Padding the Stats: It's Now or Never for Nebraska's Upperclassmen
Photo Credit: John S. Peterson

Padding the Stats: It’s Now or Never for Nebraska’s Upperclassmen

November 01, 2019

Through nine weeks, Nebraska finds itself sitting at 4-4 and in need of at least two more wins to secure bowl eligibility. It seems like the Huskers are on a bit of a treadmill—every time they make strides in one area, they break down in others.

With that being the case, Scott Frost finds himself in a difficult spot. The talk since the loss to Indiana has been about a continued lack of complete and total buy in, and some of the team’s true freshmen are among those echoing that refrain. Frost doesn’t want his team to be “just OK.”

Seventeen of the 22 starters on offense and defense and six of the 14 reserves last week against Indiana were upperclassmen. That’s 23 out of 36 players. Of the 13 underclassmen, only three are true freshmen and three more are true sophomores or redshirt freshmen.

It’s clear at this point that maintaining redshirts for most of the 2019 recruiting class is a key for the staff this season. I don’t believe we’ll see anyone else play more than four games, and last week I wrote about the challenges of even mixing in those freshmen within the scope of that four-game limit. But the post-game messages are starting to ring hollow, and we even received a Mailbag question to that affect this week.

Jason Young (@jryoung234 on Twitter) asked:

“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?”

First of all, I don’t think it’s an issue of playing with heart or passion. Nobody plays with more passion than Mohamed Barry, but that hasn’t prevented him from struggling this season compared to what most of us expected.

Frost and his staff have determined that the upperclassmen who have been playing give Nebraska the best chance to win based on the months of practice he’s seen that the rest of us don’t have access to. They’ve earned enough of the coaches’ trust to see the field.

Why not throw the young guys out there? Well, the staff did just that against the Hoosiers and it backfired.

Garrett Nelson is one of the three true freshman who saw playing time on Saturday, and his snap count took a giant leap from where it had been previously. Caleb Tannor has seen his playing time reduced significantly the last couple of weeks and Alex Davis continues to struggle to produce. Barrett Ruud said last week that Nelson’s playing time was going to rise down the stretch, and this time that played out on Saturday.

In fact, Nelson was on the field for Indiana’s game-clinching drive, and Indiana went right at him. He made a mistake and it resulted in a first-down for the Hoosiers and allowed them to run the clock out. No one on the team plays harder than Nelson, but despite the passion his inexperience got the better of him and cost the team.

I’m not putting that loss on Nelson by any means—the Huskers probably wouldn’t have been in that situation had both Noah Vedral, the player with more experience in Frost’s system than anyone else, and Kanawai Noa, a fifth-year senior, not fumbled the ball away earlier on—but that’s just the reality of playing underclassmen: the risks are generally greater.

Frost seemingly isn’t ready to go all in on the young guys and live with the consequences just yet. But the older guys are running out of time for things to click. I don’t think it’s too hot-takey to call Purdue a must-win if the Huskers still hope to earn bowl eligibility. The banged-up Boilermakers are near the bottom of the Big Ten in most categories.

But in order to win that game, Nebraska is going to have to get out of its own way. The Huskers can’t turn the ball over and they can’t fail repeatedly to get off the field defensively on third down and it can’t commit dumb penalties and it can’t have repeated alignment issues. Nebraska is going to have to execute the basic things and put its playmakers in a position to make game-winning plays.

If the seniors still can’t accomplish that this week, it’s probably time to sit them down. If all those issues persist, the perceived reliability of the more experienced players probably won’t ever translate to the field well enough this season to make a difference. 

At that point, it would be time to throw caution to the wind and give variance a shot. If you put Nelson out there again with the game on the line, there’s a good chance he doesn’t make the play. But on the other hand, maybe he does. Maybe his previous mistake was enough of a learning experience that he’s able to correct the mistake and take care of business next time. And if that’s the case, if he plays consistently, maybe by the end of the season he’ll be looking like a monster off the edge.

After nine games for seniors and redshirt juniors who are seeing most of the playing time, it’s more likely than not players are what they are and that aha moment is never coming. Younger players, on the other hand, have a much wider range of possibilities.

The added bonus of going younger is that these guys are going to be here next year while many of the older players (though Nebraska’s doesn’t exactly have a ton of seniors starting or contributions) will not be. Experience now could pay off in a big way down the line.

Regardless of how Frost accomplishes it, a change needs to happen. If Nebraska can’t stop shooting itself in the foot, this is going to be a lost season, Nebraska’s third straight without a bowl appearance.

Time is running out for Nebraska’s seniors. Either those guys find a way to fix things, or the coaches need to give the guys behind them a crack at it. It’s now or never. 

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