Photo Credit: Eric Francis

Padding the Stats: Recruiting, Retention and Development

September 14, 2022

Why did Scott Frost fail at Nebraska?

That’s a question that probably doesn’t have a simple answer — a 16-31 record doesn’t come down to any one thing. However, if I had to identify the struggle that is most directly responsible for the current state of the program, I’d go with the recruitment, development and retention of talent.

Let’s start with the recruiting. Scott Frost and his staff got off to a fairly strong start according to the 247Sports Composite recruiting rankings. Frost’s first class landed at No. 23. His second was 18th, his third 20th and his fourth 25th. His most recent class — a transfer-heavy one — was 32nd.

You can quibble about star rankings and all of that, but Nebraska has landed a number of well-regarded prospects with terrific offer lists over the past five years. That momentum slowed a bit in the last couple of years as Nebraska landed just six total 4-star recruits in the 2021 and 2022 classes (after signing 23 in the previous three) and missed out on some talented in-state prospects as well.

Onto retention. In the past four classes, Nebraska enrolled 23 4-star recruits. Eleven of them transferred out or otherwise left the program. That’s not what you want to see. Looking at the other 12 that are still in the program, just five of them (Nick Henrich, Bryce Benhart, Ty Robinson, Turner Corcoran, Teddy Prochazka) are currently starting, two of them are rotational back-ups (Logan Smothers and Omar Manning) and five just aren’t playing at all (though that includes the injured Thomas Fidone and two true freshmen in Jaeden Gould and Janiran Bonner; the others are Noa Pola-Gates and Randolph Kpai).

So to recap: less than a fourth of the team’s 4-star recruits over the span of four recruiting classes are currently starting for the program. More than two-thirds of them either are no longer in the program or aren’t contributing at all on game days.

I focused mainly on 4-star talent because that’s where you hope to land your difference-makers, but here’s a look at the splits for the 3-star recruits from the 2019 through 2021 classes: six starters, 13 players who are one the two-deep now or have played in the past, 13 that aren’t playing at all and another 13 that have transferred out. Again, to this point, Nebraska missed on more than half of their 3-star recruits over a three-year period.

Which brings us to development. As laid out above, there are a lot of players either watching from the sideline on game days or wearing another team’s uniform. And even among the well-regarded players who have earned starting roles, none of them are approaching all-conference caliber production.

Corcoran and Benhart were two of the worst starting tackles in the country last season and both are still trying to figure some things out this season under a new position coach and with Corcoran sliding inside to guard. Prochazka has had his share of difficulties while attempting to work his way back to 100% following his knee injury. Henrich suffered an injury during a rough week one performance and has been sidelined since. Robinson has played a lot of football for Nebraska and still hasn’t become much of a difference-maker (in fact, PFF graded him in the 40s in each of his first two games).

Beyond that, Nebraska appears to be paper-thin at multiple positions despite the large roster — especially on the defense.

Perhaps inside linebacker is the best example here. Barrett Ruud bought back both of his starters from last season and made spelling those two a priority heading into the season. Nebraska has eight scholarship inside linebackers on its roster plus Chris Kolarevic, who moved to nickel. Henrich went down early, and Garrett Snodgrass (a special teams contributor that might have been in the mix on defense) was injured heading into the season. So who replaced Henrich? The only true freshman in the room: Ernest Hausmann.

Credit to Hausmann for leapfrogging all the other players in the room, and he appears to have the talent for a promising future, but Nebraska shouldn’t be in a position where it has to start a true freshman in week two. What happened to veteran Eteva Mauga-Clements (seven snaps in the last two weeks)? What about Kpai, one of those 4-star recruits? Or the other redshirt freshmen in Mikai Gbayor and Seth Malcom? Why do Luke Reimer and Hausmann have to play nearly every defensive snap once again? Heck, Nebraska tried sliding Kolarevic back to inside linebacker to spell Hausmann against North Dakota, and then he logged just seven snaps against Georgia Southern.

What about the secondary? To help make up for losing two multi-year starters at safety, the coaching staff moved Marques Buford Jr. back there after he played cornerback as a true freshman last season. Neither JUCO transfer DeShon Singleton nor FCS transfer Omar Brown was able to win a job, nor was Pola-Gates in his fourth year in the program.

At corner, Tommi Hill came in as a sophomore transfer and won a job, but the Huskers haven’t really found guys they can play beyond him and Quinton Newsome. Braxton Clark has struggled in limited playing time. Nebraska sent Brandon Moore, the transfer from UCF who hadn’t played since 2020, onto the field for one snap against Georgia Southern and he committed one of the most bizarre penalties I’ve seen by reaching across the line of scrimmage and tagging the receiver he was covering before the snap, drawing a flag for encroachment.

Nebraska’s depth issues up front are perhaps the most egregious. The Huskers are starting an undersized walk-on next to Robinson and are relying heavily on two transfers — one of whom arrived on campus midway through camp — to provide depth. Nash Hutmacher’s playing time has fluctuated while the other four scholarship defensive linemen have combined to play a grand total of four snaps this season — all by fourth-year sophomore Mosai Newsom.

If you’re wondering why Nebraska’s defense is struggling so much this season, look no further than the go-ahead touchdown run by Georgia Southern quarterback Kyle Vantrease on Saturday. You can read a more in-depth breakdown here, but the the Eagles essentially targeted the two least-experienced members of the defense — Buford and Hausmann — and forced them to make a decision. The two failed to communicate and covered the same guy, leaving a wide open lane for Vantrease to the end zone. Again, both Hausmann and Buford look to have bright futures, but Nebraska is asking an awful lot of them, perhaps before they were ready for it. 

Nebraska has had all kinds of alignment, assignment and communication issues this season. It appears as if the coaches didn’t have enough players ready to go to replace the likes of Deontai Williams, Marquel Dismuke, JoJo Domann, Damion Daniels and Ben Stille, and now the Huskers are scrambling a bit every time they take the field and trying to learn on the fly.

The lack of development has also shown itself on the offensive side of the ball, most notably at offensive line, tight end (not entirely Sean Beckton’s fault because of injuries) and wide receiver, but Nebraska had success in the transfer portal to cover up for some of that with the likes of quarterback Casey Thompson and wide receivers Marcus Washington and Trey Palmer as well as JUCO transfer Anthony Grant at running back.

The offense held the team back last year because the coaches didn’t retain or develop enough talent around Adrian Martinez, and now the defense is doing the same because of the same reason.

Is it a misidentification problem? Did the coaches simply whiff on so many of these guys on the recruiting trail? Or did they fail to get the most out of a collection of talented prospects because of the way they’ve gone about running the program? I’m sure it’s some of both. Regardless, the overall point remains: Nebraska missed on far too many recruits over the past four years and is paying for it now despite Frost’s attempt to cover up for the misses with a 15-man transfer class.

The fact that Mickey Joseph had a list of significant structural changes he wanted to make as soon as he accepted the interim head coaching role on Sunday probably tells you what you need to know about the way the Huskers did things under Frost.

Is there enough time to turn things around, to break the coaches and players of bad habits midseason and get more out of them than we saw under the previous staff make-up? It won’t be an easy feat, but I’m not writing Joseph off either. I still think there’s more talent on this roster than we’ve seen on Saturdays so far this season — though probably not enough to accomplish the team’s goals.

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