVID policy (no longer 21 days for athletes)? (@Sal_Vasta3)

Greg Smith: This is very interesting. On the surface, the timing is so suspicious now that Wisconsin is the team facing a 21-day sit out for its star quarterback. The Badgers have a big voice in the league so I understand where the angst comes from here. On the other hand, if there is legitimately more information now about the effects of myocarditis then they should revisit the rules. That benefits everyone in theory. I wouldn’t be surprised if the rule was revisited 

Mike Babcock: Change only if the science warrants. Student-athletes’ health remains the concern, both immediate and long-term. 

Jacob Padilla: The Big Ten’s decision to hold to the precedent it set before the season regarding nonconference games leads me to believe it might not budge on this point either.  

Whose Husker debut (player or coach) were you most impressed with? (@j_sanatez)

Brandon Vogel: Luke McCaffrey count? If not I’d probably go with Ty Robinson (who we also saw a bit last season). He had three tackles, including one for a loss, so it was a relatively quiet opener for him but he just has the look of a fixture for Nebraska up front in the near future. 

GS: I’ll go with Bryce Benhart. I had high hopes for him coming into the game and I don’t think he disappointed. He was matched up with some of the better defensive lineman he will see all season long and held his own. He’s going to be a player Nebraska can build around for a long time. 

MB: Ty Robinson or Bryce Benhart, like those up-front guys. 

Erin Sorensen: While we saw him in a limited role last season, I’d go with Casey Rogers. If you haven’t read Jacob’s story from Tuesday on him, I recommend it. I think we’re going to see a lot more of Rogers going forward. 

JP: It was only 15 snaps, but I really liked what I saw from Ronald Thompkins. Him playing at all was a great story in itself, but he looked legitimately good. He racked up 32 yards on five touches including a really nice catch, and three of those touches moved the chains. As long as he stays healthy (fingers crossed, furiously knocking on wood) I think he can help this team this season. 

What was your impression or grade of Martinez’s pocket presence, awareness, and composure? I thought he seemed to bail fairly early, but maybe that was necessary. What do you all think? (@Corn_Huskers)

JP: I just watched all of Martinez’s snaps and I was actually impressed with his pocket presence. There was maybe one snap where he got a little skittish in the pocket (his second incompletion), and there was that missed touchdown to Warner that both guys probably deserved blame for, but otherwise he executed the game plan well. I actually think there was one scramble all game, and it went for 39 yards. Everything else was either a designed run or he got the pass off. On the first sack, he had no chance; Farniok got smoked and he had a guy in his lap as soon as he caught the ball. I think the play Frost talked about where guys didn’t see the play call correctly was the second sack, leading to broken protection, and there wasn’t anybody open on the play anyway.  

The sole concern I have after this weekend: when the offense gets behind, it seems they stall 100% of the time… Think that’s a mentality coupled with a lack of a deep threat at WR? What do they need to do to overcome that? Besides unleashing Omar? (@navymousel)

BV: Nebraska’s offense has shown that when it has momentum that it can move the ball on just about anybody. But it’s still incredibly fragile. That’s true to a degree with the vast majority of college offenses—a simple tackle for loss really decreases a drive’s scoring chances across the sport—but Nebraska seems particularly susceptible to that over the past few seasons. I think some of it has to do with inexperience. While most of the offense from last year is back, it’s still relatively young. And some of it is just how football works. Year in and year out, Wisconsin is one of the best at avoiding this. The Badgers just don’t go backwards very often and that’s why it feels like they just grind teams down. 

Should people be panicking about not seeing our WRs involved much in the first game? (@Go_Big_Red)

BV: Maybe wait for one more game against a different opponent. Nebraska really had to scheme for everything it got offensively last week and challenging future NFL defensive backs with a wide receiver group that, well, doesn’t have that kind of talent isn’t much of a scheme. I do have concerns about the state of the wide receiver position right now, but I’m willing to give it a least one more game where the talent disparity isn’t so glaring. 

JP: I agree with Brandon. I was worried but not panicking heading into week one, and I feel the same way now. If they’re not able to open things up a little more as the season goes on, then we can enter panic mode. 

GS: I think everyone needs to wait for another game against a non-playoff team. Still, the reason for the panic is because fans have seen touted players come into the program and then go on a milk carton. The irony here is that two true freshmen, Alante Brown and Marcus Fleming, got reps in the game so they weren’t totally missing. There is just a desire to see much more than what was shown on Saturday.  

Derek Peterson: Nebraska’s second game—originally expected to be Wisconsin, now we’ll wait for Northwestern—will go a long way toward answering this question.

Do you honestly expect our downfield passing game to get better throughout the year? If so, how much, and will it be enough to help us get over .500? (@InDaWilderness)

JP: Well, it was all but nonexistent in game one, so it wouldn’t take much for it to get better. I do think we’re going to see some of these younger wideouts get into the mix as the season progresses. I think Travis Vokolek will become a bigger part of the offense as he settles in (and the deep shot they did take to him against the Buckeyes probably would have been completed if Shaun Wade hadn’t made a terrific read to peel off his own man and break it up). And I think the game plan is going to be a bit more aggressive against some of the other teams they play. That won’t get Nebraska a winning record by itself, but it will certainly help. 

MB: Agree with Jacob. Give it some time. Nebraska has talent at wide receiver. Sounds as if Manning will be on the field, maybe this week. 

