The Nebraska football hype train has officially left the station. It's back. And you have questions about what 2018 has in store for the Huskers. Brandon Vogel, Greg Smith, Jacob Padilla and Derek Peterson took some shots at answering those questions in the return of our mailbag.
Which stat, one from offense and one from defense, will improve the most this having the biggest impact on the season wins and losses? (@Corn_Huskers)
BV: Oh, man. I could spend months trying to answer this question. On offense, I think it’s explosive plays, particularly in the running game. (I define explosive plays as passes of 15-plus yards and runs of 10-plus yards). In 2017, Nebraska ranked 71st in explosive-plays percentage (14.63% were “explosive”), 67th in passes (16.78%) and 88th in runs (11.96%). UCF ranked fourth in plays (25%), third in passes (20.45%) and 20th in runs (16.6%). The Huskers aren’t touching those type of numbers in Year One, but if the question is which stat has the most impact on wins and losses in 2018, my answer is pretty simple: Nebraska needs to score more points. And one of the surest ways to do that is through explosive plays. Great offense is the combination of down-to-down success (efficiency) and big plays (explosiveness). When I look at the Huskers’ roster, I see an offense that is ready to be explosive sooner than it will be ready to be efficient. UCF was both in 2017, but even bumping those numbers up some could have a big impact. And if it happens in the run game, I think that will be as much a credit to the o-line as anyone.
Defensively it’s probably takeaways, which is tricky because a team doesn’t simply decide to get more fumbles this year. But you can read all about that here.
DP: On offense, I like Brandon’s direction with explosive plays. That’s probably the way I would have gone if he didn’t, but he did, so I’ll focus on the offensive line. FootballOustiders.com tracks “opportunity rate” and I love looking at it. Here’s the site’s description: "The percentage of carries (when five yards are available) that gain at least five yards, i.e. the percentage of carries in which the line does its job, so to speak." Nebraska was 112th in that category. It picked up those available five yards just 33.8 percent of the time. My thinking goes like this: Nebraska already has line talent and line depth as well as a new offensive scheme generous towards linemen and a coaching staff with a track record of maximizing and developing players, meaning that number has to improve (can’t get any worse, really), meaning a more successful ground game, meaning a more successful offense, meaning more points. Troy Walters says everything here starts up front, that’s where I’m starting.
As for the defense, I’ll take sacks. Partially because of the direct impact a sack has on the game and partially because of what it’ll say about the way the defense as a unit is playing compared to last season. If they’re aggressive — and we expect them to be — things will be different. Nebraska had 14 last year which is just dreadful. In 2015 Central Florida had 16, which was tied for 114th in the country. In 2016, UCF was 19th in the country with 38. Expect an uptick for Nebraska, too.
Based on past depth chart, who will benefit the most from a new set of eyes and who would benefit most from a position change? (@SipplesLostT)
BV: From a new-set-of-eyes perspective, I’ll go with offensive lineman Christian Gaylord. His talent outdistanced the opportunity he has been given in my opinion. That’s about to change. For the position-change portion, I’m going to cheat a little. Ben Stille started out as a defensive lineman, got shuffled back to linebacker when Nebraska needed all the help it could get and he was great there. I think he could’ve continued being great there, but I like him a little more as a lineman. I’m really high on his ability, and now that he “knows what he is,” he can just focus on maximizing his already enormous potential.
JP: Offensive line is definitely the right answer, but I’ll throw out linebacker as another one. I think Trent Bray is a good coach, but it seemed like Bob Diaco’s defense called very very specific players to fill those outside linebacker spots and I think Chinander’s will offer more wiggle room for specialization. There are a lot of bodies at that outside linebacker position that haven’t even been close to seeing the field that have the talent or skill-set to offer something to this defense.
GS: The Ben Stille shout-out is so good but I’m going to go a little different here. I think Tyjon Lindsey, while not changing positions will benefit the most from a new set of eyes. He is exactly the type of player this staff recruits and has done well with. Add in the extra intensity from Duval and being forced to turn it up and I think he has future star written all over him.
