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Mailbag: Which Position is Crucial for Nebraska’s Next Recruiting Cycle?

October 30, 2019

It’s Wednesday, and that means mailbag time. Let’s get right to it. 

Based on the varying success of so many different B1G West division teams lately, what can we use as a true barometer for the state Nebraska Football program? Northwestern last year, now last. Minnesota is 7-0. Indiana is on the uptick again. Comparing to UCF doesn't work IMO. (@Corn_Huskers) 

Brandon Vogel: I might be the wrong person to ask because I tend to view a season as 900 (or so) plays rather than 12 (or so) games. Down-to-down efficiency and consistency is huge and should be one of the replicable parts of this game. There are some good ways to measure this—points per play is basic but will get you in the ballpark, success rate is probably better—but they require a little work. If you want a direct team-to-team comparison, I think it’s Iowa. The Hawkeyes are sort of the perfect foil for what Nebraska is right now (in many, many ways), and if the Huskers’ can’t consistently beat Iowa they aren’t going to have much success in the Big Ten. That’s based on how good Iowa has been of late, but also how it approaches the game. 

Mike Babcock: I agree with Brandon regarding Iowa. The Hawkeyes do what they do, and they do it well, although it’s not flashy. Identify a system, recruit to that system and stay the course. Don’t try to be something you’re not. I heard this on Hail Varsity radio recently, Bill Doleman quoting Nick Saban: “Trust the process.” That’s where Nebraska is, regardless of comparison. One season and eight games aren’t sufficient for the process. 

Recently I asked how important this current stretch of very winnable games was. The consensus was very important and that 3-1 was important. 2-2 is now the best possible outcome. What now? What does the team and its coaches need to show over the last 4 weeks to show tangible progress? (@tklim2430) 

BV: See the above answer for more on this, but I’m probably not judging Nebraska’s progress or lack thereof on its record. Maybe that seems counterintuitive, but I just think there are less noisy ways to measure that. If you’re a playoff-caliber team, then record is kind of all that matters. Nebraska isn’t. So, what can the Huskers do over the next four games? I need to see two things. One, the defense needs to stop the slide that started with conference play. They’ve got a pass-heavy team (Purdue), an inefficient-but-explosive team (Maryland) and two grind-you-to-powder teams (Wisconsin, Iowa) left. Those are varying approaches, but the Blackshirts need to show they can do something well and consistently over the next four. Two, the offensive line has to show it’s improving and the primary way I’ll judge that is if Nebraska finds some success with base runs from here on out. It’s a big challenge with two of the best defenses in the country (Wisconsin, Iowa) still to play. 

Greg Smith: For me there needs to be legitimate improvement in reducing the self-inflicted wounds. So false starts, pre-snap penalties, bad angles for the offensive line, lining up properly on defense, right angles on tackles and tackling. I’m sure there are more but Nebraska needs to keep moving in the direction of being a fundamentally sound football team. The wins will follow that. 

MB: At halftime of the Indiana game, on the Husker radio network, Frost called Nebraska’s play “dumb-ass stupid.” He was referring to what Greg is talking about, things that can be controlled, being fundamentally sound—and everyone buying in. Not sure that’s happening. Don’t self-destruct and there should be two wins and bowl eligibility. If not . . .  

Has anything that’s happened this season caused you to lose confidence that Frost and the coaching staff will rebuild the program, and what is the most glaring issue that needs to be fixed by next season? (@JBDavis2) 

BV: I still think the long-term future for Nebraska under Frost is pretty bright, but it would be logical malpractice if that confidence wasn’t challenged at least a little bit by the lack of progress so far in 2019. The Huskers didn’t need to take a huge jump this year to prove everything was on track, but being basically flat to last year is a minor detour. The thing that has to work for this whole blueprint to work, I think, is the run game. And for the run game to work, Nebraska needs an offensive line that operates at a higher level than what it’s currently getting. If the Huskers’ line can’t compete with team like Iowa and Wisconsin—with very similar players—Nebraska is going to struggle to run the ball in the Big Ten, and if that happens it’s going to struggle overall. 

GS: I’d be lying if I said the confidence hasn’t been shaken a little but ultimately, I think it does work with Frost. He’s the right guy but like I explained in my answer above fundamentals need to improve big time. 

MB: Again, trust the process. I haven’t lost confidence. I just find justifying it to others more difficult given what’s happened. 

