Hail Varsity Mailbag
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Mailbag: Will Nebraska’s 2021 Offense Be Better Than the 2020 Offense?

May 06, 2021

It’s time for another mailbag, so let’s dive in.

The lines look better, the wide receivers and Adrian Martinez all look better, we have RBs the likes we haven’t had for quite some time (Ervin, Yant)… Is this the year Frost and Co. finally break through? (@thawildbunch) 

Greg Smith: The pieces are there on offense. The problem is no position group on the offense is at the point that you feel you know exactly what to expect. That includes Scott Frost and his play calling. It’s a high potential group but also could struggle to reach that potential.  

Mike Babcock: Depends on how you define “break through.” The schedule is tough, for one thing, and in some areas, we’re talking about potential, not proven players. So, if breaking through is 6-6 or maybe 7-5, yes, this could be such a season. 

Derek Peterson: I think so, and I’ll push back a little on Greg’s comment about play-calling and not knowing what to expect from anything on offense. I liked Frost’s play-calling at times last season. I think he was limited rather, which is a bit different from saying he was limiting the offense. I also think we can expect a good offensive line. How good? Not sure yet until we see Turner Corcoran live a bit more, but I think Cam Jurgens could be one of the better centers in the league this year. It’s all contingent on the vertical passing game, I think. Can Adrian Martinez hit those throws when they’re presented to him? Can his receivers make the plays when they’re there to be made? Can the Omar Mannings and Samori Toures of the offense come up with those one or two plays each game that require a star player making something out of nothing when everything’s on the line? If the answer is yes, I think the answer to your question is yes. If it’s not, we’ll see how far the defense can carry this team. 

Do you think the offense will be worse or better than it was last year? (@ChicagoStation) 

Erin Sorensen: That’s a good question, and one that I think is a little difficult to answer without seeing/knowing more. The offensive line should be a strong point, but I said that going into 2020 and things were shaky there. The skill positions have a lot of talent but we don’t know what that talent will look like on game day. Quarterback is Adrian Martinez’s job (no competition!) but there are still questions about his play (which Jacob mapped out in Padding the Stats. To make a long story short, the offense *should be* better than it was in 2020. Will it be? I believe so based on what I have seen so far, but we’ll see. 

MB: If the offensive line meets expectations, the offense shouldn’t be worse. And it seems as if there’s young talent at running back and wide receiver, with a couple of older but new guys. But folks have to step up. And as Frost regularly points out, Martinez needs to cut down on the two or three bad plays/decisions he makes in games. 

DP: Last year’s offense averaged 23 points a game. This one will be better simply on account of the fact it doesn’t need to be good to be better. That’s my snarky answer. In all seriousness, I’ll refer you to what I wrote one question up. 

Jacob Padilla: Like Derek said, it would be hard to be worse than last year’s offense. The Huskers were 12th in the Big Ten in scoring average ahead of only Illinois and Michigan State. I like the offensive balance in terms of the talent at various positions. A lot of it is young or new, but hopefully some of those young guys gained the experience last year that they need to be counted on this year. I think a lot of it will come down to what kind of quarterback play they get from Adrian Martinez, because at least on paper, he should have enough good options to throw to this year, and I think that line should improve as the season goes on if nothing else. The easiest way to score more points (besides starting with better field position) is to punch the dang ball into the end zone instead of settling for field goals. Nebraska was 11th in the Big Ten in red zone touchdown percentage, and a lot of that is on quarterback play and play-calling. 

After watching the spring game, what is the ceiling/floor for this team? (@tschmidt723) 

GS: The ceiling for me is 9 wins. That would require everything clicking. The floor is 3 wins. That would require a rough start including a Week 1 loss.  

MB: Tough to project anything from the spring game. I’ll say 7 ceiling, 4 floor. 

JP: I’ll put the ceiling at eight and the floor at four, which would probably mean ending the season on a seven-game losing streak. Yikes. 

Why was Moos so emphatic about getting to 8-9 wins? Was it to put pressure on Frost (I can’t believe he’s on the hot seat)? Or because he really believes this is the best team Frost has since he’s been here? Or some of both? (@thawildbunch) 

GS: I think it’s some of both. On the day Frost was hired if you told people that eight wins would feel ambitious in Year 4 you would have been laughed out of the room. The expectations need to be that significant progress is made this season.  

