Nebraska Cornhuskers Samori Touré walks to the locker room with wide receiver Levi Falck
Photo Credit: John S. Peterson

Touré’s Big Day, Nebraska’s Strange Wideout Usage, and Other Thoughts After Two Games

September 05, 2021

Nebraska ran off 65 snaps Saturday against Fordham before Husker head coach Scott Frost elected to put the second-team quarterback in, ending Adrian Martinez’s day. 

With Martinez, Nebraska’s fourth-year starting quarterback, at the controls, the Huskers rang up 456 yards on those 65 plays. It was an average of 7 yards per play; Nebraska had a success rate of 49.2% and an explosive play rate of 20%. 

In the first half, Nebraska wasn’t able to push around the Fordham defensive front as one would normally expect a Power Five program to do against an FCS foe. When Nebraska started clicking, it wasn’t exactly uber-efficient, more buoyed by chunk plays. If that’s worrisome to you moving forward, that’s perfectly reasonable, though Nebraska through two weeks has discovered some explosiveness it didn’t have a season ago and that’s certainly a nice development. 

(NU has 11 pass plays of more than 20 yards already; it had just 18 in eight games last year.)

Still, with these kinds of pay-for-play games, you get into a chicken-or-egg situation. Did Nebraska put up 633 yards of total offense and 52 points because it found answers to problems Illinois exposed a week ago, or did it simply do what it was supposed to against a significantly overmatched opponent? 

That latter was the messaging from Husker players after the game. It’s a step in the right direction that Nebraska was able to go out and handle its business. Matt Millen, BTN’s broadcast partner on the call for the game, said “(Frost) will have enough to be able to encourage them with, and he’ll have enough to be able to correct,” and that’s about right. 

I wanted to see Nebraska put up 50. Mission accomplished, I suppose. 

Nebraska averaged 5.4 yards per rush in the second half, a slightly better mark than in the first. Backs found success against a Rams front seven that was clearly gassed. It took Nebraska some time to settle in early and get moving. It looked too difficult in that first half. 

It’s hard to feel better about Nebraska’s place in the Big Ten hierarchy after a game like that—especially so considering its Week 0 opponent, Illinois, followed up a win over NU with a 37-30 loss to UT San Antonio—and its hard to know what exactly to take away from the game. 

We saw some more old-school option incorporated into the attack. That was a welcome sight. 

We saw a Nebraska offense clearly focused on targeting wideout Samori Touré in the passing game. Six of Martinez’s first 10 pass attempts went at Touré. The former Montana man finished the day with eight catches for 133 yards. He didn’t find the end zone, but he had receptions of 23, 25, and 31 yards. 

Wideout separation against press man remains an area to watch, but it was nonetheless good to see Nebraska force-feeding Touré the ball. He was third among pass-catchers last week against Illinois with a 15.6% target share. That’s not good enough for the presumed best wideout on the team. 

Nebraska even incorporated him into the run game. And no, before your gag reflex kicks in, not in the way it handled Wan’Dale Robinson’s role; Touré wasn’t running between the tackles. Nebraska motioned him around in triple-option designs and Touré netted a 21-yard run and an 8-yard score out of those plays.  

Some other thoughts:

>> Here are the snaps from Nebraska’s opener:

  • Running backs
    • Ervin 47
    • Johnson 15
    • Stepp 12
  • Tight ends
    • Allen 62
    • Hickman 25
  • Wideouts
    • Touré 60
    • Martin 57
    • Liewer 45
    • Manning 30
    • Falck 10
    • Betts 2
    • Belt 2

And the snap counts from the home-opener before Martinez sat down for the day:

  • Running backs
    • Stepp 27
    • Morrison 21
    • Ervin 17
  • Tight ends
    • Allen 60
    • Hickman 9
    • Boerkircher 5
    • Brewington 3
  • Wideouts
    • Touré 55
    • Liewer 40
    • Falck 29
    • Manning 25
    • Betts 23
    • Brown 6
    • Belt 5

Perhaps we can take something from the backfield with those. Gabe Ervin Jr. was the clear No. 1 guy in the opener and Stepp served more as a change-of-pace. This last game featured much more of a true rotation, with three backs switching off series. Ervin again got the start, but it was Stepp who had the best day of the bunch.

>> Nebraska’s first drive of the second half was perhaps the best-looking possession Nebraska has had so far, and it began with a 19-yard run from Stepp. Frost rode Stepp down the field, with six straight runs that moved the ball 24 yards. Nothing flashy, but Nebraska spent all offseason talking about being a downhill rushing team and that has yet to materialize. This was our best look yet at such an attack.

