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Mailbag: What One Trait Might Get Nebraska Over the Hump?

September 28, 2020

It’s Wednesday and the mailbag is back to its regularly scheduled home. The Hail Varsity staff is here. Let’s get to it.

The Huskers are obligated to have a FB or two on the roster. Who would put at the position? (@Corn_Huskers)

Jacob Padilla: Damian Jackson. Not sure an explanation is necessary here.

Brandon Vogel: Dedrick Mills was effectively a fullback during his one year in the flexbone at Georgia Tech. (I know, the flexbone technically doesn’t have a fullback, but Mills was the deep back meaning he was often the first read on the dive which is close enough for me.) Perhaps because of that, Mills also lined up at fullback during Nebraska’s brief, four-play flirtation with the I-formation against Ohio State. So, in addition to Jackson, for the reasons so obvious Jacob didn’t even mention them, I think we’re set here.

Derek Peterson: Wan’Dale Robinson. I kid. (As Dale comes screaming in to slap me.) I’d throw out a couple of names already playing running back at Nebraska, one of them Zach Weinmaster, a redshirt freshman walk-on. Weinmaster has a ruggedness to him and if he’s anything like his brother, there’s some love of physicality there. I think Marvin Scott III, on a temporary basis, would make for a real weapon in short-yardage situations. Without knowing where he’s at from a receiving standpoint, this might be a way to use a guy who seems already physically ready for the Big Ten right away.

If you had to pick just one thing NU needs to get over the hump, what would it be? Size? Speed? Culture? Discipline? Athleticism? Okay, two things … and do we have those things now? (@thawildbunch)

BV: Hmmm. There are a lot of ways to go here. I’m pretty big on culture, but I have hard time explaining why because it’s hard to even define what a “good” culture looks like. (One of those you know it when you see it things.) Taking that off the table, I think my prescription would be have one of the three or four best offensive lines in the conference—no easy feat in a league like this—and NFL-caliber players in the secondary. On the latter front, mid- to late-round guys are good, but I’m thinking more of players like Prince Amukamara, Daniel Bullocks or Fabian Washington (just to name three from this century). The pure football reasons should be obvious. It’s hard for an offense to struggle too much if the front line is strong, and, while people might think of dominant defensive lines first, a lockdown secondary really allows a defense to be versatile. But the bigger reason for making these my picks is that Nebraska’s history would suggest they can find those type of players. The Huskers have done it before.

Greg Smith: Love this question. I would pick culture and confidence. Like Brandon said it’s very hard to pin down what good culture is but you know it when you see it. To me that goes hand in hand with confidence in what your coaches have taught you and your abilities. So when the going gets tough, what do you fall back on. Barrett Ruud has mentioned before that when things get tough you need to fall back on your habits. The thing is that they need to be good habits. They just need to get the ball rolling and let it all pick up steam from there.

Mike Babcock: You can have all the elements, speed, size, athleticism, etc. But you have to be all-in with the system and believe you are going to win every time out. Establishing that belief is difficult. You can say you think you’re going to win without really believing it.

DP: I’m surprised my combination wasn’t already said. I’m building a team that’s going to compete in the Big Ten, yes? I’m going to take size and discipline. Northwestern is a perfect case study in what it takes to compete in this conference; the Wildcats just won the West two years ago. The one thing every opponent says about Pat Fitzgerald’s team is—say it with me—they don’t beat themselves. They’re disciplined in their fundamentals and they make you beat them with mistake-free, or in cases where there’s an overwhelming talent advantage, mistake-averse football. But Northwestern is never really viewed as a yearly Big Ten West threat because it usually doesn’t have across-the-board size to match up with the Big Ten’s elite. If Nebraska had Northwestern’s discipline and Ohio State’s size, it would have won how many games in each of Frost’s first two years? Probably a lot. If it had that combination this year, Nebraska would be talked about as a league title threat. I don’t have to worry about the athleticism component because Nebraska’s already doing well in that regard.

