Nebraska Cornhuskers wide receiver Zavier Betts (15) before a football game the Michigan State Spartans
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Padding the Stats: Pondering Player Management and the Portal

December 02, 2021

The coaching carousel has been spinning at top speed for a couple of weeks now, but things have been relatively quiet in Lincoln so far this offseason.

Replacing the four dismissed offensive coaches is probably first on the offseason checklist, but player attrition and addition is always one of the biggest stories to track every year, especially in this new age of the transfer portal and immediate eligibility.

Sevion Morrison left the team during the season and Marvin Scott III entered his name in the transfer portal on Tuesday, but outside of those two and walk-on reserve linebacker Sam Shurtleff things have been quiet as far as players departing, and the only addition so far is a walk-on long snapper from Georgetown.

It will be interesting to see what kind of an impact the coaching hires have on player retention. Morrison jumped ship quickly after Scott Frost fired Ryan Held and the other coaches, and Scott followed soon after the season ended. How many others are thinking about transferring but waiting to see who their new coaches will be in Lincoln?

On the one hand, most of the players on the team committed to play under those coaches, and seeing them leave could be a reason to look elsewhere. On the other hand, particularly at the skill positions, Nebraska’s personnel usage has been fairly baffling from the outside looking in. Who’s to say some of the players in the program might not look forward to having a new set of eyes evaluating their position?

I’ve been tracking snaps all season long, in addition to targets and carries. You probably don’t need me to tell you that Samori Touré and Austin Allen were Nebraska’s top two playmakers on offense (outside of the quarterback position).

Touré led all Nebraska’s skill players in offensive snaps with 596, or 69.8% of Nebraska’s total. He led the team with 961 yards from scrimmage (898 receiving, 63 rushing) and tied for the team lead in touchdowns (six). Touré also led Nebraska in targets by a significant margin with 77, catching 46 of them (a 59.7% catch rate). Touré is often where Martinez looked when he was in trouble, whether the receiver was open or not, and that hurt his catch rate. But he was the team’s best bet for a big play. Its going to be tough to replace him.

Allen wasn’t far behind in total snaps with 548 (64.2%) despite Sean Beckton trying to keep his snap count somewhat even with Travis Vokolek once the Rutgers transfer got healthy. He was second on the team in targets with 49 and caught 38 of them (77.6%) en route to a program record-setting season for his position. He’s another big loss.

After those two, it’s anyone’s guess as to who Nebraska’s next-best target was in any given game.

Omar Manning and Levi Falck each played 413 snaps (48.4%), second among wideouts. Zavier Betts was next at 286 snaps (33.5%) with Wyatt Liewer following at 215 snaps (25.2%). After an offseason of hype, Oliver Martin was on the field for just 168 snaps (19.7%), though injury certainly played a role in that. Alante Brown played in each of Nebraska’s last five games after spotty usage in the first seven and finished at 117 snaps (13.7%). Will Nixon played just 25 snaps (2.9%).

Manning caught 26 of his 39 targets (66.7%) for 380 yards. Falck (who exhausted his eligibility) caught 18 of his 31 targets (58.1%) for 223 yards. Betts caught 20 of his 30 targets (66.7%) for 286 yards. Martin only saw 14 targets come his way all season and caught 10 of them (71.4%) for 170 yards, but six of those catches and 10 of those targets came in the season-opener at Illinois. His only target in the last three games was the rough effort that ended in an interception against Wisconsin.

Tourê led the wideouts in snaps eight times. Manning (twice), Falck and Betts were the other snap leaders. All of these numbers are to illustrate that beyond Touré, Nebraska’s wideout usage was all over the map this season.

Running back was even worse considering the Huskers didn’t have a rock like Touré at the position and suffered multiple injuries to the position.

After barely playing the first three games, Rahmir Johnson emerged as Nebraska’s lead back in games four through 10 before an injury ended his season. He led the backs with 376 snaps (44%), 112 carries and 16 receptions (on 20 targets), producing 692 yards from scrimmage and six total touchdowns, tying Touré. He was the only back that played 13% or more of Nebraska’s snaps this season.

Gabe Ervin Jr. (104 snaps, 12.2%) looked to have secured a sizable role early in the season before suffering a season ending injury in his fourth game. Jaquez Yant (106 snaps, 12.4%) and Markese Stepp (97 snaps, 11.4%) each had one big game but saw limited action the rest of the season. The portalling Morrison and Scott played a combined total of 111 snaps this season and saw a combined 51 touches, and now they’re gone just two seasons after they arrived.

Whoever the new coaches end up being, it’s going to be key that they are able to recruit talented players and then develop them well enough to get them on the field consistently. Nebraska needs a workhorse running back. It needs a reliable secondary receiving threat to  keep defenses honest. It needs to get its most talented players on the field and get the most out of them (or else they might go somewhere else and break records). The Huskers aren’t going to be able to land a ready-made product like Touré every year.

Which leads me back to the topic of player addition. Frost has made it clear that he’s hoping to hit the portal hard to round out his 2022 recruiting class, which currently stands at nine high school commits.

Falling back on the portal is fine, but if you’re relying as heavily on it as the Huskers seem to be you better hit some home runs. That’s what Touré was, but after four seasons for Frost in Lincoln, the Montana transfer kind of stands out in that regard.

By my count, Frost has added 25 transfers from other four-year universities since he arrived in Lincoln. Most of them have joined the program as walk-ons, but Nebraska has added nine scholarship transfers: Noah Vedral, Breon Dixon, Vaha Vainuku, Travis Vokolek, Touré, Chris Kolarevic, Kanawai Noa, Markese Stepp, and Tyreke Johnson. Walk-on transfers include Connor Culp, Nouredin Nouili, Levi Falck, Oliver Martin and William Przystup among others.

The only all-conference player among that group is Culp, and he got benched this year. The most recent class of transfers included Touré and Kolarevic from the FCS ranks and former 5-star recruit Tyreke Johnson from Ohio State. Touré was a hit, but Kolarevic only played 158 snaps on defense (none the last two weeks) and was mostly a special teams player. Johnson played briefly in one game and that was it.

In order for the program to take a step forward next year, Nebraska is going to need both a higher hit rate with the transfer portal than we’ve seen from Frost to this point and the newcomers to the staff to retain and unlock some of the young talent already on the roster.

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