ES: I think it was more pressure than anything else, because I found it interesting that Moos went from being more vague in how he approached this question to a very clear-cut expectation. Need an example of this? Just check out Derek’s interview with him from earlier this year when he talked about what needs to be done that will ultimately lead to those wins. He never put a number on it though. However, he also said in that interview that Nebraska had more talent so that lends itself to your point about what he’s seeing from the roster Frost has. In Year 4, Moos has every right to have high expectations but I am also a bit surprised he put a number on it and that he did so in spring. I know we all hate the difficult schedule talk, but Nebraska’s schedule is tough. If Nebraska gets 8-9 wins this season, that will be the ultimate breakthrough of sorts. That means you’ve likely beaten an Ohio State, or an Oklahoma, or a Wisconsin. And not just that, but multiple teams that have historically evaded the Huskers. Nebraska does that and the sky is officially the limit for this team. I’m not saying it’s not possible but it won’t be an easy task to accomplish. Whatever motivated Moos to put a number on it is now neither here nor there. He did, and we’ll find out how close the team can get to meeting that expectation. 

DP: I think it’s a little of both, and I’d agree with you in saying Frost isn’t on the hot seat. Pressure comes in different forms, right? There’s the pressure of a boss saying “Do better or you’ll be fired.” I don’t think that’s the pressure Moos is necessarily applying. This job naturally comes with pressure, and it’s a little more so on Scott Frost because he’s coaching at his alma mater. For his first three-ish years in Lincoln, Frost has almost had carte blanche to do what he felt was necessary on the timeline he felt was appropriate, and Moos has been the supportive parent letting him find his way rather than the typical kind of dynamic you see in this results-oriented business. When Moos says eight or nine wins and being in competition for the Big Ten West is a “realistic expectation”—I think it’s important to note he didn’t straight say “We are going to/need to win eight games”—I read that more as Moos stepping in and saying, “Hey, it’s your fourth year here, other coaches nowadays don’t get this kind of runway, we believe in you and back your vision, but we also need to show our supporters and our donors that this is moving in the right direction.” Nebraska raised $80 million for a new facility amidst a pandemic that caused an economic downturn despite it primarily going to a football team that has won 13 games in three years; that shouldn’t be taken for granted, and I don’t think Moos wants to. I’d bet Moos has gotten a good look at this team, a better one than we have, and thinks that if things break right the Huskers could get to the eight/nine-win range. But I’d also bet that he’s being subtle in setting a baseline standard for the years to come rather than telling his coach “Do this or you’re done.” 

JP: I think perhaps a bit of that was a message to prospective ticket-buyers as well. Suggesting six wins probably isn’t a winning strategy for encouraging fans coming out of a pandemic to buy season tickets, and we all know how important the sell-out streak is to them. 

Is Yant going to get legitimate usage this fall or is he just adding depth at this point? (@InDaWilderness) 

MB: That question can’t be answered until fall camp, when presumably, all the running backs are healthy enough and ready to compete. Yant certainly established a baseline and will be in the mix. Same with Ervin, right?  

DP: I think he’ll be in the mix. Like all these guys, it’s about being consistent on in through the summer and then making the most of their opportunities in the fall. I think Yant did well for himself this spring, but his position coach has said he’d like to see Yant cut a little weight. It seems unlikely that he’d be just filler or practice squad fodder at this point. He certainly looks the part and he runs well. Cut that weight and we’ll see what he does in preseason camp.  

JP: Like Derek said, the first and most important thing in that room is availability. If everybody’s healthy and available, I have a hard time seeing Yant near the top of the depth chart right now. However, I think Nebraska definitely found something in him and I wouldn’t be surprised to see him taking meaningful snaps at some point in his career. If guys like Sevion Morrison, Rahmir Johnson and Ronald Thompkins continue to struggle to stay on the field, then perhaps that point will come sooner rather than later. 

With talent at WR and what I think is some very good potential at RB, what will be the strength of the offense? What will the ratio of pass-to-run be? (@LiflngfanJw) 

MB: Strength of the offense? Martinez, with a potentially solid line and the pieces around him so that he doesn’t have to be the focus of the running game. 

