Photo by Eric Francis
Nebraska Football

Love or Hate: Earning it On the Field, Husker Power and More

August 2, 2019
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It’s Friday. Let’s get to it.

Proving It

The preseason Amway Coaches Poll Top 25 came out Thursday. After doing a pre-write that listed Nebraska among the top 25 teams (I know, I jinxed it, boo me), I was more than a little surprised to see the Huskers show up just outside the ranking in the “Receiving Votes” category. 

But Nebraska didn’t even get a vote from its own head coach. 

“I didn’t put us in the Top 25,” Frost, who has a vote in the poll, said at the pre-fall camp press conference Thursday. “I hope that we are at the end of the year. Any progress that we made is just progress until we go out and earn it.”

That’s in line with what Frost said in Chicago at Big Ten Media Days and what he’s been telling the team all offseason. Hype is hype, but noise outside the building means nothing to those inside the building until they prove they belong. 

Frost said he wants his team to prove that it can be tough. He wants his team to prove that it belongs by taking that same day-by-day approach of last season and continuing to build. He admitted that it will probably help the team from a confidence standpoint that outside people are recognizing the work that has already been done to this point, but in terms of Frost’s goals for the program, Nebraska has yet to accomplish anything of value. 

"I expect to coach here for a long time, with a lot of expectations,” he said. “We had to get it to that point first. We are just nearing that mile marker right now of having expectations.”

And maybe this group is better-equipped to handle those.

“I like this team a lot better going into this year,” he said. “Just seeing the look on these guys' faces when I walk past them in the hallway, just seeing the guys hanging out together, addressing each other, being in the building, there is a different feel this year. More of a winning feel. A feel I am used to.”

Big Nasty Up Front Again… Hopefully

Nebraska has depth concerns at some key spots. Proven depth at running back and wideout, reliable depth at spots on the offensive line and within the linebacker corps. But one group that has Frost excited is the defensive line.

“D-line in particular I point to, we’re going to be pretty deep this year, even with some new talent coming in,” Frost said. “Those guys are going to have to prove it on the field to get out on the field and play, and I think there’s going to be a lot of guys we are going to trust to be out there.”

Nebraska has a group of defensive ends who have seen an awful lot through their time in Lincoln. I’m talking Ben Stille — who’s about to enter his third year as a significant player on defense but has yet to play in a bowl game — and the Davis twins — both of whom will be seniors just now coming into their own. The edge has young talent hoping to make impacts with Deontre Thomas, Tate Wildeman and Casey Rogers, and a 2019 freshman class gem in Ty Robinson.

In the middle, Nebraska has a true nose guard pairing for the first time in years with the Daniels brothers. 

“Some of the first couple of years I was here the depth wasn’t there,” Stille said. “Playing four or five guys on the d-line isn’t ideal. So hopefully (the team will) be able to elevate that to seven, eight, nine guys this year. Get a rotation like that and hopefully be able to wear the offense down when their o-line’s in there every single play. For the other team not rotating and us (subbing) in and sub out and not having a drop off will be huge for us.”

The eldest Daniels brother, Darrion, is obviously the biggest change here. Nebraska’s defensive line is mostly banking on internal improvement if Robinson takes the typical developmental path of a freshman lineman. But Daniels was a starter in the middle at Oklahoma State and has played in big games. 

With him a legit 300-plus-pound defensive tackle, and his brother Damion pushing 340, the safest bet to make is that Nebraska won’t easily get pushed around in the middle this upcoming season. Which will be huge. The team’s 5.00 yards-per-carry average against last season was good for 107th nationally and 11th in the Big Ten. 

The hope is Darrion can keep guards and centers from free-releasing to the linebackers, which will free up a guy like Mohamed Barry to do what he does best — make momentum plays. 

The defensive line was a weakness in 2017, and again in 2018. If it can become one of the strengths in 2019, some of the other questions on defense might not be as big a deal.

Sound the “Slightly Concerned” Buzzer

Not an alarm. Don’t go there yet. And don’t be fretting. But it’s mildly disconcerting that the center position seems this up in the air as fall camp approaches. 

Cam Jurgens’ health is probably the worst-kept secret in Nebraska, and the tight-end-turned-center is going to start fall camp on the Huskers’ 110-man roster (good news) but he won’t be the starter at center (…some kind of news), redshirt freshman Will Farniok will get that honor.

“We have to wait and see on his health and where he’s going to be,” Frost said.

The effusive praise Frost has for Jurgens any time he talks about the redshirt freshman from Beatrice, paired with the constant need for qualifying statements like, “As long as we keep him healthy,” is sometimes hard to read. Frost has already compared Jurgens to All-American center and trophy-namesake Dave Rimington and he hasn’t started a game yet. It just sucks that for a kid who has the athleticism Jurgens possesses, and a long playing career still ahead of him, the foot continues to bother him. 

If Nebraska is so-so at center, and therefore without a guy in Jurgens who Frost has said displays the best blocking instincts on the team (see there we go again, effusive might not even cover it), what does that do to the offense’s ceiling? Can that side of the ball be what Frost wants it to be? If not, can the team do what it wants to do? It’s hard to tell.

This has quickly become the most important thread to follow through camp.