There haven’t been any two-back looks from Nebraska through the first two games, but my impression after Saturday was that Stepp and Sevion Morrison should be the top two going forward. Maybe Jaquez Yant deserves some first-team run, though his usage against Fordham would suggest he’s lower on the depth chart.

Nebraska has a 53% run rate in two games if you exclude quarterbacks scrambling on pass plays, which I have to get a clearer picture of tendencies (which still isn’t perfect given the RPO piece of it but oh well). The first game was skewed pass because Nebraska fell down 21 points. The second game was probably skewed run because of Nebraska’s physical, athletic, and depth advantages. I’m curious which way that number moves going forward, given all the talk this spring and summer.

>> At tight end, keep an eye on Chris Hickman. My guess is that Chancellor Brewington and Nate Boerkircher were on the field mostly because Nebraska wanted to go heavy and Travis Vokolek is currently unavailable. Brewington and Boerkircher both got in for the final three plays that drive I just mentioned; Nebraska showed 13 personnel for the first time this season on those goalline snaps. But Hickman’s last snaps of the day came on NU’s fifth drive, and he only got nine total after a more prominent role in the opener. Is that something to monitor going forward or just a product of situation?

>> The wideout rotation is hard to peg. Wyatt Liewer and Levi Falck went on scholarship before the season started. Liewer has played 85 snaps in two games, has seven targets and two catches for 13 yards. Falck has gotten 39 snaps, with only one catch (one target) for eight yards. Frost has defended his personnel choices by saying the guys playing on Saturdays are showing consistency during practice each week.

Conversely, Zavier Betts has 25 snaps in two games after what was supposedly a strong fall camp. The former 4-star has seen three targets, all against Fordham, with one catch for 30 yards. Betts is a talented player with tremendous potential—one that has been touted by his quarterback and the defenders tasked with stopping him in practice. It will get harder and harder to justify leaving him on the sideline if the wideouts going out ahead of him continue to produce so little.

Maybe the explanation is as simple as Betts is a young player rounding into form. Things take time, and Betts did have a down spring period. Still, if Nebraska is having issues separating from coverage, perhaps it should trot out new receivers, ones who were highly recruited at that.

>> Second-year wideout Alante Brown is another such player. He flashed Saturday, if only for a brief moment on an 11-yard reception that featured a nifty stutter step. It was in garbage time with the second-team offense, but I’d like to see more of Brown going forward.

>> The quote that made rounds after Nebraska’s loss to Illinois came courtesy of Illini coach Bret Bielema when he said, “The only guy that really could beat us, we thought, was 2,” referring to Martinez. While I’m not completely convinced Nebraska is devoid of skill talent, as most have interpreted that quote to suggest, Nebraska sure has been making it easy for opposing coaching staffs. For some reason, the best period players period don’t play often enough, replaced by practice warriors who have yet to make an impact in games.

That seems a bit harsh, but if Nebraska needs more from its wideouts, there’s quite a collection of scholarship receivers standing on the sidelines hoping for a chance to provide that.

>> Brendan Franke deserves a shoutout. The freshman placekicker from Gretna joined the program this summer to try and solve Nebraska’s kickoff issues. Nebraska had touchbacks on just 12 of its 40 kickoffs last season, a rate that ranked 10th in the Big Ten and 81st nationally.

Franke has nine touchbacks so far on 11 kickoffs. With other aspects of NU’s special teams operation still a work in progress (putting it lightly), Franke providing some stability on kickoff is an under-the-radar nice development. That’s one of those areas you don’t think about until constant losses in the field position battle are smacking you in the nose.

>> Through 136 first-team snaps, Nebraska has used 11 personnel for 114 of them (84%) and 12 for 19. I wonder how much that will change when Vokolek returns to the picture, and, for that matter, freshman tight end Thomas Fidone. Austin Allen, a team captain, has played big snaps through the first two games. Will that continue and the others will work with him, or will their return give him more chances to rest?

So far, Nebraska has run out of 12 personnel on 78% of such snaps (this includes all snaps from both games, not just the first-team ones).

>> The Blackshirts only forced one three-and-out against Illinois. It got six against Fordham and stopped two more drives with turnovers. The defense played with nice energy. Keep it going.

>> A post-Week 1 Big Ten power ranking, with my preseason rankings in parenthesis. I’ll keep this going throughout the season for anyone who cares. (Keep in mind it’s a power ranking, which is more a snapshot than end-of-year projection.)

  1. Ohio State
  2. Iowa (3)
  3. Penn State (5)
  4. Michigan (6)
  5. Wisconsin (2)
  6. Minnesota (7)
  7. Maryland (9)
  8. Indiana (4)
  9. Michigan State (10)
  10. Purdue (11)
  11. Rutgers (12)
  12. Illinois (14)
  13. Nebraska (8)
  14. Northwestern (13)
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