Wide Receiver Wyatt Liewer makes a catch during Nebraska-Illinois.
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Padding the Stats: Questions Answered, Pro Prospects and Offseason Hoops Standouts

September 01, 2021

Last week, I wrote about all the questions that I had and how we’d have to wait until the Illinois game to learn the answers. Let’s review those questions.

Who’s the starting running back? Will whoever it is get upwards of 20 carries, or will it be more like half that with a few other backs getting a shot? How effective will each of the backs who see the field be?

The answer turned out to be Gabe Ervin Jr., and Sevion Morrison didn’t even see the field. Ervin topped out at 12 carries with Rahmir Johnson and Markese Stepp combining for seven as Arian Martinez once again did the heavy lifting in the run game (17 carriers for 111 yards). None of the backs were effective at all.

Likewise, how many wide receivers will see the field? Will Omar Manning be one of them? How well will Samori Toure’s game translate to the Big Ten, and what kind of chemistry has he developed with Adrian Martinez?

Six wideouts played on offense, three of which were walk-ons (I’m not including Oliver Martin as a walk-on). Omar Manning was among them, and he even caught a couple of passes, but Zavier Betts was not. Toure caught three of his six targets for 37 yards including a 16-yarder. He made a couple of nice plays but didn’t exactly stand out. Martin, on the other hand, was terrific with six catches for 103 yards and a touchdown. What’s more, Martinez targeted him 11 times. It seems like he’s the one who developed chemistry with Martinez, and the offseason buzz appears to have been justified.

Speaking of Martinez, will the focus on improving decision-making and ball security from this offseason translate to the field? What kind of player will the fourth-year starter and third-year captain be this season?

It did not. He looked like the same player he’s been the last couple of years. Granted, he didn’t get much help from the offensive line, but he missed open receivers all on his own when he wasn’t under pressure as well, and he lost yet another fumble that led directly to a touchdown for Illinois (or Nebraska if you paid attention to the Fox graphic).

Will Turner Corcoran be ready to go, and if so, how good will he be in his second start? If not, is Brant Banks ready to hold down that left tackle spot? Does Cameron Jurgens really have the snap issue resolved? What will Matt Sichterman look like as the starting right guard?

Well, Corcoran was kind of ready. They gave Banks the start, but he alternated series with Corcoran early and then Corcoran played the rest of the day. Neither one of them was particularly good. Cam Jurgens apparently does not have the snap issue totally resolved as he sent one 15 yards deep during the second half. Sichterman certainly wasn’t the worst lineman on Saturday, but he wasn’t great either. The line struggled mightily in both the run and pass game.

Who is the corner opposite Cam Taylor-Britt? What does the outside linebacker rotation look like? Can Nebraska generate enough of a pass rush? Was Nebraska’s improvement in third-down conversion rate last season a sign of things to come or a result of an easier second-half schedule?

Quinton Newsome started at the second corner spot and played the whole game. Braxton Clark and Tyreke Johnson both traveled but did not play. Garrett Nelson and Caleb Tannor actually logged more snaps than JoJo Domann, which caught me off guard, but those guys plus Pheldarius Payne certainly produced. Another surprising thing was Damian Jackson being on the field for double-digit snaps. Nebraska had three sacks and nine tackles for loss, but Illinois’ back-up quarterback Artur Sitkowski completed 12 of his 15 passes. The Illini went 6-of-13 on third downs, which includes conversions of 3rd-and-6 and 3rd-and-1 on the first drive of the third quarter when Illinois really took control.

Conversely, special teams seem to be nothing but questions beyond Connor Culp as the place-kicker. Who will handle kickoffs? Who won the punter battle, and can the winner improve on William Przystup’s 41.3 yards-per-punt average (last among the 11 qualifiers in the Big Ten)? Will Cam Taylor-Britt continue to return punts or will Mike Dawson hand that responsibility off to someone else? Who will return kickoffs? Will Nebraska be able to block for its returns more consistently?

Turns out Culp was a question mark too as he missed two extra points after converting at a 100% clip last year. Brendan Franke, the transfer from Morningside in Sioux City, handled the kicks and put four of his six attempts into the end zone. Daniel Cerni won the punter battle and had two nice punts to go with three disastrous ones which equaled an ugly 34.4 average. Cam Taylor-Britt was indeed the primary punt returner and continues to be so despite his catastrophic mistake, and Zavier Betts is the top kick returner. Nebraska still can’t block for its returners.

My final question was simple.

Is this program ready to win?

The answer to that question is a resounding no. Brandon Vogel did a great job of capturing my thoughts in his post-game column, but after having all those questions answered in Nebraska’s 30-22 loss, it left one final question in my mind: if Scott Frost and his staff haven’t found a way to fix the problems holding this team back heading into year four, will they ever?

Inherited players, transition classes, pandemic season — all that stuff is in the past. All the excuses are gone. That was a game Nebraska could not afford to lose, and yet that’s exactly what they did thanks to special teams miscues, turnovers, nonexistent hand-off running game, shoddy quarterback play and all the other things that have plagued this team throughout Frost’s tenure.

If not now, when?

Welcome to the Big Time

Changing gears here to basketball, the future for local hoops seems to be much brighter. As ESPN’s Jonathan Givony reported and Hail Varsity confirmed, Nebraska and Creighton are teaming up to lure NBA scouts to Nebraska in early October for a joint pro day.

On Oct. 6, Nebraska will host a session of athletic testing, skill work and five-on-five scrimmaging in the morning, then scouts will be able to head up I-80 to Omaha to check out Creighton’s prospects in the afternoon.

Nebraska signed the 18th-best class in the country according to the 247Sports Composite. Creighton’s class finished at No. 7. Bryce McGowens, the first 5-star recruit to sign with Nebraska out of high school, is a legitimate potential one-and-done. Alonzo Verge Jr. worked out for NBA teams this offseason before transferring to Nebraska and had GMs wanting him to play for their G League affiliate this year. Creighton signed four top-75 recruits headlined by Arthur Kaluma, who is drawing NBA eyes while playing with Uganda’s senior national team in AfroBasket right now.

Between the two programs, there should be more than enough talent to make the trip in early October worth it for NBA scouts. The more eyes from the professional ranks that Fred Hoiberg and Greg McDermott can get on their young guys early, the easier it will be for them to keep the recruiting momentum rolling.

Nebraska has produced two NBA Draft picks in the last three years. Creighton has had four players in the last five years get NBA opportunities. Both coaches are bringing more talent into their programs than we’ve seen in a long time, and because of that it’s looking like a fun time to be a basketball fan in this state.

Good First Impression

One last hoops note: I’ve said previously how Bryce McGowens has been everything Nebraska expected since he first set foot in Lincoln, but he’s not the only newcomer to make a good first impression. I wrote recently about Keisei Tominaga’s ridiculous Synergy numbers from last year at Ranger College. Well, Tominaga has been in Lincoln for a couple weeks now and word out of Lincoln is that not only has he held his own, he’s stood out during their pick-up runs.

With 14 scholarship players on his roster, Hoiberg is going to have some very difficult decisions to make when it comes to playing time. Tominaga appears to be making a strong case for himself to be included, and having a shooter of his caliber should be a great thing for guys like the McGowens brothers and Verge who will look to make plays off the bounce for themselves and others.

In any regard, Tominaga will be speaking with the local media for the first time on Wednesday morning, so stay tuned for more on the Japanese sharpshooter.

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