If you’re anything like me, you spent a lot of time during the offseason wondering about how Scott Frost and his staff would use the mix of inherited players and hand-picked newcomers once the games arrived.
That might have been the cruelest part of the season-opener against Akron getting canceled — I was finally ready to have all (or at least most) of my questions answered, and in the blink of an eye and a crack of thunder, that moment was pushed back another week, leaving me with six more days to think through everything that I’ve spent the last few months pondering.
What would the quarterback play look like? How many skill players would see the field and for how many snaps? What would the rotation look like on defense? All of these questions and many more bounced around my head as we waited for Colorado to come to town.
Finally, last Saturday, the moment of truth arrived. The result of the game wasn’t quite what Husker fans were hoping for, but even with the loss we were able to learn so much about how this new staff is going to operate.
I’ve spent time this past week rematch the game against Colorado, taking notes on plays that stood out, tracking snap counts and focusing on how different players were used. Here’s what I learned from focusing on those little details.
The word “rotation” was a common buzzword from the spring and fall as the coaches talked up how many guys they wanted to play at their respective positions and people like me speculated about how many guys might be able to help the team this year. That rotation did show up a bit on Saturday, but not nearly to the extent as many expected.
Let’s start on offense, and we’re going to break this up into two separate posts for the sake of keeping it under 3,000 words.
The Huskers spent nearly 80 percent of their 83 offensive snaps in 11 personnel (one running back, one tight end, three receivers). They were in 12 personnel (one running back, two tight ends, two receivers) on about 18 percent of their snaps. Finally, Nebraska used 21 personnel (two running backs, one tight end, two receivers) on just two snaps.
They only used three personnel groupings, going zero snaps without at least one running back and one tight end on the field. The running back did split out wide a handful of times, but that doesn’t change his position. Neither Miles Jones nor Wyatt Mazour, the two players Ryan Held said had been working primarily at the Duck-R spot, saw the field on offense. Mazour contributed on special teams, but Held said on Wednesday that Jones missed some practice last week with an eye issue and that he was back at work this week. Perhaps we’ll see him make his debut against Troy. As for game one, slot receivers JD Spielman and Tyjon Lindsey did motion into the backfield a few times with Spielman logging one rush attempt and Lindsey recording two, but the Duck-R position didn’t seem to be a part of the game plan in week one.
Held threw out four backs as the number he’d probably prefer to have in his rotation, but without the Duck-R players factoring into that, we saw just three play in week one — Greg Bell, Devine Ozigbo and Maurice Washington. Senior Mikale Wilbon and sophomore Jaylin Brdley both logged DNPs.
As expected, Bell was the starter and he saw the most work, but it wasn’t by much. He played about 42 percent of the snaps while Ozigbo wasn’t too far behind at 35 percent. Washington saw action on about 23 percent of the plays. Each of the three backs were used pretty interchangeably with two targets (and two catches) apiece in the passing game in addition to what they did on the ground. Ozigbo seems to be the preferred blocking back, which is a significant improvement for the senior compared to where he had been in that area of the game the first few years of his career. The coaches subbed him back into the game for Bell on the final drive to try to give Andrew Bunch a little extra protection.
Six offensive lineman played on Saturday with tackles Brenden Jaimes and Matt Farniok and guard Jerald Foster taking every snap. Center Cole Conrad handled 78 out of 83 snaps as an injury knocked him out of the game for one series, but he returned after that and finished out the game. With Conrad out, right guard Tanner Farmer took over at center for five snaps with Boe Wilson checking in at guard. Wilson did well and when Conrad returned Farmer went to the bench to give Wilson another series of work. Offensive line coach Greg Austin also gave Wilson a six-play stint at right guard in the second half, giving him a total of 17 snaps off the bench.
I will say that Nebraska’s line looked pretty solid with Farmer at center and Wilson at guard, as the Huskers marched down the field and scored their first touchdown with that configuration up front. Perhaps’s Conrad’s ability to snap the ball and make pre-snap calls far exceeds that of Farmer at this point, but Farmer and Wilson both seem to be a bit more sturdy as Conrad had trouble holding his ground against rushers more than once.
We heard all spring and fall about how Jack Stoll was the clear-cut No. 1 tight end, and the snap count confirmed that as he was out there for more than 90 percent of Nebraska’s snaps. Redshirt freshman Austin Allen checked in at just under 20 percent, with most of his plays coming in two-tight end sets. Oddly enough, redshirt freshman Kurt Rafdal — the most productive of the three with a 14-yard reception on a play that likely would have gone for a touchdown with a more accurate pass — only saw four snaps. For whatever reason — maybe the tight ends weren’t in the game plan last week or perhaps Adrian Martinez rarely made it to them in his progressions — the tight ends as a whole only drew three targets. We’ll have to see if that changes moving forward because that position was a big part of Scott Frost’s offense at Central Florida last season.
Finally, we come to the wide receivers, an interesting bunch. The coaches worked hard to restock that room with scholarship talent once they took over in Lincoln, but on Saturday, only three wideouts saw the field on more than 15 percent of Nebraska’s plays.
Unsurprisingly, senior Stanley Morgan Jr. never left the field. No matter which personnel group Nebraska rolled out there, he was part of it, and he was the only skill player of which that was true. However, what might come as a surprise is the usage of junior college transfer Mike Williams. The 5-foot-10, 185-pound flanker wasn’t far behind Morgan as he only took two snaps off with senior Bryan Reimers (a 6-foot-5 walk-on who was placed on scholarship before the season) in his place briefly in the first half.
Spielman, the slot receiver who set freshman records last year for Nebraska, only played about 66 percent of the snaps. When the Huskers changed personnel groupings the slot receiver was usually the position subbed for an extra tight end or running back, and Spielman was also the only one who truly split time as Lindsey replaced him on about 15 percent of the plays. Spielman was pretty quiet for most of the game until burning the Colorado secondary for a 57-yard touchdown, but he only finished with three catches total for 67 yards and had a key drop on third down that would have moved the chains for Nebraska late. Lindsey was not targeted in the pass game.
True freshmen Andre Hunt and Justin McGriff, junior college transfer Jaron Woodyard and redshirt freshman Jaevon McQuitty were all DNPs.
In total, 19 players saw the field on offense for Nebraska against Colorado — two quarterbacks, three running backs, three tight ends, five wide receivers and six offensive lineman. At the skill positions, it appears as if Morgan, Williams and Still will be the players relied upon most heavily in addition to the starters on the offensive line. The Huskers gave a lot of looks in terms of alignment, but they didn’t get too exotic with their personnel packages.
Check back later for a breakdown of the defense in part two of this week’s special edition of Padding the Stats.
Jacob Padilla has been writing for Hail Varsity since 2015. He covers football, volleyball men’s basketball and prep sports. He also co-hosts the Nebraska Preps Postgame and Nebraska Shootaround podcasts for the Hurrdat Media and Hail Varsity podcast networks. His love of basketball can best be described as an obsession and if you need to find him, he’s probably in a gym somewhere watching, coaching or playing hoops.