I know he didn't play the last few weeks, but if Martinez's decision-making with the ball doesn't improve drastically, do you envision the possibility of a quarterback battle this offseason? (@InDaWilderness) 

Jacob Padilla: There was a quarterback battle this past season. Martinez won it. The coaches split up practice reps until they move into game plan mode at the end of fall camp and start shifting practice reps accordingly. As impressive as Luke McCaffrey was, he didn’t have to make all that many decisions as a passer, and we’ve seen that Noah Vedral is just as capable of making a bad decision as Martinez. There’s no doubt that Martinez needs to improve, but Scott Frost has also gone on the record that he’d take Martinez over any quarterback in the country. I’m assuming that includes the other cubes in his own program, and I’m also assuming there’s a legitimate reason for that (which we certainly saw ourselves last year). 

MB: I would expect competition regardless. It’s how folks, including Martinez, get better. I’d be disappointed if there weren’t competition. 

GS: I don’t think people should want there to be competition next year. That means Martinez isn’t as good as Frost and a lot of others thought. I think he rights the ship over the last handful of games and reminds people why there was such excitement for him, ensuring no competition in the offseason. 

What position group has most surprised you (negatively) this year, and which position group has become more important in this recruiting class then you expected would be? (@InDaWilderness) 

JP: Unfortunately, this is a difficult question to answer because it’s hard to settle on one position. There are more positions that have disappointed than not and they’re all negatively impacting each other. The outside linebackers struggling isn’t a surprise, and while I expected more out of the offensive line, they did replace two starters with a redshirt sophomore walk-on and a redshirt freshman converted tight end. I’ll cheat a bit and just go with the pass catchers as an entire unit (Wan’Dale Robinson excepted). The offensive line and quarterback struggles have certainly played a part in the lack of production from the receivers, but they need to be better too. Even when Mike Williams and Kanawai Noa made some plays against Indiana, they turned around and gave it right back (the illegal procedure by Williams and the fumble by Noa). The tight ends have been inconsistent as receivers and blocks, and none of the young receivers have showed the coaches enough to even get on the field. A big receiver that can play outside the numbers is right towards the top of needs in this recruiting class in my mind, and perhaps Bellevue West’s Zavier Betts can be that guy. 

BV: I’m with Jacob. When you take current struggles and add the recruiting-needs piece to it, wide receiver is the big one. Linebacker isn’t far behind. 

Derek Peterson: Linebacker, for me, is crucial. The offensive line has been the most disappointing, and that’s where the bulk of the offensive issues start, but with Bryce Benhart, Ethan Piper, Cameron Jurgens and Turner Corcoran in the pipeline, Nebraska should be in good shape moving forward as long as those guys are who we think they are. The biggest issues facing the defense right now live at linebacker. Nebraska needs one of its current outside ‘backers to grow into an All-American or it needs to find that guy on the trail. At inside ‘backer, Nebraska needs more athleticism.  

GS: Linebacker and wide receiver are crucial to this recruiting class because they are the two position groups that have disappointed the most overall for me. Nebraska has to land 4-6 linebackers overall and they desperately need a couple of bigger wide receivers to open up the offense. Preferably one JUCO and one high schooler in addition to Zavier Betts.  

Is it a fair assumption that a large number of redshirt freshmen will be playing larger roles or even starting next year? If so, who do you see as having the biggest impact? (@blakemcgee99) 

JP: My only hesitation is that most of us expected we’d see more underclassmen this year than we have thus far, and there are very few seniors starting right now as it is. Those players that are redshirting this season are going to have to make some pretty big strides to pass the upperclassmen on the depth chart. 

BV: Let’s say Nebraska finishes out 2-2 and makes a bowl game. Still not the season many had hoped, but two more wins plus a postseason are probably enough to at least tamp down some of the current tension. But when you fast forward to 2020, I think Nebraska will have to lean on some key redshirt freshmen (or even sophomores) if it’s to be better than .500. The Huskers should return all five offensive linemen next season, but I think that’s basically an open competition for almost all spots after the year and you could see some young o-linemen make a move. The secondary is the other group that could see some movement. I really liked Nebraska’s 2019 class of defensive backs, but we haven’t seen many of them yet. 

GS: I think it’s safe to say you will see more of them next season. There is small group of redshirt sophomores in 2020 that haven’t already played too. Guys like Casey Rogers, Braxton Clark and Tate Wildeman could have a role next season. The problem is they might have to rely on more redshirt freshman to play roles because of the lack of redshirt sophomores already. Of the redshirt freshmen, give me Darien Chase as making a big impact next season. 

