Photo Credit: John Peterson

Padding the Stats: Nebraska’s Troubling Trend of Attrition

January 27, 2021

A big bit of offseason news for Nebraska dropped on Tuesday as three Huskers—quarterback Luke McCaffrey, wide receiver Kade Warner and center Will Farniok—entered their names in the NCAA Transfer portal.

None of those departures is terribly surprising.

Farniok got passed over for other players twice (Cam Jurgens in 2019, Trent Hixson this past season), and with his brother moving on that’s one less thing tying him to Lincoln.

Warner was placed on scholarship heading into this past season and opened the year as a starter, but he failed to capitalize on the couple of chances he got to make big plays early on and saw less and less playing time as the season went on while other receivers emerged.

Both guys spent three years in Lincoln under Scott Frost (though both were originally recruited by the previous staff), both guys seemingly want to play and neither one seemed to have a path to significant playing time at Nebraska moving forward.

McCaffrey is a slightly different story. The logic for his departure isn’t quite as clear because of his youth. He still has four more years to play college football if that’s what he desires, and Frost seemed to like him quite a bit. Even so, rumors had been floating around for a while before he finally made it official on Tuesday.

Just like every other departure to this point, none of these three transfers is too big of a blow to Nebraska’s short- or long-term outlook. With the way college football works these days, it was unlikely that all three of Adrian Martinez, Luke McCaffrey and Logan Smothers exhausted their eligibility in Lincoln.

That being said, it does continue the troubling trend of attrition. You can miss me with the “but everyone has transfers!” counter. That is true, but not to the degree we’re seeing in Nebraska.

The Athletic’s Mitch Sherman did the homework on this: since Dec. 1, 2019, 24 Huskers have entered the transfer portal, by far the most in the Big Ten West (and that’s just the scholarship players). Comparable teams in the East are Maryland (29) and Rutgers (20). That is not company you ever want to be in. The next group is Penn State with 15 and Illinois, Purdue, Michigan and Michigan State with 14 apiece. That 2019 start date excludes a lot of the initial transition and the “Riley guys” who were processed out quickly. All of those departures are Frost recruits or Riley recruits who had been in the program under Frost for a year or two or three.

A lot of the transfers have been pretty typical: back-ups hoping for a larger role elsewhere or younger players feeling homesick. But Nebraska has also lost some key contributors as well as guys they hoped would have bright futures in Lincoln, and those are the departures that hurt. Let’s focus on Warner and McCaffrey for now.

First off, and much less important than everything else, it was just cool to have Kurt Warner’s son and Christian McCaffrey’s brother on the team. For a program struggling to become relevant nationally right now, it gave the Huskers a bit more pop. It never hurts having a Hall of Fame quarterback and NFL broadcaster occasionally mention your program on Twitter or on the air.

Warner caught 30 passes for 236 yards (just 7.9 yards per reception) in 16 career games across three seasons at Nebraska. Just five of those catches and 40 of those yards came this season. He did not score a touchdown (though he had a couple chances this year). In terms of on-field production, he shouldn’t be a big loss.

However, he was voted a team captain this past season, and a handful of months later he’s ready to move on. Of Nebraska’s five captains, just one of them—Martinez—is set to return. Collin Miller suffered a career-ending injury, Martinez lost his starting job and only got it back after McCaffrey proved he wasn’t ready to take it and run (well, actually he could do that part just fine; it was everything else that was the problem), Dicaprio Bootle and Matt Farniok chose to enter the NFL Draft instead of returning for another season and Warner entered the transfer portal.

The larger point, though, is that two of the players the team voted captains ended up losing their jobs at one point during the season. Your best players don’t always have to be your best leaders, but it certainly helps. Now Nebraska has to deal with the optics of a team captain choosing to get out of town after another losing season.

McCaffrey is the larger story, and Frost and his staff certainly did everything they could to keep him in the program. However, I found the way Frost handled the quarterback situation as a whole this season strange.

When I went back and watched every snap McCaffrey took during his redshirt year, I didn’t see a guy who was ready to run an offense as a starting quarterback. So I wasn’t at all surprised when he got his chance to start and the team struggled.

What I didn’t get is the way Frost spoke about the competition. Frost talked McCaffrey up so much, and it seemed like we couldn’t get a comment from him on Martinez without him mentioning McCaffrey as well. He talked about how the two quarterbacks were grading out identically in practice and how the only reason Martinez was starting was because he’d been there longer. Then we saw them actually play and although Martinez had his struggles, it became pretty clear that McCaffrey just wasn’t ready. Based on what we saw on Saturdays, I have no idea what they were doing in practice if those two quarterbacks actually graded out the same.

Was Frost’s public praise a response to a feeling that McCaffrey was already thinking abut entering the portal after just one year in the program? Or is it possible the way he spoke about the two quarterbacks only hastened McCaffrey’s departure by creating unrealistic expectations?

I’m not one that is convinced that McCaffrey won’t ever be able to play quarterback. He was a redshirt freshman with two career starts under his belt and a 1-1 record. He has a long way to go, but he has plenty of time to keep working.

I wonder how different things would be now had Martinez been able to establish himself as the clear-cut starter and had Frost talked about him that way instead of what we got. The extra year that Martinez could choose to take advantage of certainly complicates matters.

Would spot duty for gimmick plays like we saw at times this season while he continued to develop in practice have been enough for McCaffrey to have confidence in his future in Lincoln? It’s very possible (and perhaps likely) that the answer would still be no. I don’t know what’s been going through McCaffrey’s head the past year.

In any regard, I think this just goes down as another strike against Nebraska’s ability to identify, recruit, retain and develop players. This program isn’t going to go anywhere until Frost finds a way to address his program’s deficiencies in those areas, particularly on his side of the ball considering the success we’re seeing on defense with players improving and choosing to return for another crack at it.

Blame the entitled youth or pretend it doesn’t matter since a lot of the transfers haven’t done much elsewhere or just chalk it up to modern college football if you want. At a certain point, it has to fall back on the man in charge. He has to find a way to win and create an environment that players want to be a part of.

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