From hypothetical pre-Spring Game concerts to recruiting and a rogue volleyball question, the whole Hail Varsity staff — Brandon Vogel, Erin Sorensen, Greg Smith, Jacob Padilla and Derek Peterson — answers all your Husker questions in a new mailbag.
What are some early rumblings coming out of winter conditioning? (@thawildbunch)
DP: Not much but I think that’s a good sign. The fact that guys are hitting the weight room and attacking offseason workouts as hard as they are bodes well for the coming season. There’s a workman-like approach right now, almost like an anger or a fire in a lot of these guys. Your two main leaders look like Adrian Martinez and Mo Barry, both of whom absolutely despise losing and don’t want to go through what happened last year again. Not much of anything to be concerned about right now.
GS: Getting reports out of winter conditioning is pretty hard to do but there are some encouraging things being talked about behind the scenes. First, Cam Jurgens is healthy and moving a lot of weight. Also, Adrian Martinez mentioned that everyone was involved in the “voluntary” workouts but I hear that it was even more encouraging than that. It was described to me as the “players attacking the weight room with a vengeance and they are much further ahead of where they were last year at this time conditioning-wise.”
Given the grad of two starters, both being huge aspects of the team, who and how does Nebraska fill the loss of Mikaela Foecke and Kenzie Maloney? Is it a system change or are there players stepping up? How do the new freshmen assist in this transition for next year? (@robert42vet)
BV: As far as outside hitters go, it’s a huge offseason for Lexi Sun and Jazz Sweet. Both were up and down in 2018, but given the amount of volleyball they’ve played are probably the Huskers’ best bets for filling the massive hole Foecke leaves behind. As for Maloney, I’ve got Megan Miller on the fast track to win the libero job. I liked what we saw from her in limited action last season. It’s still early, but she seems to have the vaunted “it” factor. True freshman Kenzie Knuckles, already a member of any all-name team worth looking at, could be a factor at libero as well. Finally, I don’t think you can totally rule out some scheme or position changes. John Cook has done it before, boldly in some cases, and is a proponent of the “I want volleyball players, not positions, approach.”
JP: I think Cook is hoping that Sun and Miller are able to win those jobs pretty decidedly, but I don’t think you can count out incoming freshmen Madi Kubik and Knuckles, both of whom were named Gatorade Player of the Year in their respective states and who were both Under Armour First-Team All-Americans. Kubik was named the MVP of her team at the Under Armour All-America game at the Final Four this year and was ranked as the No. 4 overall recruit in her class while Knuckles was top-40 and third at her position. Both of them are already on campus as early enrollees. Sun will get the first crack, but if she’s not able to find some more consistency than she showed last year, I wouldn’t be shocked to see Kubik push her. Either way, I think Nicklin Hames is going to be the key—she doesn’t have someone like Foecke to rely on, so it will be important for her to spread the ball around and get everyone involved. If Nebraska’s passing is good enough, I think we’ll see Lauren Stivrins as more of a feature on the offense than she was for much of last year.
With the amount of player movement and the similar number of returning players across the Big Ten, who are top three roster gains and bottom three in roster losses? (@CoryHonold)
DP: A list of biggest losers would be a sham without Michigan at the top. Harbaugh lost everyone who’s anyone on the defense as well as their top running back and tight end on offense. I also think Iowa belongs on the list of worst roster losses given both tight ends left. Given the graduation of Nick Easley, losing both guys hurts your passing game big time. On defense they lost each of their top four tacklers (including super safety Amani Hooker) and their second-best run-stopper in Anthony Nelson. Penn State currently has 16 players who have either announced a transfer or are in the transfer portal. Add that to the five kids who left early for the NFL Draft and the graduation of four of the defense’s top six tacklers a season ago and things are looking weird in State College.
As for roster gains, Ohio State is the clear No. 1 adding Justin Fields at quarterback and signing another top-15 recruiting class. They lose dudes every single year and it never seems to affect them. After that, I’m just going to pick the single two best players I think entered the conference: Wandale Robinson at Nebraska and Graham Mertz at Wisconsin. You could tell me Robinson will have a 1,000-yard season his freshman year and I wouldn’t be shocked. I still have questions about Paul Chryst’s ability on the offensive side of the ball but Mertz looks like a guy who could be special at the biggest position in the game.
JP: Penn State also lost that Trace McSorley guy. He was kind of important for them.
DP: Oh yeah, hard to replace those truly worthy second-team All-Big Ten guys.
I'm going to ask something different. Soni Fonua, Noa Pola Gates, and Charles Njoku, if we can only sign one, who do you pick? Why? (@_LilBigRed12_)
DP: I think I’m going to end up disagreeing with Greg on this (typically not smart) and say Njoku… There’s just a real need for someone to try and fill Stanley Morgan’s void and you can throw all these smaller guys out there and find success but your passing game always needs a red-zone target and a guy you can just throw the ball up to. There is no one with Njoku’s skill set on the roster. Plus, his downfield presence makes life easier underneath for guys like Spielman and Robinson.
