With spring football set to begin for Nebraska on Monday, the Hail Varsity staff got together to answer one question—with a bunch of questions.
You can ask one question and get an honest and thoughtful answer from the man in charge of Nebraska football. What is your most pressing question as we enter spring ball?
Brandon Vogel — Why did Nebraska run the ball so much in 2019?
Sacrilege, I know, to even inadvertently imply that the best number of rush attempts isn’t the most rush attempts, but the Huskers’ 2019 run rate stands out in Scott Frost’s oeuvre as a head coach. His first three teams ran the ball on 54.1%, 54.1% (both at UCF) and 53.5% of plays. In 2019 that number jumped to 62.7%.
That happened in a year in which, at the beginning of the season, everyone thought Adrian Martinez would have even more of the playbook at his disposal and there was all the incentive in the world to keep him health (which probably meant fewer QB carries). It happened in a year in which Nebraska lost its top rusher (Devine Ozigbo) and had a whole bunch of uncertainty around Maurice Washington leading up to the season. It happened in a year in which reinforcements from the 2019 recruiting class (Dedrick Mills, Rahmir Johnson, Ronald Thompkins) didn’t arrive until the summer; last spring was a skeleton crew. It happened in a year in which, following the Huskers’ loss at Minnesota, the head coach was saying things like this: “Right now we are having to pick and choose run plays and try to scheme too much instead of just winning upfront and relying on our run game.”
None of that screams, “This will be our run-heaviest year yet!” But it was. Why?
I’m not just curious about it, I think it tells us something about the 2020 season, too. Was last year’s offense hemmed in by some combination of factors? Was last year’s run rate a reaction to being in the Big Ten and, maybe, a sign for the future? Either way, what does it mean for this season, another one in which some key contributors at running back aren’t showing up for another couple of months?
Is the future of Nebraska’s offense as a 60% run team—Chip Kelly’s Oregon teams were that—or is it something more balanced? An answer to that question would certainly shape the conversation this spring.
Erin Sorensen — What are your legitimate expectations for the 2020 season?
Absolutely no coach would ever answer this. Can you imagine someone saying, “Yeah, I think we’ll be pretty OK but I’m a bit worried about the back half of our schedule” and the backlash that would come from it? Some might applaud the honesty, but I doubt it’d go over all that well.
For me, I’d be interested in the answer because it would answer a lot of other questions by extension. We’re going to wonder a lot about the offensive line this spring and summer, as well as the defensive line. How are those two shaping up? Is there a legitimate competition at quarterback? How concerned should we be about the lack of depth at wide receiver and running back right now? It goes on and on.
Nebraska’s first half of its schedule in 2020 isn’t easy, but it’s not as challenging as its second half. The first seven weeks feature Purdue, Central Michigan, South Dakota State, Cincinnati, Northwestern, Illinois and Rutgers. There should not be any “gimmes” on the schedule coming off three years of Nebraska not being bowl eligible by the end of the season, but that first half isn’t terrible. It’s the second half where concern sets in more noticeably. At Ohio State, Penn State, at Iowa, at Wisconsin and Minnesota are the final five. Rough.
So, what are Frost’s expectations? What is a reasonable win-loss total for this season? I just can’t help but wonder what the threshold is when you look at the season and go, “Yeah, that was a success in my book.”
Again, no coach would answer that. You would never want to publicly admit that you don’t think your team can win every matchup. That faith—whether you feel it or not—is important for morale. Plus, anything is possible to some degree. That’s the beauty of sports. But can you imagine if a coach did speak openly about what their expectations are for the year ahead? Talk about one way to manage the hype machine.
Greg Smith — What led you to make the following statement two years ago and what about the situation with your team did you misjudge?
"I know if we're getting better day by day, we're going to be really dangerous and hard to beat in the very near future," Frost said. "We'll see how this first year goes, but people better get us now because we're going to keep getting better and better."
Scott Frost made this statement in July 2018. I admit this is a tough question, but it’d give us a great glimpse into Frost’s thinking. It is a much bigger-picture question than I’d normally want to know about heading into an important spring with many storylines. Part of what attracts Husker fans to Frost is the unwavering confidence he can have. The other side of that is that when things don’t go as planned there are tough questions to be answered.
