Hail Varsity Mailbag
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Mailbag: Which Husker Improved the Most in 2020?

December 23, 2020

It’s Wednesday, and that means it’s time for another mailbag. The full Hail Varsity staff is back, so let’s get to it.

Which players improved the most from last year? (@Starktastic8) 

Jacob Padilla: Austin Allen is an easy answer here. He had nine catches for 137 yards his first two seasons, and this year he was Nebraska’s second-leading receiver with 18 catches for 236 yards and a touchdown. I think lot of people were penciling in Travis Vokolek ahead of Allen on the depth chart, but when Jack Stoll went down with his injury in the first game it was Allen who stepped up and become one of Nebraska’s go-to targets in the passing game. I think Casey Rogers is another player who made a big leap. He barely played last season, and this year he was probably Nebraska’s second- or third-best defensive lineman.  

Erin Sorensen: I was going to go with Rogers but since Jacob mentioned him, I’ll take Damion Daniels. As the starting nose guard, he ended the 2020 season with a career-high in tackles at 20 and tackles for loss at 4. He also just seemed to build in confidence each week.  

Derek Peterson: Cam Taylor-Britt is a name worth mentioning. Guys who were already good tend to be afterthoughts in these kinds of discussions, but the jump Taylor-Britt made once he settled at corner was a rather significant one. I think he’s legitimately one of the best corners in the league. In terms of biggest gains made, Jacob’s right about Austin Allen. He’s become a really, really good player. (And I was one of the people Jacob’s targeting when talking about Travis Vokolek.) Casey Rogers is also a really good pick. Can I say Adrian Martinez without having my head ripped off? Not improvement in an on-field sense, and I know that’s the frustrating part, but if I could just point out the growth he made as a man this year, I’d like to. This team stayed together, and I think he’s a big reason behind why. No moral victories, I know. He needs to play better on the field, I know. But I like rooting for people, and I think Adrian’s growth as a captain and a teammate this year was cool to see.   

Do you think NU needs to investigate the transfer market and if so, what positions? (@3rdLargestCity) 

Greg Smith: Yes absolutely. In fact, I wrote a piece on this earlier this weekSafety and running back are my personal top two positions. 

DP: Yes, they need to at least investigate. There are too many players in the portal for Nebraska to justify resting on its laurels. Ignoring the portal, I think, would be pretty inexcusable. That being said, I don’t necessarily have any issues with Frost’s “if the guy is right” approach. I like Nebraska’s running back options currently, a little more than Greg it seems, so I don’t feel great about bringing in a guy who will take snaps away from Marvin Scott III or Sevion Morrison. I also think the pass-catcher rotation needs to heavily feature Wan’Dale Robinson, Zavier Betts, Oliver Martin, and Thomas Fidone, next season, so unless there’s a guaranteed 1,000-yard guy coming in, I might not go there either. A playmaker in the secondary or at linebacker would probably be the route to try and go considering what Nebraska will lose on the defensive side of the ball. 

What senior(s) would have the biggest impact if they came back? We have a lot of good young guys ready for reps at a lot of positions, but seems like there are a couple that could really use the vet back for another year. (@InDaWilderness) 

JP: We’ll take Brenden Jaimes out of the discussion here since he’s definitely headed for the 2021 NFL Draft. If Scott Frost got to pick any of his seniors to return, I think JoJo Domann might be his first pick. Other candidates would be Ben Stille, Dicaprio Bootle, Will Honas and Deontai Williams.  

ES: I want to say Dedrick Mills, but Nebraska hasn’t utilized him enough to date to know if that would change in 2021. I would agree with Jacob on Domann though. 

GS: After Domann, I would go with Mills. The sneaky one that we all think is returning is Connor Culp. He had a big impact this season.  

Mike Babcock: Wouldn’t mind seeing Matt Farniok come back. A co-captain, and solid base around which to build a young offensive line. 

DP: Bootle and Honas.  

