The talent conversation is back.
Of the 82 scholarship players on Nebraska’s roster currently, 62 of them have been recruited by and signed to play for Scott Frost and his current coaching staff. That number includes 17 out of 18 scholarship players at the quarterback, running back, and wideout positions. This offense is Frost’s.
On the defensive side of the ball, coordinator Erik Chinander has six of his 11 starters who could be termed “inherited” players, but that defensive rotation sometimes goes as deep as 20 players on gamedays. Of the 42 scholarship defenders, 33 were recruited by Chinander and Co.
Nebraska has been recruiting well under Frost. On paper, it should be set up nicely.
As most know, though, games aren’t won on paper, and recruiting evaluations can be tricky. Mike Riley recruited California well and targeted high-profile prospects. And yet at the tail end of the Riley era at Nebraska, much was made of the Huskers’ talent level relative to other teams in the Big Ten. When Frost first arrived, the talking points became size, strength, and athleticism.
Nebraska slipped to 4-8 in 2017, prompting Riley’s removal as the head coach after a miserable close to the year.
In Frost’s first season, Nebraska was 4-8, too, but the year was inverted—misery at the outset, hope to close.
In his second, Nebraska improved by the textbook definition of the term, but a 5-7 record felt underwhelming with six of the seven losses coming in the last eight weeks of the season.
Now midway through Frost’s third year at the helm, the Huskers are 1-3 and trending in the wrong direction. Showing progress, Frost said this week, is going to be important. Frost is currently on pace to have the second-worst three-year start to a coaching career at Nebraska of anyone since the turn of the 20th century.
And this week Nebraska gets to hit the road for a rivalry game with Iowa (3-2, currently ranked 15th in ESPN’s SP+ rating). The Hawkeyes have won three in a row over Michigan State (margin of 42 points), Minnesota (28), and Penn State (20).
NU is coming off a 41-23 embarrassment at home to what was a 1-3 Illinois team.
Immediately after the game, Frost was critical of the play on the field.
“I was embarrassed by our level of execution in all three phases,” he said. “I didn’t think we had the juice we had last week. We didn’t get as many hats to the ball on defense. We made mistakes over and over on offense. We made mistakes on special teams. I wasn’t happy with it. I didn’t really see it coming. It was almost like our team thought we won one game, ‘We’re good, we’re good.’ That’s not how it works in this league. It’s not how it works in life. It’s not how it works in football.”
In the days since, coaches have directed a good deal of the blame back at themselves. First it was Frost during his weekly Monday morning press conference, and then it was Chinander and offensive coordinator Matt Lubick on Tuesday.
“We’re so much better in so many ways, but we weren’t Saturday,” Frost said. “That’s what frustrates me. We’ve taken steps forward, I feel like we took a step back Saturday. We’ve got more talent in this program than we’ve had the last two years. The talent keeps growing.
“The progress is evident when you’re inside these walls, but it’s got to show up on the field. We’re playing three games against three good opponents. We’re going to take our swing. There’s no doubt that the improvements are being made. It’s got to show up on the football field and we’ve got to catch some momentum.”
Nebraska’s young. There’s absolutely no question about that. Freshmen and sophomores make up 50 of the 82 scholarship players on the roster. A veteran team is just going to execute cleaner than a green team.
“We’re in a situation where we’re playing a lot of freshmen, now that’s not an excuse, it is what is is, and we’ve got to play the best guys that give us a chance to win,” Lubick said. “Are they getting thrown into the fire a little bit before they’re ready? I don’t know. At the end of the day, our opponents don’t care if we’re playing freshmen or seniors. They’ve got to be ready to play.
“We’ve got to build their confidence. We’ve got to put them in situations where they can be successful. As coaches, we’ve got to simplify our teaching so that they can understand. That’s the big thing with a freshman, they’ve got to be able to understand your scheme to the point where they’re not thinking, they can just react.”
Lubick said the attitude has been good this week in practice. “This has probably been one of our better weeks,” he said. Players on Monday said the energy was there Monday morning and there was a little more physicality than what they might typically see on a mid-season morning.
“They want to work,” Lubick said. “That’s why we recruited them.”
Nebraska’s got to continue building out its depth through recruiting.
It does have to get older.
“You can’t blame the players,” Chinander said. “Saying we don’t have the right players, that’s not an excuse. We have the right players. We have good players. We have good kids. We’ve got to get them more ready to play football and we’ve got to find a way to help them be better at their jobs, help them succeed on the field.”
As a defense, Nebraska is hovering in the 80s in terms of its national ranking in yards per play allowed and yards per run allowed. Only Maryland and Minnesota are worse at stopping the run against Big Ten teams, though.
The big pain point has been third down, where NU’s 54% conversion rate allowed ranks dead-last in the league and seventh-worst in college football.
On passing downs, Nebraska has one of the worst sack rates in the country as a defense. They’ve sort of been in no-man’s land. Opposing offenses have only had to face third-and-long (9-plus yards to go) on 10 of the 63 total attempts in four games.
Get your work done early (and that works on both sides of the ball) and third is more manageable.
Nebraska has the talent to do it. The execution is just what has been wanting.
“I don’t want to sit here and say we need different players because that’s not an excuse,” Chinander said. “We’ve got to play with the guys we’ve got, and we’ve got good ones. I don’t want to take anything away from the guys we’ve got. They can do this. I have confidence in them. They can do this. Do we always want to recruit more guys and more talent? Absolutely. But we need to get this done with the people we have in the program right now.”