DP: Strength of the offense should be the offensive line. If Vegas was setting odds here, leaning run heavy still would be the favorite, but I could see NU being anywhere in the 51-54% run range, which would be a big-to-moderate dip from last year. 

Who leads the team in sacks next season? Who leads the team in rushing yards next season? (@CarnesRegg) 

GS: Pheldarius Payne for sacks. Gabe Ervin Jr. for rushing yards. Ask me again after fall camp. 

MB: JoJo Domann, sacks. Marvin Scott III, rushing yards . . . or any of several others. 

DP: JoJo Domann, with a dark horse being Ty Robinson, for sacks. Gabe Ervin Jr. and Jaquez Yant are the trendy picks for rushing, but I’ll still go the safe route until proven otherwise, and that’s Markese Stepp. 

JP: I have no clue who is going to lead this team in sacks. It hasn’t been an outside linebacker since Luke Gifford in 2018. Last year two of the top three were inside linebackers (Will Honas led the way with 3.0yikes). In 2019, the top three were all defensive linemen led by Khalil Davis. The pass rush has been all over the place the last few years. I’d personally like to see JoJo Domann rushing the passer more, but they didn’t really use him that way last year after he produced 2.5 sacks in 2019. It’s going to be hard for a defensive lineman to rack up sacks when Nebraska is only playing a two-lineman front more often than not like they did last year (just 2.5 sacks combined from the position including 1.5 from Ben Stille despite producing 11.5 in the three years previous). Unless somebody like Caleb Tannor or Pheldarius Payne has a breakout year, I’d anticipate we’ll see a group of guys with two to three sacks at the top of the list.  

Over/under 2.5 Huskers drafted next season? Follow up: any taken before Saturday? (@Sal_Vasta3) 

GS: Over. Yes. I think Cam Taylor-Britt and Samori Touré will be in the discussion for earlier round picks.  

ES: I’ll take the over. Cam Taylor-Britt is absolutely going to be taken before Saturday, pending no injuries (or anything that would change that, of course). 

JP: Over for sure. Cam Taylor-Britt, Samori Toure, JoJo Domann, Deontai Williams and Ben Stille could all potentially find their way onto draft boards depending on how the season goes, and those are mostly just seniors which excludes fourth- or fifth-year juniors who will have a decision to make regarding their extra year of eligibility. I think at least three of those guys get picked with Taylor-Britt going early. 

What Nebraska sport deserves more attention? (@dmhusker1) 

ES: Every sport that’s not football, men’s basketball, baseball and volleyball. Please do not misinterpret that as me saying those four don’t deserve the attention. They absolutely do. In fact, you could argue that volleyball deserves more attention than it already gets. I think when we see stories surface—like that of golfer Kate Smith or the SportsCenter moment from softballyou realize how many amazing stories are out there. I wish I could clone the HV staff 10 times or have the resources to cover every team all of the time, because it’s deserved. I’m certainly proud of what we have done to try and cover various sports and athletes on our website and within the pages of the magazine, but it could always be more and it’s something I think about a lot. We’ll keep working toward it too, because so many sports and athletes deserve more. 

MB: Everything Erin says. Plus, I’d like to spend some time on track and field, if for no other reason than I’ve always been a track and field fan. One thing I’ve learned over the years, though, is we’ve got to focus on what readers expect, with things we think are important but get underplayed mixed in. Football has to be the focus, with volleyball, men’s basketball and to some degree baseball mixed in. 

DP: Amy Williams’ women’s basketball program. Williams is a tremendous coach, Sam Haiby is really skilled with the basketball, Issie Bourne is exciting, and they play a brand of basketball that’s really easy to get behind. Some write about the program when it’s self-serving to do so, but just in general they deserve more dedicated coverage then they get. I’m included in that. I can be better there. 

First there was The Paper, The Post, The Front Page and All the Presidents Men. Now comes “Hail Varsity” Motion Picture. Who plays who in this certain to be blockbuster? (@Corn_Huskers) 

GS: All I know is that The Rock plays me. Fight me.  

ES: If Sarah Fuller ever gets into acting, I’d like her to play me. 

MB: Tom Selleck. 

DP: Before growing the hair out, people told me they could see Joseph Gordon-Levitt. He’s about the same height. It’d be cool to be played by Robin, or the new Batman, or whatever they were trying to do with that character.  

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