How much of the extra usage of the TE game is scheme, the TE room just getting better, or the questions at WR? I’m sure it is a bit of all three, but what probably had the biggest impact? (@InDaWilderness) 

MB: Scheme and questions at wide receiver are inseparable, I think. That there is a coach just for tight ends underscores the importance of tight ends to Frost’s offense. And they’re getting more opportunity as they develop. So I’ve really included all three, with scheme first, I guess.  

Is there any hope that we won’t be as penalty prone in the future? (@InDaWilderness) 

BV: There’s always hope, though (or perhaps because) penalties can be a noisy stat year-to-year. I also have never really found a strong correlation between penalties and losing games (or winning them). On the one hand, Coastal Carolina was the least-penalized team this season per game. On the other, Cincinnati was one of the most. The problem is that penalties are broken windows—everyone notices them. Fewer would always be better, but I would expect Nebraska to fluctuate year to year just like most teams do.  

GS: I wouldn’t have a lot of hope but maybe a bit? Frost’s teams are generally heavily penalized and like Brandon I don’t think that means a team is doomed to lose games. It would help if the Huskers produced more explosive plays to balance the penalties.  

MB: Penalties from being aggressive, not as problematic as penalties from being fundamentally sound. That might be over-analyzing, but even if the number is high but not a lot of false starts, for example, penalties can be excused to some degree. Nebraska needs to cut down on the fundamental mistakes, false starts, offsides and blatant holding. 

What are the chances Held goes after TJ Pledger, and then locks him up? If so, who do we lose to the portal in the RB room? (@tchristensen43) 

GS: I’d give it a 95% chance that they will go after him. That doesn’t guarantee that Pledger will pick Nebraska though. I would think no running back will transfer out until going through spring ball. There are carries to be had in this offense that should never feature just one player.  

Which Nebraska basketball team will win more games in the Big Ten: the men’s or the women’s team? (@dmhusker1) 

JP: Oh man, that’s tough. The Big Ten is absolutely loaded on the men’s side, but it’s really strong on the women’s side as well. There are currently six Big Ten teams in the women’s top 25, which is only one less than on the men’s side. Amy Williams’ roster has been decimated by injuries, and while she should get a few of those players back at some point, this might just be a rebuilding year with all the departures from last year’s team and the recruiting class Williams has coming in next year. Hoiberg’s bunch didn’t get the win against Wisconsin, but the Huskers did show they can hang with the league’s best — if they can get some things figured out on offense. I’ll take the men’s team. 

MB: I’m with Jacob, though it could be a close race. 

DP: I think Issie Bourne is going to be an absolute star, but she’s forced to play out of position right now. I think Ashley Scoggin is going to be a wonderful Big Ten point guard, but she’s trying to adjust to the conference after coming from the JUCO level. I think Sam Haiby can be the best player on a really good team, but there’s too much defensive attention that can be placed on her right now. Amy Williams might have been able to have a surprisingly stiff group in an expected-rebuild situation this season, but the injuries she’s been dealt early are crippling. The Big Ten is really good, and Nebraska’s depth is in shambles. Once shots start falling for the men, I think they’ll be fine. So I’ll take them.  

So, Bo Pelini is losing his job. Do you really think LSU’s issues on defense were because of him or because of the huge amount of players the team lost from last year? (@TwinTwisterDad) 

BV: It was some of both, I think. LSU was always headed for a slight downturn defensively in 2020 due to the number of players it lost. Then you add unexpected departures due to opt-outs and severely diminished prep time for getting those mostly new (or at least young) players used to their new defensive coordinator, and conditions were not good for a great year on defense. All that considered, LSU was really poor defensively, poorer, I think, than you can just chalk up to everything above. The Tigers gave up 7.3 yards per play in 2020. Over the past five seasons, here are the only other Power 5 teams to have given up as many or more in conference play: Vanderbilt, Oregon State, Illinois, Washington State, Texas Tech, Syracuse and Arkansas. Not the kind of defensive company you want to keep. I think the way LSU lost to Mississippi State was as bad a start as the Tigers could’ve had. That’s an offensive system Pelini had faced multiple times before, and LSU’s approach that day just felt stubborn. If things had improved from there, you can maybe chalk it up to a bad day or first-game problems. But things didn’t improve and now Pelini is part of wide-ranging staff changes in Baton Rouge. 

