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Padding the Stats: Pondering Portal Additions

February 16, 2022

It’s no secret that Nebraska lost a heck of a lot from last year’s team — half of the team’s offensive and defensive starters, to be more specific. Most of those players were multi-year starters, or at least key rotation players.

Despite the team’s record, it’s going to be difficult to replace the likes of Adrian Martinez, Ben Stille, JoJo Domann, Cam Taylor-Britt, Deontai Williams and others, all of whom played a lot of snaps in a Nebraska helmet.

Considering the amount of experience the team lost, I heard a lot of talk about how the Huskers need to go out and land replacements for the departures considering the inexperience behind them last year. Whether that was referring to high school, junior college or transfer portal recruiting, the narrative was Nebraska had to go out and find new starters at a lot of positions from outside of the program.

Granted, Scott Frost’s own words placed the largest emphasis on the portal, and the Huskers did pretty well in that area from a numbers and needs standpoint. Mel Tucker and Michigan State proved last year that you really can hit it big in the portal and flip a roster in one year.

That being said, I think it would be a mistake to view the portal as a short cut. That could create as many problems as it solves if the goal is to build as complete a team as possible. It’s a coach’s job to go out and try to recruit over the players already on his team — recruiting is a 24/7 job and the lifeblood of college football.

However, to this point, Nebraska’s success under Frost with transfers (both JUCO transfers and those from other four-year schools) has been all over the map.

Frost’s scholarship four-year transfers include Tyreke Johnson, Markese Stepp, Chris Kolarevic, Samori Touré, Travis Vokolek, Kanawai Noa and Darrion Daniels. Touré was a home run, Daniels was a terrific pick-up and Vokolek has been solid. Noa was fairly underwhelming. Stepp, Kolarevic and Johnson struggled to get on the field to varying degrees. 

The Huskers have also added a number of transfers as walk-ons including Brendan Franke, Oliver Martin, Connor Culp, Nouredin Nouili, Ezra Miller, Jared Bubak and Zach Schlager. Culp was the Big Ten Kicker of the Year his first season and then was one of the worst kickers in the conference in year two, so that one is hard to score. Nouili cracked the starting lineup, but I wouldn’t say he’s played anywhere close to an all-conference level. Martin was the star of the offseason and had a great week one before disappearing the rest of the year. Miller is still on the team but hasn’t seen the field while Bubak and Schalger left without playing a down.

Finally, Frost’s JUCO haul includes Jordon Riley, Niko Cooper, Eteva Mauga-Clements, Nadab Joseph, Keem Green, Dedrick Mills, Greg Bell, Will Honas, Deontai Williams and Mike Williams. Honas and Deontai Williams were probably the best players on that list but also dealt with injuries at Nebraska. Mills was fine but unspectacular. Bell had a great career at San Diego State after leaving Nebraska but didn’t do much for the Huskers. Mauga-Clements has been mostly a special teams player. Mike Williams played out of position and didn’t produce much. Riley, Cooper, Joseph and Green have already departed.

The thing about the portal is the sure things will be the hardest to land, and there is a reason (or maybe several) that the rest ended up in the portal in the first place. All of this is to say new isn’t necessarily better, and the only way to gain experience is to actually play. Nebraska has added transfers at quarterback, offensive line, wide receiver, running back and defensive back, but the Huskers also have returners at those positions with multiple years in the program under their belts.

Will Anthony Grant take over as the lead ball-carrier in the backfield, or can one of Rahmir Johnson, Gabe Ervin Jr. (once healthy), Jaquez Yant or Stepp grab that job and run with it under Bryan Applewhite?

Will both Kevin Williams Jr. and Hunter Anthony earn starting jobs on the offensive line, or will we see a veteran like Broc Bando finally crack the starting lineup? Might Henry Lutovsky be ready to see the field as a redshirt freshman? Could the coaching change help one or all of Turner Corcoran, Bryce Benhart and Ethan Piper move past their 2021 struggles?

I believe that both Omar Manning and Zavier Betts will play key roles for Mickey Joseph at wideout, but beyond that it seems pretty open. Will Isaiah Garcia-Castenada and Trey Palmer emerge as the team’s top targets, or will we see more of Alante Brown and some of the freshman that redshirted last year?

Is Braxton Clark ready to win that starting corner job opposite Quinton Newsome, or will one of the newcomers (namely, Omar Brown, Tommi Hill or Javier Morton) beat him out? Where does Johnson, the Ohio State transfer and former 5-star recruit, fit into the picture? Is Marques Buford playing corner or safety?

What about safety? Is Noa Pola-Gates ready to see the field on defense alongside Myles Farmer, or will JUCO transfer DeShon Singleton be a day-one starter?

I think the ideal scenario for Frost and his staff would be to have a mix of returners and newcomers win the jobs that are up for grabs, because the likelihood of hitting on all of these transfers is not very high. A lack of experience doesn’t necessarily signify a lack of ability. The only way Nebraska is going to get this thing turned around is to take advantage of every avenue to improve the program. That includes filling in holes with the transfer portal as well as developing depth so that guys already in the program will be ready to step in when starters move on.

There are so many questions surrounding this team heading into the spring, which kicks off in about a week-and-a-half. I’m looking forward to seeing how it all plays out.

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