Is the defensive scheme dependent upon top skill players to be effective? With so much talk this week about getting NFL top 10 talent (Chase Young), I’m curious if the defensive staff can scheme differently (or adjust during the game), or if they just have to have that elite talent? (@Sal_Vasta3) 

BV: If this defense (or offense for that matter) isn’t structured to succeed with a talent level you can reliably get at Nebraska, that’s a big problem. Nebraska can get some big-time players, but it’s never going to accumulate that talent as reliably as an Ohio State. But more than trying to scheme around that challenge, Nebraska needs a better focus on fundamentals. Does Indiana have an elite defense full of elite playmakers? No, but right now they’re where they need to be, tackle well and are sound overall and it’s working for them. 

Here’s a quote, from a story written by Bruce Feldman earlier this year, that I’ve been thinking about a lot this week: “It’s just, do you want to prioritize spending all your time on scheme or do you want to give yourself a lot of priority on fundamentals and technique? Because ultimately, this game is going to be won on fundamentals and techniques. That’s more important than any scheme you could ever draw up.” 

That’s from Jeff Hafley, the guy who coaches Chase Young (and a lot of other NFL-caliber players) as the new defensive coordinator at Ohio State. I’m sure Nebraska is teaching those fundamentals, but something is obviously being lost in translation to the field at this point. 

Can you please talk about the disaster that was the recruiting classes of 2017 and 2018; and how badly that’s put this team behind? (@Sal_Vasta3) 

DP: The depth issues right now are a direct result of those two classes. They produced 44 commits, 13 of which have since transferred or, in the case of Miles Jones, are looking to transfer. Four guys never made it to campus. Fourteen others aren’t contributing to the team. Some of those cases—Tate Wildeman, Casey Rogers—are understandable given the upperclassmen in front of them, but for guys like Jaevon McQuitty and Jaylin Bradley, Nebraska has too many empty scholarships right now. 

GS: I did talk about this recently in the recruiting notebook on Monday.  

Will NU score a TD on kickoff or punt return the remainder of this season? (@Sal_Vasta3) 

JP: I’d guess no simply because return touchdowns are incredibly rare even for teams with good special teams, and Nebraska clearly doesn’t have that right now. 

How excited are we for Nebrasketball to start? Can the Huskers shock the league this season and not finish near the bottom (as projected)? (@Sal_Vasta3) 

JP: I think outperforming expectations is well within the realm of possibility. I haven’t seen a single breakdown of the team from a national outlet that actually mentions who is on the team as opposed to who isn’t. I don’t think many outsiders have actually looked all that close at this team. If the trio of Cam Mack, Jervay Green and Dachon Burke can play at a high level consistently and they can get enough rebounding and defense out of the frontcourt, this team could be pretty decent. Here’s what Hoiberg had to say on Monday: 

“We’re going to get great tests early in the season against some high-quality opponents and that will show a lot as far as if we’re going to be able to be competitive in the league. Obviously we’re not picked very high — we’re picked second to last in our league — and I understand it. We have two points and one rebound back from last year’s team. But I like our guys. I like the way they go out there and compete, I like their mentality, I like the way they’ve stuck together. If you go out there and gain some confidence, hopefully that gives you momentum heading into league play.” 

MB: I’ll defer to Jacob on basketball, so this is probably an unfounded opinion, but no. However, being picked 13th leaves plenty of room to exceed expectations.  

DP: There are going to be a lot of growing pains. It’s okay to be excited, these are exciting times, but I would advise going into this season with as few expectations as possible. Nebraska’s going to be a fun team to watch, but I have no clue how that translates to winning yet.

How do the freshman OL/DL who are redshirting look physically? Do they show the signs of looking the part in a few years? (@Cody_TipToes) 

DP: Yes, he says incredibly hesitantly. Because we haven’t seen Benhart in extended action, or someone like Ty Robinson yet, who’s to say? So my picture is composed of watching guys walk off the field after practice and seeing a handful of 30-minute spring and fall practice periods. They look the part, to me, of guys who can grow into key players. Nebraska certainly needs them to be.  

JP: Bryce Benhart is massive human being. 

MB: Saw Benhart walk past after practice today, did a double-take. 

Erin Sorensen: I’m going to tell you a quick story. When I went to the Peach Bowl in 2017 for UCF-Auburn, I was standing near the entrance to the field during a scheduled practice when the Auburn team walked by. The offensive and defensive linemen were so massive that I think my jaw hit the ground. “Yeah, that’s what Power 5 linemen look like,” I was told in the moment. Benhart looks like those guys. 

