Perhaps the most notable comments from Husker head coach Scott Frost Thursday night—certainly the most glowing—centered around the skill positions on offense.
Frost was on the Husker Sports Nightly radio show to recap spring ball, which ended this past Saturday after a 21-20 White win over Red in the annual Red-White Spring Game. In general, Frost seemed pleased with the progress that was made by his group in the spring.
They were tough on the team. “We made the decision to work them really hard,” Frost said. Without spring ball or a normal summer period or preseason camp, Frost felt a young team missed out on crucial developmental work. So they wanted to make up for it.
In winter conditioning, Nebraska made progress, as tends to be the message from programs in the early calendar months. “You could see the gains that we made in the winter during spring practice,” Frost said.
In terms of physicality, Frost felt the offensive and defensive lines probably took the biggest step. “The way they were finishing and coming off the ball on offense, and fighting and getting to the ball on defense,” Frost said. “Certainly other areas have improved, but I think we made big strides up front of both sides.”
One of the driving narratives throughout the spring was that Nebraska’s offense was going toe to toe with the defense, considered by many to be the clear strength of the team, and that competition was being fueled by an increased focus on the vertical passing game.
Frost said at the beginning of spring he felt the group of wideouts Nebraska has right now was as good as any he’s been around. Despite the loss of leading receivers in consecutive offseason—Wan’Dale Robinson and JD Spielman before him—there was optimism about the makeup of the wideout room.
Omar Manning, the top JUCO wideout recruit in the class of 2020, didn’t play but a handful of snaps last season, but Frost has said he thought the 6-foot-4 wideout made progress this spring, both in terms of his knowledge of the offense and his consistency. Manning had three catches for 24 yards on five targets in the spring game.
But it’s not just that Manning is around more, it’s that the pieces in the room seem to fit better together.
“That’s a spot that’s been a little bit of an Achilles heel for us, just getting that group to a point that we have playmakers out there and guys that are in the right spots all the time and doing the right things and frankly can win against Big Ten coverage,” Frost said.
“I’m always careful to throw out compliments but I think that group is about there. It’s the best it’s been, talent and depth-wise. It’s great to have the guys back that played a lot last year.”
Oliver Martin and Levi Falck had good spring periods, Frost said. Wyatt Liewer continues to improve and “impress everybody.” Zavier Betts is coming along. Frost mentioned just about everyone in the group.
It’s notable that he hasn’t shied away from the “best talent” comment early in the spring, and has since doubled down on the assertion on multiple occasions.
“I know Adrian (Martinez) feels a lot better about that group and that makes me feel better,” Frost said.
Another major driving force behind Frost’s optimism: Samori Toure.
“From the day he came in, he acted like a pro, he acted like a veteran,” Frost said of the former Montana wideout. “It’s amazing how quick he learns plays and scheme.”
In 2019, Toure’s last season on the field, the 6-foot-3 wideout had 87 catches for a program record 1,495 yards. He also set a single-game program record and FCS Playoff record with 303 yards in a game against Southeastern Louisiana.
Toure started off in the slot as a member of the Grizzlies before being moved outside. As a Husker, he’ll return to the slot. Eventually, he’ll line up on the same side of the formation as Manning, a situation Toure said after the spring game would only lead to good things for Nebraska. Defenses can take one of them away, Toure said, not both.
And if he’s left with single-man coverage too often, Nebraska likes its chances.
“He just has a natural feel for how to play football, where to go to get open, and really in the slot he provides us a downfield threat and a bigger-body guy with a catch radius and feel for the game that we really haven’t had in the slot since I’ve been here,” Frost said.
“I think he makes us better immediately. The ball’s gonna find him, it naturally finds that slot receiver in our offense if we have the right guy there and I think he’s the right guy.”
Though Martinez set a program record last season for year-long completion percentage, Nebraska’s offense needs a jolt. Nebraska ranked 93rd nationally in yards per pass attempt and only one receiver produced more than 150 yards—Robinson.
“As much as that position has been an achilles heel for us, I think we’re getting to a point where we have it where we need it to be,” Frost said.
Other News and Notes
>> No decision yet on whether Will Honas, who suffered a knee injury that will require surgery before the spring game, will look to apply for another medical waiver. Honas is expected to miss most of the upcoming season, if not all. Frost said the inside linebacker had missed most of the 14 practices prior to the spring game, and then injured his knee during drill work on the last day before the scrimmage.
