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Mailbag: What Would a Season-Opening Win—or Loss—do to the Psyche of Nebraska Football?

April 20, 2022

This week’s mailbag is heavy on the football side of things.

We touch on what a potential win—or loss—to Northwestern in the season-opener would do to the team’s and fans’ psyche, as well as a couple interesting depth chart questions.

Enough talk. Let’s get to the mailbag. 

Fair or Foul: The Nebraska football team’s (and fans’) psyche is tied to winning the first game against Northwestern. Win and they’ll make a bowl. Lose and it’s another losing season. (@Sal_Vasta3) 

Brandon Vogel: Foul, but just outside the bag. The last four years have shown that Nebraska football can’t take anything for granted, and that would include a season-opening loss derailing the whole season. That said, as tough as an Ireland L would be on the collective psyche of all involved, the Huskers would still likely be favored or in tossup territory in six of their next seven games. I’m of the belief that we’ll know what Nebraska football 2023 looks like—at least who’s coaching it—by the end of October 2022. The Huskers have two months to gain a lot of ground this season. It’s a vital stretch in a make-or-break season. It definitely looks like a smoother road with a win over Northwestern to start, but a loss doesn’t have to make it impassable.  

Greg Smith: I’ll go fair. A loss to Northwestern to start the season would be devastating to a program that can’t seem to get momentum. The team needs confidence and a loss to open the season after all the change this offseason would hurt. The fan base would be ready to be out on the season. So many are already in “prove-it” mode coming into the 2022 season that a loss would be a bad log on the fire. It’s the exact opposite of what the feeling would be for Northwestern though. They’d feel like it was a bump in the road and the ship would get righted. 

Steve Marik: Fair. Sure, you can lose to Northwestern and still have North Dakota, Georgia Southern and a new-look Oklahoma left to right the ship before a bye week and picking up Big Ten play again with Indiana. But a loss to the Wildcats, who have their own problems to figure out, would create so much doubt in and around the program to the point where I’m not confident it would overcome, sort of like last year. Of course, things could be different than 2021 and they could absolutely overcome a week zero loss, but I’m in see-it-to-believe-it mode. 

Drake Keeler: Foul, I think. If you told me right now that Nebraska was guaranteed to win any single game next season, that wouldn’t convince me they did good enough in the rest of the games to make a bowl. Especially not the season opener. On the other side, while I don’t think they make a bowl game if they lose to Northwestern, the reason for that isn’t because it’d be too harsh of a mental toll.

Was Tom Osborne’s deal with the Devil for unprecedented success at Nebraska tied to Bob Devaney’s deal with the Devil for unprecedented success at Nebraska? Or… Was his deal with Beelzebub independent of The Bob Father’s deal? I’ll hang up and listen. (@BrettSBaker) 

Brandon: Legend has it that Devaney’s deal was signed at the stroke of midnight at the crossroads of Highways 61 and 26, near Ogallala. Devaney was on his way from Laramie to Lincoln and had stopped for gas. The original term of the contract was 16 years—the devil works in mysterious ways—but Devaney only coached 11 so Osborne inherited the final five years. Ever a pious man, Osborne had no intention of renewing when the contract expired at midnight on Dec. 31, 1977. But, losing your first five games to Oklahoma will test any man’s will. Osborne signed up for 20 more years, and, of course, beat the Sooners right away. Frank Solich was faced with the same choice at the start of 1998, but he didn’t have to play Oklahoma for the next two seasons and even if he had the Huskers had just beaten the Sooners 69-7 the previous fall. No deal, said Solich, and that was that. When you step back and look at it, most of this is Oklahoma’s fault—for being good, for being bad—as most things are.

I feel like inside linebacker is the least talked about position. Let’s talk about the depth chart there. (@lredeugene) 

Steve: You’re right, inside ‘backer hardly gets talked about. I guess that’s because everyone assumes Luke Reimer and Nick Henrich form a solid pair that aren’t in any danger of losing their starting spots, which is true. Reimer was one of the projected starters who missed spring but is expected to return for the fall.

Behind those two, though, it gets interesting. Eteva Mauga-Clements, who came to Nebraska in 2020 from Diablo Valley Community College in California, looked good in the spring game when the teams were live tackling. He’s undersized for a Big Ten middle ‘backer at 6-foot-1 and 220 pounds, but he’s quick and a violent hitter. I think he’s probably your second-team ‘backer in the middle, along with a combination of a bunch of guys, like Garrett Snodgrass (who missed spring with an injury), Mikai Gbayor, Randolph Kpai, Grant Tagge and true freshman Ernest Hausmann. Hausmann, I think, is going to be a good player for Nebraska in the coming seasons. What a great pickup that kid was.

