Photo Credit: John S. Peterson

The 10 Most Intriguing Huskers of 2021: The Best of the Rest

May 30, 2021

I’ve never done a “best of the rest” extension of this ranking, but no time like the present. The 10 Most Intriguing Huskers series returns this week for its fourth iteration. Though it’s never been a look at the best players on the roster, it is an attempt to handicap who can have the largest impact with their play one way or the other. Potential and variance plays well here. 

And constructing this year’s ranking took a little longer than usual. The initial list—just going down the roster and writing down each name that popped—went 30-deep. Perhaps that’s a testament to Nebraska’s recruiting efforts, the fact this coaching staff has added so much promising young talent to the roster. It’s also probably illustrative of how little is set in stone as the summer gets rolling. 

At several positions, there are options aplenty with seemingly little separation between the top of the group and the bottom (i.e. running back). Elsewhere, if we know the names that will fill spots on the depth chart, there are several whose impact remains something of a mystery (i.e. wide receiver). 

Lots of options. Lots of questions. Undeniably, lots of talent. 

So, here are the names who found themselves in the 11-20 group. The last cuts, if you will, grouped rather than ranked. This whole thing is pretty subjective, but when you’re talking about Nos. 16 and 20, you’re splitting hairs. 

A Group Where You’re Splitting Hairs

Jaquez Yant (second-year freshman running back): The only thing spring ball really enforced in the running back room is that there are legitimately no fewer than five running backs who could carry the ball in the Huskers’ opener against Illinois on Aug. 28. Yant is absolutely the wild card here. Coaches speak of a walk-on player who isn’t viewed as one. That’s probably something of a motivational tactic, though if he wins the job he probably can’t stay one for long. But to win the job, coach Ryan Held wants to see him cut some weight this summer first. How much does the young man from Tallahassee want it? Yant has a good, strong base, but if he’s 240-plus pounds, is the separation speed needed to break free from Big Ten defenses going to be there? If Yant does cut that weight and can pair his rough-and-tumble style with some unexpected burst, you’re talking about a player many have doubted looking to prove he’s earned what’s been given. Those guys are dangerous. He could end up needing some more time to work on the body and on his consistency within the scheme, which would be fine seeing as he’s only a second-year back, and that’s what lands him here as opposed to higher up. 

Javin Wright (third-year redshirt freshman safety/nickel): If Javin Wright is to see meaningful snaps on defense during the 2020 season, it’s looking like it’ll be at nickel. Wright offers a tremendous amount of intrigue in that hybrid linebacker/safety role JoJo Domann has carved out in the Nebraska defense. The only problem is that Domann is still around for another year, and the super senior played every snap last season. While he’s not likely to do the same thing for a second year in a row, it’s safe to expect Domann will be on the field a ton. That seriously limits what Wright can do from an impact standpoint. Still, he’s a freak athlete with size and ball skills. That’s quite the combo.

Zavier Betts (second-year freshman wide receiver): I’ll admit, I expected to hear a little more about Zavier Betts during spring ball. The main beneficiaries of coach praise were Samori Toure, Omar Manning, and Oliver Martin. It wasn’t too often Betts was singled out for anything in particular. That can be a good thing for a young player. Just keep working. Betts is in just his second year as part of this offense; eventually Nebraska will reach a point where only the best of the freshmen are in contention to play through their first year or two because of the older talent ahead of them. Nebraska’s getting there. Betts isn’t lower on the depth chart through any fault of his own—and truth be told he might not even be that low. But you do have to run through quite a few guys before getting to him. Toure, Manning, and Martin figure to take up a lot of the first-team snaps when healthy, then there’s Levi Falck, and Nebraska loves Wyatt Liewer. If we’re talking about a No. 5 or No. 6 wideout, it’s gonna take a lot to make a serious impact.