50 Years of Power

While the larger college football world is celebrating 150 years of college football this season — everyone has these cool 150 badges on their jerseys for the year — each individual team is finding unique ways to celebrate the sports birthday. Nebraska is doing so by honoring its legacy. 

In 1969, Nebraska became the first school in the country to hire a strength coach and lift weights in-season, when head football coach Bob Devaney hired Boyd Epley, a pole vaulter on the Nebraska track and field team, to begin a strength and conditioning program. Nebraska looked a visionary, and other schools began working strength programs into their teams as Husker Power took off.

Epley served for 35 years as the team’s head strength coach before moving around to various spots within the athletic department. He’s regarded as one of the pioneers in the field. 

So, on Thursday, Nebraska announced a Husker Power 50-Year Team to celebrate its history. A group of 28 former student-athletes — 10 former football players, 18 other student-athletes across a wide range of sports — was selected by a committee headed by Epley to be honored at a private event the night before Nebraska’s new football season kicks off on Aug. 30. 

“Basically we’re just trying to have some fun and reflect on what a great history Nebraska has in strength and conditioning,” Epley said in a release

The committee considered All-America status, world records, Olympic champions, performance in the weight room and general overall talent in selecting the Husker Power 50-Year team along with an additional 56 nominees.

The football players selected to the 50-Year Team: Jimmy Williams (defensive end), Neil Smith (defensive line), Rich Glover (middle guard), Barrett Ruud (linebacker), Curtis Cotton (defensive back), Mike Rozier (running back), Johnny Rodgers (wide receiver), Will Shields (offensive line), Dave Rimington (center) and Scott Frost (quarterback). 

That Nebraska has a quarterback and a tailback on a team like this is something remarkable. 

The non-football players selected: Tom Osborne (head football coach), Eric Piatkowski (men’s basketball), Alex Gordon (baseball), Shannon Pluhowsky (bowling), Rachel Martin (rifle), Karen Jennings (women’s basketball), Penny Heyns (swimming and diving), Sarah Sasse (women’s golf), Steve Friesen (men’s golf), Shelly Bartlett (women’s gym), Jim Hartung (men’s gym), Aubrei Corder (soccer), Lori Sippel (softball), Merlene Ottey (women’s track and field), Kevin Coleman (men’s track and field), Ann Swanson (women’s tennis), Steven Jung (men’s tennis), Laura (Pilakowski) Buttermore (volleyball) and Jordan Burroughs (wrestling).

Other football nominees include: Willie Harper and Kyle Vanden Bosch, defensive end; Ndamukong Suh and Rod Horn, defensive line; Danny Noonan and Kerry Weinmaster, middle guard; Jerry Murtaugh and Lavonte David, linebacker; Russell Gary and Mike Brown, defensive back; Jeff Kinney and Ameer Abdullah, running back; Irving Fryar and Jordan Westerkamp, wide receiver; Aaron Taylor and Kelvin Clark, offensive line; Rik Bonness and Tom Davis, center; Eric Crouch and Tommie Frazier, quarterback.

Former head baseball coach Darin Erstad is one of the other nominees, along with current women’s basketball coach Amy Williams, current volleyball coach John Cook and former outside hitter Jordan Larson. A full list of the nominees can be found here.

Genuine

I finished the newest season of the Netflix original series Last Chance U this past week. It was tremendous storytelling, at-times-captivating camera work and an all-around success on the part of the film crew for making such a miserable season as digestible as they did. Anyone who has followed one team long enough knows the simple fact that when wins are expected and lots of losses come instead, the worst in people comes out.

(Sidebar: I can’t even fathom how Markiese King played football as a wide receiver with a broken ankle.)

I say digestible because this season was not enjoyable to watch. Maybe others felt this way, maybe they didn’t, but I kept watching because I couldn’t believe the things I was seeing, not because I wanted to see more. The main storytelling vehicle represented the absolute worst parts of the coaching profession.

It’s important to remember not everyone is like that, and not all junior college coaches are what the show depicts them to be. But the show’s main character was a self-serving liar masquerading as a redemption-offering teacher. It was a foundation built on a lie. And when people staked careers on that foundation, its crumbling did a lot of damage. It was painful to watch.

Talking about loving on kids like they’re your own and then, once you’re between the lines, angrily using your ability to cut them at a moment’s notice as a fear tactic are two things that don’t go together. Saying it’s not all about winning and then berating an assistant coach for not playing a key player every single snap are two things that don’t go together. Talking about humble natures and then bragging about the emails in your inbox soliciting romantic relationships are two things that don’t go together. 

From a perception standpoint for that level of football, maybe this ordeal becomes a black mark for some people. Hopefully not. Hopefully, it’s viewed as just one bad apple. Time will tell. 

But what the fourth season also gives is a deeper appreciation for the people in the profession who do things the right way and treat people the right way. 

As I was standing in the hallway leading from the Huskers’ weight room out into the Memorial Stadium tunnel Thursday night at Fan Day, watching a guy who could be working on a million other things but was instead sitting at a table not just signing autographs for kids but genuinely being in the moment with them and their families — giving high-fives, asking names and then saying, “Bye,” asking parents where they’re from, how their day was, how things are going — my head couldn’t help but juxtapose the two situations. 

The world needs more men like the ones Nebraska’s football team employs and less like the one Last Chance U focused on.

 
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