JP: It seems like Nebraska is getting closer to where it needs to be in terms of size, speed, athleticism and culture. The Huskers have shown they can compete against some good teams or considerably outplay lesser teams for stretches, but they haven’t been able to put it all together just yet. To that point, I’ll go with the discipline and ability to read and react because I think that speaks to a lot of the issues Nebraska has had through Frost’s first two years. Breakdowns in blocking, coverage and run fits all go back to both of those things, and I think the read and react portion of it also applies to the quarterback play. There were a few games where Nebraska was simply outclassed, but the Huskers have also done a lot to beat themselves over the last two years.

Erin Sorensen: I’ll take size and discipline. I’ll spare a longer explanation (you can read Derek’s, because he said it better than I would have anyway) but I’ll add this: Discipline often feeds the culture. I essentially get two-for-one there.

Do you think we finally have the size/bulk to play fairly evenly (in that respect) with teams like Ohio State and Wisconsin? I know we actually played Wisconsin pretty tough last year. Looking at replays of games against Ohio State, they just look so big in comparison. (@thawildbunch)

ES: Ohio State has 17 players over 300 pounds. Another 9 are just under 300 pounds (meaning over 290 pounds, which is an arbitrary benchmark I’m using to count). Wisconsin has 16 players over 300 pounds, but only three that are just under. Nebraska has 19 players over 300 pounds, and four just under. Looking at that only (which is essentially defensive and offensive linemen), Nebraska is right there with Ohio State and Wisconsin. Let’s go one further than me just counting though: The average Ohio State offensive lineman weighs 309.7 pounds. The average Wisconsin offensive lineman weighs 305.7 pounds. The average Nebraska offensive lineman weighs 306.7 pounds. So, again, right there with Ohio State and Wisconsin. This is all pretty basic, and not fully representative of what to expect from any player but it’s enough to say it looks like Nebraska is right in line size-wise with the two you mentioned. As for what it means on the field, well, we’ll see.

Also, fun fact: The heaviest player between Ohio State, Nebraska and Wisconsin is Buckeyes offensive lineman Dawand Jones. He weighs 375 pounds. Nebraska comes in second with Damion Daniels at 340.

DP: Erin’s research does well to illustrate what we’ve kind of seen this offseason, I think. Most reactions to those mid-summer Zach Duval weight room videos fell between, “Oh my,” with a ton of eyeball emojis and awkward “I need new pants” jokes. Nebraska, just based on looks, seems bigger than it has at any point in recent memory and freakier, too. Guys like Ben Stille and Nash Hutmacher and Ty Robinson on the defensive line look intimidating. Cameron Jurgens looks like a worthy addition to a future “Feldman Freaks” column. I’d say Nebraska’s closer than it has been in years to holding its own with the likes of Wisconsin and Iowa on its side of the conference. Ohio State presents an entirely different challenge because it combines sheer bulk with blue-chip-caliber athleticism. That’s not a sandbox Nebraska is playing in yet, though we’ll see how close it is on Oct. 24. I think the days of Wisconsin just bulldozing Nebraska or Iowa tight ends making highlight real blocks on unsuspecting NU linebackers are over.

Who on offense this year is going to be a game-changer? Who on defense is going to be a game-changer? (@CarnesRegg)

JP: If Nebraska is going to be good this year, Adrian Martinez obviously has to be a game-changer. Is he the guy we saw as a freshman who can break defenses with both his arm and his legs? Or is he the guy we saw last year that struggled to make correct reads and accurate throws? Beyond the quarterback, I think Omar Manning has the ability to unlock a part of the offense we just haven’t seen so far. As for the defense, I’m buying up all available Ben Stille and Deontai Williams stock. Both have shown a serious knack for making plays and I think they’re ready to step into featured roles in Erik Chinander’s defense this year.

GS: Martinez and Manning are great picks on offense so give me Wan’Dale Robinson. I think we only got a glimpse of what he can provide last season. On defense how about Cam Taylor-Britt? He already has a knack for making big plays and if he can be consistent, he’s a real weapon for that defense.