Who are the top 5 walk-ons to contribute this year? Will this year see a significantly lower number of walk-on contributions from simple math of lower numbers taken under Mike Riley last three years? Or will a higher hit rate offset that? (@CoryHonold)
JP: It’s hard to truly hone in on just five guys because walk-on opportunities are often created by injuries and it’s impossible to predict those but I’ll do my best. In no particular order…
Cornerback is one of the shallowest positions on the roster, so playing time could potentially materialize for a guy like Jeremiah Stovall, who saw the field last year, or Ethan Cox, who Derek noticed during the open portion of Tuesday’s practice.
The kicker battle will rage throughout the spring and fall, and redshirt freshman walk-on Cole Frahm should have every opportunity to beat out true freshman Barret Pickering for the job. Frahm has a huge leg and a lot of tricks up his sleeve (or perhaps his pant leg?). Even if Pickering does win the job, a poorly timed sprained ankle or (knock on wood) something worse would leave Frahm as the only healthy kicker on the roster. Nebraska needs both of its kickers to be ready this season.
I’ve always been a fan of Bryan Reimers and the unique skill set Reimers brings as a 6-foot-5 wideout, and now he’s a senior after getting a few snaps here and there over the last two years. Scott Frost and Co. brought/are bringing in a lot of bodies at the wideout position, but if a guy like Justin McGriff takes advantage of a redshirt, Reimers could be relied upon in certain situations because of his height and ability to run. Conor Young is worth a mention here as well as a guy who saw the field last year, though he might not stand out physically quite as much as Reimers does.
The newest name to enter the fray is offensive lineman Hunter Miller who was the first name out of Greg Austin’s mouth when asked about who was taking snaps at center with Michael Decker and Cole Conrad on the shelf. If Decker and Conrad both stay healthy all season, Miller might never rise beyond the third team, but reports out of practice about his performance compared to others have been very positive and he just might be able to make a move at that position.
Finally, I still believe in the Wyatt Mazour dream. His skill set is perfect for Nebraska’s new offense and he might get a crack at returning some kicks or punts. Nebraska has a lot of options at the skill positions now, but Frost also gives a lot of guys a chance to see the field and with his speed and quickness, Mazour could be one of those guys.
Kade Warner and Jordan Paup are a couple other names to keep an eye out for and, of course, Andrew Bunch is the hot name in the quarterback battle.
As for the rest of your question, I’d lean towards fewer walk-ons playing simply because of the number of bodies – unlike Riley, Frost has used up all of his scholarships (and then some). If the strength and conditioning changes help lessen injuries, that also could factor into how often we see a walk-on out on the field. I think there are guys in each of Riley’s walk-on class as well as Frost’s first class that could prove to be diamonds in the rough, no matter what the total number for each class has been.
DP: Jacob went hard on this one so I’ll keep my answer short. My five guys, in no particular order: Ethan Cox (DB), Damian Jackson (DL), Hunter Miller (OL), Cole Frahm (K) and Reid Karel (DB). I’m fascinated by Jackson because of his size and strength. Karel was getting reps in practice down the stretch last season with all the injuries, maybe he can earn time at corner this year. There are a few other names at linebacker and wide receiver that are interesting but I just don’t see either position group being open enough.
With no fullback, what is the Miles kid’s new role, also watched several UCF games who's the old guy on the sidelines cheering the team on?, With T.O throwback jacket, can we expect some sweet fashion this year? (@RAND_ELL)
BV: I think Ben Miles’ status is somewhat undetermined at this point. He has the traditional fullback profile, but there is no fullback anymore. He could try some tight end, primarily as an H-back, but he doesn’t have the body type that makes it feel like a natural fit. The coaches have mentioned some specialized short-yardage packages that would suit his skill set, but until we see it everything’s a mystery.
JP: Currently, Sean Beckton said Miles is working with Ryan Held and the running backs rather than with the tight ends. Said Beckton: “We’re going to be smart enough to understand and utilize kids like that, maybe some short-yardage situations, 4-minute offense, try to put together a package for guys like that down in the red zone and when we really need a yard.” Could that just be coach speak to avoid telling everyone the kid’s out of luck? Only time will tell.
GS: It’s going to be hard on Ben Miles in this offense. Like Jacob said, he’s been working with the running backs more so with the tight ends but my feeling is the only way he gets on the field consistently is as some sort of H-back. It’s a mystery right now but I don’t think the talk about short-yardage situations will just end up as coach speak.
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