We’re a year and a half into the four-game redshirt era of college football and it seems like the topic is hotter than ever in Husker land. With the team struggling to win games, a lot of fans have started to look to the future and are calling to see true freshman on the field.
Scott Frost and his staff aren’t the only ones getting questioned about playing freshmen. Alabama’s Nick Saban was asked about it as well regarding freshman quarterback Taulia Tagovailoa, the younger brother of injured starter Tua Tagovailoa.
Nick Saban was asked will there be an effort to get Taulia Tagovailoa into the game Saturday just to expedite his progression. The audio levels went up a little bit while answering the question. @CBS_42 pic.twitter.com/5iAHsMP24I
— Ronald Gaines, Jr. (@RonGSports) October 23, 2019
As he often does, Saban overreacted a bit to the question, but the gist of his rant makes a good point: the coaches’ primary focus is winning games and they’re going to do what they believe will help them accomplish that goal.
Now, the best coaches take advantage of every resource available to them in order to build up their program, so this rule change has added something new for coaches to consider. If you’re not taking advantage of this rule in some way as a coach, you’re falling behind. That being said, it’s a more complex issue than it is often given credit for.
“You’ve got to have reps, and it’s got to be fair to the players too,” inside linebackers coach Barrett Ruud said this week. “They’ve got to have the amount of time put in practice-wise so they’re prepared to play as well. Sometimes it looks like ‘just throw this guy in there,’ but to be fair to them, they’ve got to get the same amount of reps.”
Coaches spread practice reps through the whole time in spring and fall camp, but once the season rolls around the majority of those reps go to the starters and rotational back-ups. A lot of those freshmen spend more time on the scout team than they do getting to practice in Nebraska’s own offense or defense. Sending an unprepared player out there only to see him fail is not a productive tactic.
The game flow has made things difficult on the coaches as well. Nebraska only had one blowout win during the nonconference (Northern Illinois), and the Huskers have been on the wrong side of a couple games that were not close in Big Ten play (Ohio State and Minnesota, though the latter was still a game at halftime). Right or wrong, the coaches — who have far more information than we on the outside looking in do — have determined the current starters and their primary back-ups give the team the best shot at winning. So when the game is still even somewhat in doubt, they’ve stuck with those players.
Complicating matters offensively, the Huskers have only topped 70 plays in three of their seven games so far. Fewer snaps makes it harder to get more guys involved.
Five true freshmen have seen the field on offense this season. Wan’Dale Robinson has burned his redshirt and is one of the team’s most dangerous weapons. Quarterback Luke McCaffrey checked in for one play when Noah Vedral’s helmet popped off against Northwestern. Bryce Benhart got some burn at right tackle against Northern Illinois, but that’s been his only appearance as Nebraska has stuck with the first unit on the offensive line almost exclusively. Wide Receiver Darien Chase has made three appearances with three targets and one reception. Finally, running back Rahmir Johnson has played in two games, logging three carries and a target in the first and no touches in the second.
Tight end Chris Hickman has also played in one game, but that was exclusively on special teams.
Playing on the offensive line as a true freshman in the Big Ten is incredibly difficult, and it just doesn’t seem like Benhart is ready, either physically or mentally (or both). If there are changes along the line in the final five games, I’m not sure inserting Benhart at right tackle would be near the top of the list.
As for the skill position players, with the lack of production from the upperclassmen, it seems like throwing a young guy or two in there might at least be worth a shot. The coaches might not have a choice at running back with Johnson considering Robinson’s uncertain status and Maurice Washington’s absence. Kanawai Noa has played a lot of football for this team this season yet has only produced seven catches on 23 targets. He’s a good blocker, but might it be time to see if one of the younger guys can emerge in that third receiver role as a complement to Robinson and JD Spielman? Quarterbacks coach Mario Verduzco said this week that he doesn’t anticipate any kind of special packages for McCaffrey; injuries or blowouts are his ticket to seeing the field.
Defensively, two players have burned their redshirts: cornerback Quinton Newsome and outside linebacker Garrett Nelson. Both have played on special teams all season, but they’ve each gotten some opportunities on defense as well. Nebraska doesn’t rotate cornerbacks hardly at all, but Newsome has been part of Nebraska’s dime packages at certain points this season. Nelson hasn’t played a ton on defense, but it seems like the coaches have made sure to get him a least a series in every game, or close to it.
Coach Scott Frost has mentioned defensive linemen Ty Robinson and Mosai Newsom as players he’d like to get onto the field in the final five games, and the coaches have previously talked about getting junior college transfer Jahkeem Green (who has played in one game so far) out there as well. We’ll see how that plays out, however, as the Huskers have at least seven guys ahead of that trio on the depth chart from what we’ve seen so far. Inside linebacker Nick Henrich, who missed fall camp with an injury after enrolling early, is among the players Ruud wants to get on the field at some point this season as well.
Special teams is often a freshman’s easiest path to early playing time, and we’ve seen at least nine freshmen play on at least one of the core four special teams units so far: Robinson, Nelson, Newsome, Hickman, walk-on linebacker Luke Reimer (burned his redshirt), walk-on kicker Dylan Jorgensen and defensive backs Myles Farmer (three games), Noa Pola-Gates (two games) and Javin Wright (one game).
However, just throwing guys out there on special teams for the sake of getting them their four games of action is easier said than done. All it takes is one missed tackle or one guy being out of place for a team to spring a big return on special teams, and those kinds of plays can often swing games. Throwing a freshman who isn’t ready (ahead of a more proven upperclassman) and who ends up in the wrong spot on a big return would not be a good look.
The bye week provided the staff with an opportunity to rest some of the veterans on the team, and that opened to door to more reps in practice for the younger players.
"Obviously we miss the reps with the guys that aren't able to practice, but you know, the flip side of that is there's some young guys that got a lot of run last week in some of those practices, and those guys need to continue to improve and get reps so they can be more physical, play with better technique and do all the little things right,” Frost said.
While we’re drawing closer and closer to “Why not give it a try?” being as worthwhile a strategy as anything else, as of now it seems like the coaches still haven’t seen enough of most of the freshmen to make them a part of the main game plan. Perhaps the bye week practice reps will help move that a long. But until that changes, any appearances they might make will be dependent on game flow.
This is a staff that wasn’t afraid to play underclassmen at their previous staff, but for whatever reason the coaches have been far more hesitant in Lincoln. Whether that’s because of the quality of the recruits they’ve landed, the quality of the competition the two teams have faced or the quality of the upperclassman that were already on the team, I have no idea.
Nebraska’s staff is still learning how best to utilize this new rule as they seek to win now while also building for the future. There are a lot of factors to consider when determining when and how and for whom to use those four games and Nebraska’s struggles this season haven’t made it any easier. With five games left in the season, though, the Huskers are running out of time to take advantage of the new rule.
Jacob is in his third year with Hail Varsity covering Husker athletics. He has also written extensively for SB Nation’s Bright Side of the Sun and The Creightonian. His love of basketball can best be described as an obsession and if you need to find him, he’s probably in a gym somewhere watching, coaching or playing hoops.