MB: Regardless, Bo deserved more than one season, not only for players to adapt to him but for Bo to adapt to the SEC and what Orgeron wanted. In Orgeron’s first full season as LSU head coach—he took over during the previous season—the Tigers lost to Mississippi State and Troy early before finishing strong. And that was without the challenges of a pandemic. Orgeron was too quick to get rid of Bo, either that or he didn’t do sufficient homework in the hire. 

Do you think it is time to hire a special teams coach? Nebraska has been terrible at most aspects of specials teams and lose yardage with each change of possession. (@dmhusker1) 

JP: In order to hire a full-time special teams coordinator Frost would have to eliminate another position on staff to make room. What position would that be? Would you get rid of the quarterbacks coach position? Considering the state of that position at Nebraska right now, I’m not sure that would be a wise move. Nebraska’s offensive coordinator already doubles as its wide receivers coach. In a 3-4 I think you need separate coaches for the inside and outside linebackers, so I wouldn’t change that. Do you want Erik Chinander to double up his duties and take a position in addition to his coordinator duties like Matt Lubick? That would stretch him pretty thin. We don’t get to see what they do in practice so it would be impossible for us to diagnose where the problems are or if having an analyst instead of a full-time coach is responsible for them. All I know is that they need to improve. Whether that is a result of hiring someone new or changing the way they do things with the current staff, something has to change. 

GS: Jonathan Rutledge is an analyst in title but he’s essentially the full-time special teams coach. Since they have someone who has had success coaching the position it makes me wonder if the change doesn’t need to be putting more emphasis on special teams in practice. That unit is about details and developing good habits which is something Nebraska has struggled with the last three seasons.  

MB: You can say special teams are one-third of the game, but saying that and committing to it are different. I have no way of knowing, but it seems to me there’s more saying than doing. The Huskers have a qualified “analyst.” And all of the assistants contribute. That should be sufficient to get the job done. 

DP: We’ll see what he does in his second year. I personally thought going with a coach who could offer on-field instruction during practice was the way to go, but my personal thoughts don’t much matter and I’m usually wrong. Rutledge’s groups have always made a significant improvement in terms of efficiency in his second year in charge, so if that trend holds, Nebraska will be better for it. If Nebraska’s special teams units are once again a minus on the team, then I think we discuss the analyst-versus-assistant conversation. 

Is there anybody specifically in this senior class that you expect to take advantage of the free year? I think Dedrick Mills specifically could use another year where Scott and Co. actually use him more and gives him a chance at the next level. (@MrKyleByers) 

JP: We already know that Connor Culp is planning to come back, so there’s one. Beyond him, though, I don’t feel confident in any of these guys choosing to return. As for Mills, are we sure that would actually happen if he came back? Dedrick Mills has had a few really good games at Nebraska, but he’s been under 4.0 yards per carry in 12 of his 18 games as a Husker, and he’s gotten 12 or fewer carries in 12 of them as well. The Nebraska-Mills pairing just hasn’t really worked out. 

MB: As Jacob said, Culp is for sure coming back. He wasn’t included on the Senior Day list because he had already decided. (Three juniors who didn’t play were included among the 20.) The value of a Mills return might depend on getting a running back in the transfer portal. Though lots of positives were said about the freshman running backs, we never really saw much from any of them. That could be attributed to their being less than healthy, of course, or lack of consistent opportunity. But so many? If injury is the reason, that’s a concern, why so injury-prone? 

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