After the dust of the three-day early national signing period settled last weekend, Nebraska had 13 new faces set to join its program from the high school ranks.
They aren’t the only new souls to join the Huskers, of course. The transfer portal has become a tool that teams across the country use to bolster their rosters with immediate-impact players who have experience playing college football. After a 3-9 season in his fourth year on the job, those are the kind of players that head coach Scott Frost needs as he enters a make-or-break 2022.
As of Monday, Nebraska has commitments from five transfers and signed one from junior college. The Huskers likely aren’t done searching for more help in the portal. Following Adrian Martinez’s decision to transfer to Kansas State, there’s just two scholarship quarterbacks on the roster in Logan Smothers and Heinrich Haarberg, and neither have the experience that a head coach on the hot seat would prefer. It’s unlikely that Richard Torres, the quarterback of the 2022 class, makes an impact next season as he rehabs a knee injury and develops his body to better withstand the rigors of Big Ten football.
“I sat down with every player after the season this last week and talked to those guys (Smothers and Haarberg), and they know we’re looking for one. We may get one, we may not,” Frost said last Thursday during an appearance on Sports Nightly. “Feel good about what we have in that room and I think both those guys are anxious to learn some new stuff and from a new guy (offensive coordinator Mark Whipple). And I think they’re looking forward to the competition, whether there’s a new one or not.”
There’s also a giant hole to fill at the most important position along the offensive line. Cam Jurgens, who started 18 consecutive games at center, declared for the NFL draft last week, leaving an already struggling o-line unit without a leader under first-year position coach Donovan Raiola. Nebraska could look in-house for its next center.
Frost said he believes the team has options already on the roster to fill that role, but added there could be more transfer additions to the o-line, too. Kevin Williams Jr. is committed to Nebraska. He’s an Omaha native and Omaha North graduate who was an o-lineman at FCS Northern Colorado. More on him later.
“I think we have a lot of guys who can play center. We have to figure out through spring ball and fall camp who the best five are. There might be a new addition or two there as well, before all the dust settles,” Frost said. “But Nouri (Nouredin Nouili) has played center before. (Ethan) Piper’s played center. (Trent) Hixson’s played center. I think some other guys would have the ability to play center. And again, it’s about figuring out the best five and how it all fits together the best, and we’ll have a lot of reps to figure that out.”
Quarterback and o-line—with a focus on finding the next center—are two positions at the top of the portal priority list this offseason. Finding adequate kicking specialists was another, and the Huskers went out and got the FCS Punter of the Year, Brian Buschini of Montana, and place kicker Timmy Bleekrode of Furman.
While the search for more transfers who can make an instant impact will go on throughout the offseason, who in the Huskers’ known 2022 class—that’s a group of 19 as of Monday—are the most likely to help right away on offense and defense? Here are four names to keep an eye on.
The Huskers will need to replace three of its four starters in the defensive backfield after the departures of corner Cam Taylor-Britt and safeties Deontai Williams and Marquel Dismuke.
Myles Farmer filled in for Williams when he went down with what turned out to be a season-ending injury, starting the final four games of the season. Though defensive backs coach Travis Fisher will say all the positions are open for competition, Farmer had a career-high 30 tackles in 2021 and has put himself into good position to be a starting safety in 2022. The other safety position is up for grabs, and Singleton, the lone junior college transfer of the bunch, is an experienced option.
Singleton comes to Nebraska after spending 2021 at Hutchinson Community College in Kansas, where he had 21 tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss, two interceptions and two pass breakups. According to the 247Sports Composite, Singleton was the No. 5 junior college safety in the country, which also included two of his Hutchinson teammates in Auburn commit Marquise Gilbert, who is ranked No. 1, and East Carolina commit Jordan Huff, No. 8.
Singleton, a native of Louisiana, has great size at 6-foot-3 and 205 pounds, which translates well for the heavy hitting of Big Ten football. He looks physically different than another safety who has his sights set on playing time in the 6-foot, 180-pound Noa Pola-Gates. Pola-Gates is a former four-star prospect who has been in the program since 2019 but hasn’t seen much action outside of special teams.
Isaac Gifford, who replaced JoJo Domann in Erik Chinander’s diverse nickel role, and Javin Wright, who saw his season end early after the discovery of a second blood clot, could be in the running for playing time at safety, too. As could Marques Buford Jr., who found the field on special teams as a true freshman. Buford and others have been cross-training at corner and safety, which is what Fisher prefers to do with his defensive backs.
Singleton plans to get to Lincoln in January so he can be with the team for winter conditioning.
Kevin Williams Jr.
The search for a transfer quarterback will dominate the headlines, but the offensive line is in major need of an upgrade. Williams could be a piece who provides some stability.
At 6-foot-5 and well over 300 pounds, Williams brings two season’s worth of starting experience to the Huskers’ o-line room. He can play both guard and tackle, and started nine games at left tackle for Northern Colorado in 2019.
Both Turner Corcoran and Bryce Benhart struggled to pass block in 2021. It remains to be seen how Teddy Prochazka recovers from a knee injury that ended his true freshman season early. Along with Williams, o-linemen like Henry Lutovsky, Ezra Miller, Broc Bando and Brant Banks are all in the mix to play as Raiola tries to find a winning combination.
Nebraska feels as if it has a steal with Hartzog, who was Mississippi’s Class 3A Mr. Football after scoring 44 total touchdowns in his senior year at Jefferson Davis County High School. Hartzog, a 5-10, 175-pounder, comes to Nebraska as a corner, but the position where he could make an impact immediately is on special teams as a returner.
Hartzog returned a combined 11 kickoffs and punt returns for touchdowns in his senior year. It remains to be seen if that will translate from the high school level to college, but it doesn’t hurt to give Hartzog an opportunity considering how lifeless Nebraska’s return game has been. The Huskers ranked 123rd in the nation in average kick-return yards with 15.58 and was 128th in punt-return yards, averaging 2.7. At times throughout the season, the Huskers’ poor return game got to the point where fair catches were met with applause from the Husker faithful.
Hartzog was a dynamic returner in high school. Can he do it at the college level?
Nebraska already had a receiver room that was full of intrigue before the commitment of Garcia-Castaneda. Now, with the addition of the New Mexico State transfer and newly-hired assistant Mickey Joseph coaching the wideouts, there’s legit excitement about this position.
The rather large question of which quarterback is going to be throwing the passes to these receivers needs to be answered this offseason, but at 6-feet and 185 pounds, Garcia-Castaneda projects to a slot receiver in the Whipple-Frost offense.
Garcia-Castaneda started his college football career at Saddleback College in 2019, where, as a freshman, he led team with 56 catches for 953 yards and 13 touchdowns. After transferring to New Mexico State, he played in the Aggies’ two-game Covid-impacted spring campaign before catching 36 passes for 587 yards and four touchdowns this past season.
With wideouts like Zavier Betts and Omar Manning likely playing on the outside, a speedy pass catcher like Garcia-Castaneda could have opportunities down in the middle of the field, much like Samori Touré enjoyed in his one season at Nebraska.