Nebraska Cornhuskers wide receiver Samori Toure (3) during their football game against the Iowa Hawkeyes.
Photo Credit: Eric Francis

The Transfer Portal Can Help Nebraska, Especially At Four Key Positions

November 30, 2021

Michigan State head coach Mel Tucker is living right.

Not only has Tucker surprised many in the college football world by having his Spartans at 10-2, he just signed a 10-year, $95 million contract extension. People are starting to recognize what—and how—Tucker is building at Michigan State, including players looking for a fresh start.

That includes Jalen Berger, a former Wisconsin running back who was dismissed from the team and entered the transfer portal in October. In two seasons in Madison, Berger rushed for 389 yards and three touchdowns, but watched as Clemson transfer Chez Mellusi and true freshman Braelon Allen got the bulk of the carries. Berger was a four-star prospect from New Jersey who held offers from programs like Alabama, LSU and Ohio State before committing to the Badgers in 2020.

On Monday, Berger announced that he was transferring to Michigan State. Tucker has used the portal well since he’s been in East Lansing. He plucked current running back Kenneth Walker III from Wake Forest—that marriage has worked out for both parties as Walker has turned into a Heisman candidate with 1,636 rushing yards and 18 touchdowns.

Berger most likely saw the success Walker had and thought he can be the next great transfer running back at Michigan State.

Give credit to Tucker—he’s shown he has a good eye for identifying talent in the portal. That’s an area that needs to improve for Nebraska head coach Scott Frost as he ventures into a very important offseason for himself and the program.

Receiver Samori Touré is the biggest transfer-portal success story for Frost. There were doubts that Touré could replicate what he did at Montana, where he was an FCS All-American, on the Power 5 stage. But with 46 catches for 898 yards and five touchdowns, Touré wound up being the Huskers’ go-to receiver and proved he can play Division I football at a high level.

Frost needs less whiffs and more hits in the transfer portal like Touré. But what positions should the Huskers focus on improving the most? Let’s talk about it.

Offensive tackle

It doesn’t matter if it’s cliché or not—good football teams have offensive lines fanbases can be proud of. That isn’t the case at Nebraska, where the issues up front have helped result in poor quarterback play and a not-very-good hand-off run game.

Give credit to center Cam Jurgens, who fixed his snapping issues from 2020 and looked like he turned into the unit’s best lineman. There will need to be a replacement for right guard Matt Sichterman, who is moving on from the program and walked in the Senior Day event prior to the Iowa game last week. Left guard Nouredin Nouili played well enough to earn a scholarship after joining the team as a walk-on from Colorado State.

The most glaring needs may be on the outside at tackle, where Bryce Benhart and Turner Corcoran struggled for the most part blocking Big Ten edge rushers. Nebraska’s 29 sacks allowed is tied for fourth-most in the Big Ten. Not every sack should be pinned on Benhart and Corcoran of course, but it’s clear the o-line’s development hasn’t happened as quickly as most would like.

An upgrade at offensive tackle could be beneficial for Frost, who is entering a must-win-early 2022 season.

Quarterback

It’s still unclear what the future holds for Adrian Martinez. If he chooses to return for his fifth season at Nebraska, it’ll be with a new offensive coordinator and a head coach who will need to win games early in the schedule. If he chooses to use his extra year of eligibility elsewhere, it can be a fresh start with a new situation, which could be good for someone who has given so much physically and mentally for the Husker program.

Logan Smothers had an up-and-down debut against Iowa. The second-year freshman looked comfortable running Frost’s zone-read-heavy option offense for three quarters, but not so much in pressure situations in the fourth. None of that should surprise anyone—Smothers was making his first start of his career, and it’d be unfair to the Alabama native to expect him to be perfect.

The athletic Smothers did look a lot like Martinez against the Hawkeyes. He’s a natural athlete and threw the ball well when he was on the right page with his receiver. After one game, it’d be unfair to label Smothers what he is or isn’t. But what’s fairly obvious is this: Smothers will need to keep developing, both mentally and physically, if he’s going to be the guy at Nebraska.

Kearney Catholic product Heinrich Haarberg could have a high ceiling. He possesses all the physical traits you’d want in a quarterback. He could get into the mix as well next season, though it may be hard to supplant Smothers, who has been there longer and showed good things in his first start.

Once Martinez has made his decision on what he’s going to do—and maybe he has and just hasn’t made it public—Frost needs to weigh his options, keeping his timeline next season in mind. There are no shortage of quarterbacks in the portal, but it’s a quality over quantity thing. If Frost goes quarterback shopping, he needs to find the right fit.

Safety

Gone are longtime Husker starting safeties Deontai Williams and Marquel Dismuke.

Williams ultimately saw his season end at Minnesota on Oct. 16 with an injury. And although it will always hurt a defense when a leader like Williams goes down, it did create a situation where talented backup Myles Farmer got valuable reps as a starter.

Farmer, a third-year redshirt freshman, ended his season with 30 tackles and one interception. It was a nice bounce-back campaign after he suffered a season-ending ankle injury last year at Purdue. Farmer seems to have one of the safety positions locked down for next season, but who will replace Dismuke?

Noa Pola-Gates could be a player who steps into that role. The 6-foot, 180-pound Arizona native played in eight games this season, mainly as a member of Nebraska’s special teams coverage units.

What about Javin Wright? The Arizona native has developed into an intriguing player at 6-4 and 210 pounds.

Unfortunately for Wright, he saw his season end in September after having surgery on a second discovered blood clot. His availability remains unclear for 2022. Before his medical situation, Wright was viewed by the coaching staff as a possible option at the Blackshirts’ hybrid linebacker/safety nickel role that JoJo Domann excelled at and Isaac Gifford is now playing.

Behind Pola-Gates and Wright, there doesn’t look to be a ton of depth. The portal could help in that area.

Pass rusher

While there are ways to affect a quarterback without sacking him—batting balls down, collapsing pockets so they can’t follow-through on their throws—Chinander still wanted to see his guys get home more often than they did.

The Husker defense showed improvement in 2021, but still lacked a pass rush that scared opponents. Nebraska had just 20 sacks this season, which ranks 10th in the Big Ten and tied for 96th in the nation. Garrett Nelson had the most sacks with five.

A lack of pass rush hasn’t just been a 2021 problem, it’s been a trend. Not since 2013 has Nebraska ranked in the top five of the conference in sacks. That year, the Huskers recorded 38 sacks and were led by Randy Gregory’s 9.5.

Finding quality pass rushers is hard. They don’t grow on trees. But it wouldn’t hurt to take a peek in the portal to see who’s available. Nebraska’s defense enjoyed a strong year in 2021, but if it needed anything, a consistent pass rush was it.

Running back may be another position that Frost looks at, and for good reason as it wasn’t a strong group for Nebraska in 2021. There are solid options in that room, however, including a fully healthy Gabe Ervin Jr. and Rahmir Johnson, as well as a more matured Jaquez Yant.

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