Brant Banks (third-year redshirt freshman o-lineman): Is he playing guard or is he playing tackle? Is he on the right or is he on the left? Is Brant Banks the first lineman off the bench regardless of where he’s going? That seems to be the direction he’s headed. Banks is huge, a 6-foot-7 lineman coach Greg Austin really seems to like, though he’s experimenting with where to put him. It appeared as though Banks was in the mix this spring for the open guard spot to the right of Cam Jurgens at center. With Bryce Benhart and Turner Corcoran ascending to starter at both tackle spots, Banks’ best chance to earn a starting job might actually be at guard. From a technical standpoint, mastery there is going to take some time. You’ve got to play in a phone booth at guard, and that was one of the adjustments we heard Matt Farniok say last year took some time to make. Austin says Banks needs to work on his hips. Whatever it is, this is a talented player entering his third year in the program who’s still hoping to make an impact.

Marvin Scott III (second-year freshman running back): Where Yant is almost a complete unknown, we at least have in-game film for Marvin Scott III. He had 24 carries for 62 yards in 2020. As a first-year player, Scott’s biggest plus was his immediately-ready frame. He looked strong, but he didn’t have a ton of breakaway speed. To his credit, this spring and into this summer, Scott has placed an emphasis on exactly that. The Floridian is my darkhorse in the running back race. 

A Group of Guys Who’ll Soon Be Studs

Isaac Gifford (second-year freshman safety/nickel): Between defense and special teams, Isaac Gifford is going to play a lot more than people expect. From a great football family, a hard-worker, a high-intensity player, and a guy who performed well in offseason testing. As with Wright, his future position might be The Domann Nickel, but I expect to see a healthy dose of Gifford this season regardless. 

Myles Farmer (third-year redshirt freshman safety): A sure-fire starter at safety had Nebraska lost either of its seniors to the NFL after the 2020 year, Myles Farmer looks ready to take a step. Farmer is a big safety (6-foot-3) with long arms and good instincts when the ball is in the air. It’s best not to get too carried away when talking about one half of one game, but it’s also worthy of acknowledging just how good Farmer looked in the first half against Northwestern when he had two interceptions. Be consistent in run support and be a ball-hawk in passing situations, those are the two things that separate the great safeties from the rest of the pack. A freak injury late in the 2020 season put him in rehab mode throughout the winter, and you have to think fellow safety Noa Pola-Gates is ready to play a role as well, so what can Farmer do when his number is called? Will it be limited reps again or will he push for more? 

Casey Rogers (fourth-year sophomore defensive end): A product of New York, Casey Rogers has developed into one of my favorite players on the Husker defense. He’s gotten better each year, adding pieces to his game, and possesses that desire to be great. With appearances in every game in 2020, let’s call Rogers what he is—a fourth starter on a three-man defensive line. 

A Group of Final Cuts

Omar Manning (fourth-year junior wide receiver): If Omar Manning is available, he’ll play. If Omar Manning plays consistently, he’ll make an impact. After this spring, that feels like a safe bet to make. Manning is a different make than any other Husker receiver available to coaches Scott Frost and Matt Lubick. That isn’t hyperbolic, it’s fact. His 6-foot-4 frame, athleticism, physicality, and experience sets him apart. If this was a ranking of the best Huskers or the most important Huskers, Manning would land easily in the top 10, but this is on intrigue, and I only have one question with the wideout. Can he be there every day? We probably know what to expect if he is. 

Pheldarius Payne (fourth-year junior outside linebacker): Tell me he should be in the top 10, I won’t argue. He was the absolute last cut after a lengthy back-and-forth over the ninth, 10th, and 11th spots. In all reality, Pheldarius Payne could be one of Nebraska’s biggest disruptors in 2021. Payne went through a whammy of a first year in Lincoln, complete with shoulder surgery, contracting covid, changing positions, and kinda-sorta breaking out at the end. He had five tackles and a sack in Nebraska’s final game of the season, where he looked quite good. Payne says he played robotic in his first year with the Huskers, and he was a little heavier than he is now. Defensive coordinator Erik Chinander says this could be a “great” year for Payne, who will be healthy and ready to go at outside linebacker. He’ll play with a hand in the dirt and he’ll play standing up as Chinander cycles fronts and groupings, but if he’s playing natural and free he might rediscover the playmaking ability he had at the junior college level, where Payne produced 12 TFLs, four sacks, a pass breakup, and a fumble recovery in 2019. Nebraska needs that kind of a player to emerge, and Payne could very well be it. It was tough to leave him off the 10-man list, but he’s right there. 

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