DP: In the interest of originality I’ll avoid using any of the names already mentioned. On offense, I think it has to be Dedrick Mills. Jacob is right that Martinez is the key to a good season, but Mills’ success (and the offensive line’s) might be key to Martinez’s good season. Nebraska wants to run to set up everything else. If Mills is a top-level contributor in the conference, the playbook is wide open. Nebraska is ahead of schedule regularly, defenses are loading the box more often, the play-action game is a weapon. I like Martinez on the move. Mills being great makes life easier on so many others. I think he can be. On defense, I’m going to twist the question. Who, if they’re consistently a stud, creates a game-changer for Erik Chinander? I’ll offer three names: JoJo Domann, Ty Robinson, and Caleb Tannor. Nebraska’s been waiting for Tannor; he’s the prototypical outside ‘backer for Chinander’s aggressive, attacking scheme. Domann has been a playmaker every time on the field, but health has limited his role. Robinson should probably still be in developmental mode but he’s so damn intriguing. Notice the throughline? All three of ‘em are pass-rushers.

How much does a no-crowd stadium help or hurt Nebraska in The Horseshoe? (@Go_Big_Red)

BV: It definitely shouldn’t hurt, but I’m not sure the absence of crowds this fall will be a massive boon to the road team. There are still parts of the road-game experience—the travel, unfamiliar surroundings, stadium quirks—that give a home team an advantage. When I do things like this (https://hailvarsity.com/s/10143/whats-a-fair-win-total-for-nebraskas-new-big-ten-schedule) and use FPI or SP+ ratings to try to estimate win probabilities and point spreads, I typically give the home team a 2.5-point edge just for being at home. This year, I’ve taken that down to one point but when the projected spread for Ohio State-Nebraska is around three touchdowns, a point-and-a-half isn’t making much of a difference. And, of course, the home-field thing is a double-edged sword. Whatever small advantage Nebraska might experience in Columbus, it won’t have it the following week when Wisconsin comes to Lincoln.

How much does the postponement of football help us in terms of getting some of the new players ready, such as Joseph and Cerni who came in late? Is that going to have much of an effect or not really? (@InDaWilderness)

BV: I think it could help a little with some of those late arrivals. Rather than a four-week, high-pressure rush through fall camp to be ready for the first game—and I think Joseph and Cerni were two players brought in to help immediately—they’ve had a month of 60% capacity (in terms of practice hours) and will still get 29 days of what you’d now consider fall camp. I’m not expecting it to make a massive difference, but can’t hurt, right?

MB: The biggest consideration, to my way of thinking, is the mental aspect, having a mindset you were going to play and then the uncertainty that has followed, new to the program or not. “Get ready. Uh, now don’t get ready.” Even if you tell yourself there’s going to be football when the Big Ten suspended the season, it’s tough for most to believe that. So I don’t think it helped, regardless of the acclimation time. Having said that, from what we know, Frost did a pretty good job of keeping players focused and involved. Maybe that offset the uncertainty for the new guys.

Is it possible that we could end up seeing two-QB sets? Really spice things up if they can’t guess who is actually going to be taking the snap. (@InDaWilderness)

JP: I doubt it outside of perhaps the occasional trick play. If you snap the ball to McCaffrey, what is Martinez doing on that play? He’s not a wide receiver and you don’t want him to block, so you’re basically giving the other team a numbers advantage which I think outweighs the potential pre-snap confusion two quarterbacks might cause for the defense.

MB: Agree with Jacob. The idea is to have an offense with a solid base. If the Huskers have to rely on trickery consistently, that’s not a good sign. Once in a while, it works. All the time, not so much.

DP: If McCaffrey is technically a skill guy does it still count as a two-QB set? I don’t know if Nebraska actually uses him that way—Mario Verduzco doesn’t want to turn his backup quarterback into a wideout—but it certainly wouldn’t hurt.

How many QBs play vs. Ohio State on Oct 24th? How many QBs will play during the entire season? Will we get to see Logan Smothers play early in the season? (@Cty2CtyLyle)

JP: I’ll go with just one: Adrian Martinez plays the whole game. I don’t think Nebraska gets blown out badly enough to pull the starter. I’ll go with three quarterbacks see action this year, but I wouldn’t expect Smothers to see the field until later in the season.

ES: Pending any kind of injuries, I would also only take Martinez against Ohio State. I agree with Jacob’s timeline as well, and don’t expect to see Smothers for some time (again, pending any unexpected injuries to anyone).