What would our defense look like if we had a difference maker like Wan’Dale? (@craig_denoyer) 

MB: Well, a difference-maker, such as Ndamukong Suh, would certainly make those around him look better. But I think the Huskers need more than a difference-maker on defense. They have no first-team All-Big Ten players, none.  

GS: Things would look different if Nebraska had a guy like true freshman Christian Harris at Alabama. He starts at inside linebacker and is third on the team in total tackles with 40. Or if the Huskers had a dominant edge rusher like Chase Young that teams had to gameplan for.   

ES: It would certainly help but, like Mike said, the Huskers need more than just one player to be that guy on defense. Although, I will say that Suh did tend to elevate the play of all those around him. So, in some ways, one guy is obviously better than none. Especially if that guy is someone like Ndamukong Suh. 

An interesting quote by Coach Fisher saying he would be up to letting one of his CBs shadow a receiver for a game. What is meant by this? (@Go_Big_Red) 

JP: Typically, Nebraska has its corners line up on certain sides of the field and match up with whichever receiver is in their area as opposed to having a certain guy responsible for one receiver the whole game, thus lining up wherever that receiver goes whether it’s out wide, in the slot or wherever else. Fisher said that can be difficult to do if the other team is trying to play with tempo because you first have to find where that receiver is lined up before you can get all your defensive backs in place. But sometimes, perhaps a bigger corner like Lamar Jackson would match up better with a tall receiver who is giving Nebraska problems, or if Dicaprio Bootle is playing lights out it might be wise to try to have him mirror a guy like Whop Philyor for Indiana last week.  

Why does it appear that players need to “buy in” for snap count, proper formations, effort? Shouldn’t that be the absolute bottom baseline for playing time? After 20 games, why not replace the individual with someone else who plays with heart and passion? (@jryoung234) 

JP: That is an excellent question and one we’ve been wondering about in the HV office. You can only talk about accountability so much publicly before it starts to ring hollow if nothing actually changes. I don’t think it’s necessarily fair to say the guys playing now aren’t playing with heart and passion. That is something that is much harder to judge from an outsider’s perspective than most fans tend to believe. None of these guys want to lose, and if they weren’t trying they wouldn’t be playing. But sometimes perhaps they just struggle to channel that effort in the right way or realize just how much effort they are capable of and that it takes to win at a high level. Also, it takes more than just heart and passion to get results – see Garrett Nelson on Peyton Ramsey’s third-down run that sealed the game against Indiana. 

If NCAA Football makes a return, who are the highest-rated players on Nebraska and what are their ratings? (@LogieBera) 

DP: I’ll give you five names: Wan’Dale Robinson gets an 89, JD Spielman and Dicaprio Bootle each get 86s, Adrian Martinez and Darrion Daniels each get 85s 

Chance of NCAA video game coming back and what do you think about players getting paid (@Peyton51533) 

DP: There’s a strong chance the NCAA football video game is coming back. I would venture to say EA Sports has had some skeleton version of a game ready for years for a day just like this, so it might not actually be long before we get a game if the NCAA does in fact follow through with NIL changes. As for players getting paid, I have no problems with student-athletes being able to profit off their name, image and likeness in the same way any other college student is allowed to. 

MB: I’m all for student-athletes being able to profit from their names, images and likenesses. I’m also for someone in the NCAA smart enough to monitor that so we don’t have schools bidding on the best players thanks to well-heeled boosters who might want particular student-athletes on billboards selling their products or services. We might see some surprise programs rise to national prominence in this context. 

How does the new NCAA bill to allow students to profit off their likenesses affect recruiting? (@TurboHall01) 
AND 
With the NCAA ruling permitting athletes to be compensated for their names, images and likenesses, how will this affect recruiting? Team dynamics? Can NU use this as a selling point since Nebraska is the only team in this state—lots of ads, signatures, etc. for them? (@Sal_Vasta3) 

MB: That’s what I meant in the above answer. Does this turn into an endorsement war in recruiting? “Hey, come here, Valentino’s needs your likeness on its billboards (and is willing to pay accordingly).” And, of course, this will likely benefit skill-position players in football more so than those at other positions. 

GS: I actually think the worry about how this affects recruiting is overblown. So Alabama, Clemson, Texas, Oklahoma and USC are going to get the best players? Guess what, they already do. Team dynamics are already tricky because guys know who te best players are and if they already get special treatment. Adding this layer won’t change much in my mind. Nebraska could benefit from this but you still have to land the players and we need to see what the actual rules are. 