GS: This is tough to answer. I’ll go with Pola-Gates though (sorry Derek). I think he has big-time potential and plays with a mean streak that would make wideouts think twice about coming over the middle. Also, he just might be athletic enough to play some corner as well so the versatility is an added bonus. Big picture wise, signing him would give Nebraska two players in the top five in Arizona in addition to Javin Wright with Pola-Gates' cousin Matthew Pola-Mao still on the board. Making a statement like that ahead of the loaded 2020 group in Arizona would be big-time.
JP: Greg made excellent points, and you can’t go wrong siding with the best player available route (which would be Pola-Gates), but I’ll agree with Derek here. I think this staff has done a really good job recruiting safeties and will continue to do so, but they don’t have anyone like Njoku.
If the NCAA allowed one player to accompany the coach(es) on a recruiting trip based on the current player's position and the recruit's position being the same, which current players would you send to secure the last commits from the 2019 recruiting class? (@Corn_Huskers)
ES: I'll take two: one for offense and one for defense. Adrian Martinez is my offensive pick and Mo Barry is my defensive pick. I imagine it would be hard for a wide receiver to turn down a recruiting pitch from Martinez, especially knowing how solid he was as a freshman. That would have to be enticing. As for the defense, I think Barry could pitch a similar message for recruits. As I’m typing this, even Lamar Jackson could be a solid pick for the defense. Both really came into their own in 2018, and that would be a pretty easy thing to show and pitch.
GS: The Adrian Martinez pick is a good one. If I could only pick one, I’d go with Cam Taylor. He’s very active as a player host and has a pretty good story to tell about showing up, working hard and getting a shot. Plus, he’s from the South where the Huskers are really ramping up their efforts.
JP: Adrian Martinez is the easy answer. After all, he was named the most inspirational freshman in the country this year.
Last year the Spring Game tickets sold out in only 25 hours and broke a record for highest attendance. Do you expect another sold out Spring Game this year? And do you think this gives a big boost in recruiting? (@Goooobigred)
ES: I imagine it’ll be sold out, or close if not. I don’t think the hype around Frost has worn off, and I think the spring game provides an opportunity for people to attend an event at Memorial Stadium that they normally wouldn’t be able to in the fall. So, I don’t think it’ll sell out in 25 hours this time but I wouldn’t be surprised if it sold out though.
GS: I don’t expect another sellout, but it would not surprise me one bit. Yes, it helps recruiting. Every recruit that was there last year mentioned through the season what that atmosphere was like for a practice.
How many high school players do we sign? How many JUCO players do we sign? How many grad transfers, if any, do we sign? (@huskermef)
GS: I’m going to go with 30 total players signed. 28 high school players, one junior college player (Dedrick Mills) and I’m going to say Darrion Daniels is the only grad transfer added. Spaces are at a premium right now.
Thoughts about Bo Pelini’s future coaching options and timeframe for him to explore other jobs beyond Youngstown? (@RobCzaplewski)
DP: I’m just spit-balling here but I don’t think he has any intention of leaving Youngstown State any time soon. That job is a really good one for him—it’s home, it’s low profile where he can just worry about football and it’s one he can really be at as long as he wants.
What’s up with all the transfers from PSU? (@md_schmidt)
BV: Penn State is at an interesting juncture in James Franklin’s tenure. The Nittany Lions’ rise from 7-6(ish) to 10-wins(ish) coincides, painfully if you’re a Penn State fan I would imagine, with the arrival of Joe Moorhead and Trace McSorley. Both are now gone, which I think casts the future a little bit in doubt for a program that’s 31-9 the last three years. The spate of transfers doesn’t help that, nor do the rumors of Franklin-to-USC we saw in December. The Trojans didn’t make a move, but it feels like they will soon barring a major turnaround. I won’t pretend to know what goes on inside the Penn State locker room, but I think it’s safe to say there’s reason to have some concerns at this point. Eleven transfers, contributors or not, is a lot.
Decide how all pro sports divide their conferences. Are you going for an East/West approach or American League/National League system? (@marcus_scheer)
BV: Geography for life. One of my least favorite things about college football’s recent conference expansion was the end of geographical familiarity. In my ideal world, Nebraska would play the teams that are closest to it. It doesn’t because it made all of the sense in the world to move to the Big Ten, but I still miss those Iowa State, Kansas State and Missouri games among others. I know that setup often leads to imbalance at times—see also: Big Ten East vs. West right now—but those things are always temporary. Proximity to an opponent and the potential for rivalry are not.
Let's say the Husker Football Program/Administration decided to have a concert in Memorial Stadium following the Spring Game. Which singer, band, group would you like to see perform? (@Corn_Huskers)
ES: Give me Britney Spears, amen.
DP: Team Timberlake. Sorry, Erin. But for a football game I want to see Kendrick Lamar. That atmosphere would be a recruiting goldmine.
GS: Michael Jackson hologram.