Do you think too many times on Saturday that the kickoff return team conceded too much by fair catching the ball? (@CarnesRegg)

BV: No, not in that game I don’t. Ohio State is historically a strong kickoff coverage team (in addition to everything else) and is one of the best at hanging kicks up there, putting them towards the pylon and allowing the coverage to get downfield to cost offenses yards. The three kickoffs Nebraska did return all ended up short of the 25-yard line. You lose all chance of breaking a big return, and Nebraska does need to get better starting field position somehow, but in that game I thought the fair catch was the right move. 

I know the coaches say “No block, no rock” for our WRs, but shouldn’t they scheme and get the best talent and athleticism on the field? I worry we’re going to lose games otherwise… (@Sal_Vasta3)

JP: I think the “no block, no rock” thing is only part of equation at wide receiver. There’s a lot more that goes into it, and it seems like maybe the younger receivers just aren’t doing everything the coaches want to see in order to trust them in a game. That could be practice habits, playbook mastery, attention to detail or, yes, blocking willingness or ability. Frost and his staff are still establishing their culture, and letting more talented guys skip the line when they aren’t doing what they’re supposed to is a good way to endanger that culture (we’ll ignore the Maurice Washington saga for the moment). RegardlessNebraska needs to start winning games, and to do that they need talented players on the field. Whatever is keeping all of these receivers they’ve recruited over the last couple of years off the field (whether that’s poor evaluation or poor development) needs to be corrected, ASAP. That being said, “scheming to get the best talent and athleticism on the field” is what they’re doing with Luke McCaffrey, no?  

GS: I just happened to write about this on Tuesday. Nebraska has to do a better job of bridging the gap here or they’ll never be the type of offense Scott Frost was hired to produce.  

It looks as if Mike Dawson had more influence on the way Nebraska lined up on defense. Tannor and Payne were in three-point stance more often. What are your thoughts? (@JacobKrueger5)

JP: That was certainly interesting. Nebraska had three defensive lineman on the field on less than 30% of its defensive snaps. They had either one or two outside linebackers with a hand in the dirt on nearly 60% of their snaps, and it wasn’t just Tannor and Payne; Nick Henrich and Garrett Nelson both started double-digit plays in a three-point stance as wellI’ll be interested to see if that was more game plan-specific or if itsomething they wat to shift towards philosophically. I’m guessing we’ll see more defensive linemen on the field against Wisconsin (if that game happens). The thing about this defense is Erik Chinander and his assistants have a lot of intriguing pieces on their hands; now they have to sort out which of those guys give them the best chance to win. 

Who called the plays on offense on Saturday? (@JacobKrueger5)

DP: Frost remains the play-caller despite some of the offseason reshuffling of titles. 

With eligibility being “held” this year and with an overwhelmingly underclassmen-staffed roster, could Joseph & Manning possibly be in a situation like Keem Green last year? Could the staff look into bringing both in slowly this year with an eye for down the road? Why rush? GBR! (@Cody_TipToes)

JP: The “rush” would be if you think they can help you win better than the other options. I think the biggest issue for Green last year was how late he got to campus. It took him a while to both get into game shape and figure out the playbook. That coupled with the experience and depth Nebraska had at defensive line made a redshirt year the best option. I’d argue that this year not counting toward eligibility is precisely the reason to take a different path with those two if you think they can help you win. If there’s a specific role they can fill, then use them, no matter how small that role may be. It doesn’t cost you anything. That being said, those two have to get to a place where the coaches think playing them is the right move. 

GS: I could maybe see that being the case with Joseph. It’s a similar situation to Green last year because of the type of room he came into. But if he can help the team now, he should be out there. If Manning is healthy and practicing, there is no reason for him to not play. We know what the situation is at wideout.  

With the amount of experience that the starting DBs have this season, why are they playing 6-8 yards off of the WRs? The front seven seemed to be playing aggressive, but the back four were playing passive. It was like watching warm-up drills for Fields and the OSU WRs. (@SStone13)

BV: I like Nebraska’s secondary (still) but anyone in the country would love to have what Ohio State has at receiver and quarterback. The Huskers seemed to concede easy completions to avoid giving up the big ones and, while that can be maddening when you’re watching at home, it’s a defensible strategy. If you know you’re going to struggle to stop a team—and look at the past four NU-OSU games to see a perfect example of what that looks like—it’s better to ask a team to take eight plays to score rather than four. Nobody wants to have to play that way, least of all the NU coaches, but that’s where the Huskers are right now against a team like that. I don’t think it will look that way all year. 

MB: As with other questions this week, much of what Nebraska did was a result of the opposition being Ohio State. The Huskers will be more aggressive in several areas, including this one, going forward.  

JPBrandon made some good points here, and I agree it was the coaches more or less choosing what they believed was the lesser of two evils for that specific team. The problem is Justin Fields didn’t make any mistakes, so attempting to prevent the big play basically turned into giving the Buckeyes free yards almost every snapThat being said, there were some plays where the defensive backs were in closer coverage and just got beat by some very good receivers. They’re going to have to play better moving forward, and I think the game plan will be a little more aggressive against other teams as well. It’s also worth noting that it was Deontai Williams’ first game after missing a whole season, and he looked a little shaky early in coverage as he was working the rust off. 

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