How do you see Frost and company getting use out of McCaffery for his last two games? Particularly with Martinez coming back, it’s going to be tough to find any playing time for McCaffery unless there are packages for him…something Frost seems unlikely to do. (@HuskerInSota) 

DP: McCaffrey had packages in place for the last game before the Huskers knew they would need to use him, so I would bet Frost has a few packages for him for two more games.  

JP: That being said, I’m not convinced had Vedral stayed healthy that McCaffrey actually would have played regardless of what Frost said afterward. I’m sure they’ve had a plan for him the last few weeks, but with Nebraska playing the way it has been I don’t really see how you can afford to take your starting quarterback out of a game the Huskers have a chance to win. We’ve seen that a lot this season: the coaches had plans going into games to get certain guys involved but the flow of the game just didn’t lend itself to that happening. I really have no idea what to expect from McCaffrey the rest of the season, and he has to get healthy before it even becomes a discussion. He hasn’t practiced this week. 

MB: Agree with Jacob. Last week Frost and Held said Rahmir Johnson would play, that things were in place for him, packages. Held talked a good deal about Johnson’s playing. He didn’t. 

Hypothetical: McCaffrey plays his two additional games in the next two games and the Huskers’ bowl eligibility comes down to needing to win the final game. It’s close in the second half and QB1 and 2 are unable to go. Does the staff play McCaffrey at that point? (@md_schmidt) 

JP: In the event that your unlikely situation were to come to pass, I’m guessing that McCaffrey would want to play and that the coaches would allow him to. It’s sending a terrible message to the players if the coaches prioritize maintaining that year of eligibility for McCaffrey over the success of the team. If he does end up burning that redshirt and both Martinez and Vedral return, there’s no reason why the coaches couldn’t limit McCaffrey to four games next year and still get that year of eligibility back. 

MB: I’d say, as Jacob, in that scenario, McCaffrey would want to play and would play. I wonder if McCaffrey will play in two more games before Iowa. 

Do you think Frost should be more of just an offensive coordinator? The defense needs more attention. On offense Frost is not showing trust in his players, letting Wan’Dale carry the ball 22 times and still have X amount of targets as a receiver. He has skill players that he’s not using at all. So, my question really is do you see Frost as just an assistant rather than a head coach? (@2000_Billion) 

DP: No. 

JP: Robinson is getting that workload because he’s the only one consistently producing. I have a hard time believing that Nebraska has a bunch of game-changers sitting on the bench that he’s holding back. Nebraska has also played more stretches of good defense than it has good offense this season (disregarding recency bias), so the offense still needs plenty of attention. Frost is going to be a fine head coach at Nebraska. He’s just going through some growing pains of walking into a difficult situation that has been tougher to fix than his last stop. 

How do the Huskers fix the mental errors? False starts, stupid roughing penalties. I would love to see more discipline and more attention to detail like every Husker fan. (@SenfterScott) 

MB: Details and fundamentals were an emphasis this week. Why they had to be emphasized eight games into the season I don’t know. But according to the players and coaches they were.  

JP: The only way to fix that stuff is more reps. They’re talking the talk about focusing on fundamentals the last few weeks of practice, but it’s not really showing up in the games for whatever reason. We might be getting close to the point where the coaches might have to just start sitting guys down and living with the results of it doesn’t change soon, particularly with seniors. 

How does the HV staff celebrate Halloween? Any favorite costumes you’ve ever worn? What’s the best Halloween candy to get when trick or treating? (@Sal_Vasta3) 

JP: I don’t really celebrate it anymore. I had a pretty decent werewolf costume back in middle school, but I’ve never really put a ton of thought or effort into costumes. My favorite candy would probably be Twix or Skittles.  

MB: I’m too old to remember any of that. 

ES: I celebrate now by putting costumes on my dogs that they hate and handing out candy to kids in the neighborhood. My neighbor is making chili this year (no word on the inclusion of cinnamon rolls yet) and we may spend some time with them. My personal favorite candy is Twix, I think, but I could be persuaded into a lot of candy options. One of my favorite costumes though (outside of the many my mom made for me as a kid) would be my Rainbow Fish costume in college. I had these silver stars (to mimic the scales of Rainbow Fish) that I stuck on people randomly at the bar. It was confusing for many but entertaining for me. 

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