What’s the projected FB recruiting class size for ‘21 now? Rumors of Dickerson maybe changing to stay in NE have any merit? (@Sal_Vasta3)

GS: I expect Nebraska to take a full class this cycle now. I can’t say one way or the other on Dickerson right now. I’ll just say that it wouldn’t be surprising if the Nebraska staff is trying to get him to reconsider.

With your best guess at the depth chart, how young is our team relative to others in the Big Ten? (@bethanyadw)

BV: On the youth question, it really depends upon how you want to look at it. Phil Steele uses two measures that try “provide a snapshot” for every team in terms of experience. The first is seniors in the two-deep. Steele counted 11 for the Huskers—and that’s close to where I’d have it—which ranked sixth in the Big Ten and 57th nationally, about middle-of-the-pack. The second measure is percent of letterwinners returning, and it’s there that you start to see the youth on Nebraska’s teams. The Huskers return 55.3% of last year’s letterwinners, according to Steele, and that rate ranks 127th nationally and last in the Big Ten. Together, I think that’s a pretty accurate picture of where Nebraska stands—it has many of its key contributors back from 2019, but it starts to get pretty green when you get to the second string and below. Northwestern benefits this year from having a “young” team last year and is probably the most-experienced team in the conference for 2020. Michigan might be the least-experienced team in the league this season.

DP: Offensive two-deep for Week 1: Adrian Martinez, Luke McCaffrey (QB); Dedrick Mills, Ronald Thompkins (RB); Travis Vokolek, Jack Stoll (TE); Wan’Dale Robinson, Alante Brown (WR); Omar Manning, Chris Hickman (WR); Kade Warner, Zavier Betts (WR); Brenden Jaimes, Brant Banks (LT); Trent Hixson OR Boe Wilson, Ethan Piper (LG); Cam Jurgens, Will Farniok (C); Matt Farniok, Boe Wilson OR Trent Hixson OR Ethan Piper (RG); Bryce Benhart, Christian Gaylor (RT). Defensive two-deep for Week 1: Ben Stille, Deontre Thomas OR Mosai Newsom (DL); Damion Daniels, Keem Green OR Ty Robinson (DL); Jordon Riley, Ty Robinson OR Casey Rogers (DL); Caleb Tannor, Garrett Nelson (OLB); Will Honas, Luke Reimer (ILB); Collin Miller, Nick Henrich (ILB); JoJo Domann, Niko Cooper (OLB); Dicaprio Bootle, Quinton Newsome (CB); Cam Taylor-Britt OR Nadab Joseph, Braxton Clark (CB); Deontai Williams, Myles Farmer (S); Marquel Dismuke, Noa Pola-Gates (S).

With eligibility being a non-issue this year, will more true freshman play? (@skersbyabillion)

JP: I don’t think so. Nebraska had a tough enough time getting a lot of their redshirt guys their allotted four games of action last year, and that was during a full 12-game season. Now the coaches only have a maximum of eight games to work with and they need to focus first and foremost on winning as many games as possible, and I doubt playing a bunch of true freshmen is the way to do that.

GS: No. Even in a wacky season, the goal is to win and show progress overall. So I can’t see them playing more true freshmen. I think they might be working on a formula to bring those guys along slowly so that it starts to feel like Nebraska is always an older team. For example, it seems like Wisconsin and Iowa are always rolling out third-year players to replace departing seniors.

What will the practice schedule look like? How many hours per week? When will the pads go on? (@GBRUnited)

MB: Erin’s story about Bill Moos’ appearance on Sports Nightly indicates the Huskers have begun the 20-hours-a-week routine and are likely to be able to be in full pads beginning Friday. And if not, soon after. The practice routine will be “normal” as that’s now defined in the pandemic.

Can you get any news on Marcus Fleming? I see practice is going on but his Instagram shows he’s been in Florida from what it looks like. Is he still with the team or is he considering something else? (@KyleHemphill36)

ES: Well, his Twitter account has been suspended and his Instagram is gone, unless he just moved accounts (and I’ll be honest that I haven’t gone looking for new accounts). The ones listed on his Nebraska roster are the ones I’m referring to. If you go entirely based on that, it appears something is up. However, it very well could just be as simple as changing handles or something to that sort. Until Nebraska says something more, I’m going to assume he’s still with the team and we’ll be told more if that changes.

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