There are things to like about the guys behind Reimer and Henrich. What you don’t like is the lack of experience outside of special teams.

Jacob Padilla: I’m not sure we can exclude Chris Kolarevic from that discussion either. I know they’ve had him working some at nickel, but was that a full-time position move or is he cross-training? He was the first inside ‘backer off the bench last year but struggled to earn a larger role based on the snaps he did get. It does seem like Mauga-Clements may be making a push to be more than just a special teams contributor, and Garrett Snodgrass was fourth on the team in ILB snaps last year with 27 (Mauga-Clements was fifth with 20). I believe Gbayor and Randolph both dealt with injuries and redshirted last year, and Seth Malcom also redshirted. I’ve liked what I’ve heard about Hausmann as well. Barrett Ruud certainly doesn’t lack for able bodies in his room right now. Those starting spots are locked in assuming health, but I think it’s wide open behind them. 

I feel like the talent in the defensive back room is the best on the team. Let’s talk how Travis Fisher will manage it and what top high school talent is looking to join. (@lredeugene) 

Greg: Fisher’s group certainly has the potential to be the best unit on the team but it’s not without question marks. Is Quinton Newsome ready to be the team’s best corner? I liked what I saw last season and think he’s on the right track. Tommi Hill seems to have had a great spring and seems poised to start opposite Newsome. The safety battle is fun with Marques Buford, DeShon Singleton, Myles Farmer, Noa Pola-Gates and others battling. Fisher is honest with his players so I think he’ll manage it fine. Two of the top targets from the high school ranks are Braeden Marshall and Kayin Lee. Both players were here for the spring game and are high on the Huskers. Don’t forget Dwight Bootle is in the class already too.

Jacob: Greg didn’t mention Braxton Clark, but I believe he actually started opposite of Newsome in the spring game and has been in the program for a long time now, so that’s another option in that secondary as well. Northern Iowa transfer Omar Brown wasn’t totally healthy this spring but he’s in that room as well and will look to make a move in the fall. There are definitely some unproven players back there, but Fisher has plenty of talent to work with. 

Who will emerge as the Huskers’ top back? Will that back rush for 1,000 yards? (@jewelzfive) 

Steve: This is just me, but I don’t think whoever emerges as the lead back will get to 1,000 rushing yards. Considering the questions along the offensive line and new offensive coordinator Mark Whipple’s tendency to throw the ball, plus what running backs coach Bryan Applewhite has said about how he’ll use the backs, I have a hard time believing one guy will get 1,000 this season. 

Who will emerge? I have three candidates in mind, plus a couple wildcards.

The three candidates are Rahmir Johnson, Jaquez Yant and junior-college transfer Anthony Grant. Johnson might be the fastest in the room and I think he provides the best receiving threat out of the backfield. It’s become clear Johnson is the leader of the room, too. All those traits help make up for his small stature for a Big Ten back at 5-foot-10, 185 pounds. Grant has a little bit of everything you’re looking for—the make-you-miss quicks, the good size at 5-11 and 210 pounds and the burst to outrun defensive backs, like he showed against corner Tommi Hill on this long touchdown run in the spring game and on his New Mexico Military Institute tape. If Yant continues to show maturity—he was in better shape this offseason, down to 232 pounds from his 245-plus from a year ago—and growth as a college football player, he’s my favorite to emerge, but he needs to show consistency. If everything comes together for Yant, there’s not many big backs his size with his movement skills. 

My wildcards are Gabe Ervin Jr. and Ajay Allen. You’ll remember that Ervin was the starter last year and did things that other true freshmen backs don’t usually do, like pass protect on third downs. That’s valuable stuff, and he was just starting to learn how to be a college running back when he went down with his season-ending injury at Oklahoma. If fully healthy, Ervin is a dark horse to emerge, but he didn’t practice this spring, and that’ll put him behind the eight ball. Allen, the Huskers’ three-star recruit from the 2022 class, flipped to Nebraska after being a TCU commit while Applewhite was in Fort Worth. Do I think Allen is going to show up in Lincoln this summer and win the job? No. But do I think he could give everyone else a great look and push some guys for time? Absolutely.  

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