In two seasons Frost has won nine games at Nebraska. In one season Chris Klieman won eight at Kansas State. As more of those facts pile up, has it caused introspection on how the program has been run? What adjustments are being made to take the program to the next level?
Expectations will be all over the map for Nebraska this season but mostly kept in check. It’s Year 3 now and a lot of players who didn’t “buy-in” initially have left or graduated. There are many Frost recruits on the admittedly young team. That should have an impact on play style and the mentality of the team that more closely aligns with Frost. After not making a bowl the last three years, the program could use some of Frost’s confidence. The pressure is mounting to back up the talk.
Jacob Padilla — Do you have the pieces needed to make this offense run like it’s supposed to in 2020?
Nebraska lost so much on defense from last year’s team that asking that side of the ball to carry the Huskers to victory is probably a bit unrealistic, but even if that weren’t the case, this is a Scott Frost team and that means the offense will always be the focus.
It starts up front in the trenches where Nebraska returns all five starters. That unit certainly had its struggles last season. Does Frost feel confident that the line will be solid enough to protect his quarterback and open up running lanes better than it did last season?
Nebraska returns Dedrick Mills at running back, and he certainly showed a lot of improvement down the stretch, but Nebraska seemed hesitant to commit to him as the workhorse back even with the options limited last season. Is Frost ready to commit to him, and is he ready to consistently produce? What about the back-ups? Does Frost think Rahmir Johnson, Marvin Scott III or Sevion Morrison is ready to make an impact? What is the plan for Ronald Thompkins?
The tight end room looks to be in good shape, but wide receiver is a different story, especially after the departure of JD Spielman. Is Wan’Dale Robinson ready to step into Spielman’s role? Can Omar Manning be the instant impact junior college transfer that Mike Williams and Jaron Woodyard weren’t? Can any of the redshirt or true freshmen get on the field? Does Frost think he needs to get a grad transfer to play ahead of the young guys?
We obviously know Frost is confident in his quarterback, but there are plenty of questions elsewhere considering how much production Nebraska returns (with or without Spielman).
Derek Peterson — Were you two years away or were you two years away from being two years away?
I think that’s the most important question. Nebraska beating or not beating a high-level Cincy squad isn’t going to move the needle. Beating Purdue or Minnesota is a meh. Nebraska won’t be where Nebraska wants to be if it doesn’t beat Iowa (0-2, average margin of minus-3), Wisconsin (0-2, minus-16.5), and Ohio State (0-2, minus-23).
The Buckeyes are not running scared. The Buckeyes, at this point, aren’t even double-taking when the Huskers walk in. And that team is the only one that should matter to Nebraska. They’re the end goal. No disrespect to a tremendous Penn State team or a Michigan team that proves capable year after year, but the Buckeyes are the class of the Big Ten. Scott Frost wants to win championships; that means he has to take OSU’s mantle.
So, how close is Nebraska to that end goal as it enters Year 3 with Scott Frost? Is Nebraska, with seemingly a culture set the way Frost wants it, a large percentage of the roster his own recruits and a couple seasons in strength coach Zach Duval’s weight program, ready to at least compete?
Nebraska’s senior class is pretty small; the 2016 and ‘17 recruiting classes absolutely decimated by transfer and misses. So Year 1 and Year 2 featured an over-reliance on youth. Is Nebraska just finally back to treading water and now it has to work its way out of the deep end?
Or, is this team ready for something? A junior quarterback. A senior running back that looks capable. A sophomore Swiss Army Knife of a wideout who would start on virtually any other team in college football. Nebraska has played in 12 one-possession games under Frost and lost nine of them. Eventually, that will level out.
If you want to look at one area of the game as an indicator of Nebraska’s readiness, it’s the run defense. Nebraska has ranked 102nd nationally, or worse, in yards per carry allowed every year since an average 2016 season. Can’t win in the Big Ten if you can’t stop the run.
So how close is Nebraska?