Honas played two seasons at Butler C.C. before transferring to Nebraska in 2018. He tore his ACL his first year in Lincoln and received the year back. Then this offseason he elected to return for his sixth collegiate season, using the free year granted by the NCAA. Another return would mark seven years in college.
>> As for the schedule now for the Huskers, Frost laid it out in detail.
Only a handful of players still have finals left to take in class—this is finals week—but the team has had this week off. They’ll also have next week off. Then they’ll be brought back for the start of summer conditioning the following week and work for eight of the next nine weeks, with a week-long break right in the middle. Four on, one off, four more on.
“Then we’ll give them a break and get ready for camp,” Frost said.
Nebraska is certainly taking advantage of having offseason access again after the COVID year.
However, fall camp might look different again this season depending on what the NCAA decides in the coming weeks.
In response to results from a five-year concussion study released earlier this spring, an NCAA legislative committee is deeply exploring ways to make the annual August camp a safer place, officials told Sports Illustrated in interviews this week. The Football Oversight Committee (FOC), college football’s highest policy-making group, plans to present recommendations soon that will significantly change one of football’s most grueling traditions.
Committee members are considering a reduction of full-padded camp practices (from 21 to eight), the complete abolishment of collision exercises (such as the “Oklahoma” drill) and limiting a team to two scrimmages per camp (lowered from three and a half).
Those potential changes have drawn the ire of the college football community of late, but Frost was rather diplomatic when asked about them Thursday night.
“Safety of our players has got to be the primary concern and everybody’s priority,” he said. “That being said, I’d hate to think we’re following the NFL at every step.
“When you’re up at the NFL level, a lot of those guys don’t need as much practice blocking and tackling and hitting. College is kind of where you learn it, and learning it helps you be better but it also helps you be safer. I hope we’re able to find a happy medium and not reduce it so much that we’re not getting guys ready for games and ready for contact. Flip side of that is we certainly want to reduce injuries and help the entire team stay healthy through camp. I hope we can find a place where we can land where we still feel like we can get guys educated and taught how to do things the right way without grinding on them too much.”
>> On his fourth-year star defensive back, Cam Taylor-Britt, Frost had this to say: “I don’t know how many corners there are in the conference or country that are better than him but I doubt there’s many, and he’ll get the chance to prove that.”
>> Before the spring game Frost said it wasn’t looking likely that Nebraska would dip into the transfer portal to add a quarterback. Immediately after the spring game, he said it wasn’t high on their list of priorities. Again on Thursday night, Frost stated that he feels comfortable with what he has.
“That was a position, complete transparency, that we were going to take a hard look at in the spring and decide if we needed to add someone there or not,” he said. “We came out of spring and decided we’re pretty comfortable with who we have there.”
Frost went on to say they feel confident as a staff that “one or more” of the three main quarterbacks currently backing Martinez up—walk-on Matt Masker, second-year freshman Logan Smothers, and first-year freshman Heinrich Haarberg—can be ready to go into a game if they’re needed by the start of the 2021 season.
It’s a multi-layered situation.
One, Nebraska has a starting quarterback entering his fourth year and then backups with no legitimate game experience at the collegiate level. The concern is that Martinez, who has battled injuries every year in Lincoln, is a hit away from putting Nebraska in an uncomfortable situation.
But the other side of the coin is the fact that experienced, ready-to-play quarterbacks sitting in the portal might not look kindly on a situation at Nebraska where they’d be asked to play backup and wait for a chance. If they’re in the portal, it’s likely they’re leaving a similar set-up.
But, and this might be key in Frost’s thinking, Haarberg in particular has surprised the coaching staff. Frost said as much Thursday night.
“He made a few throws during the spring that everybody kinda turned and looked at each other,” Frost said. “I think if I threw it like him I probably wouldn’t be a coach right now because I’d have had a career as a player, so I’m a little bit jealous of his arm strength and his ability to rip it.”
Nebraska has two open scholarships to play with this summer.
Derek is a newbie on the Hail Varsity staff covering Husker athletics. In college, he was best known as ‘that guy from Twitter.’ He has covered a Sugar Bowl, a tennis national championship and almost everything in between (except an NCAA men’s basketball tournament game… *tears*). In his spare time, he can be found arguing with literally anyone about sports.