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Nebraska Football

The Best Possible Outcome from an Offseason of Center Worries

August 25, 2019
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It’s Sunday night, so here’s a Monday column. Three Husker-related topics I find intriguing with a week to go before the football season begins, and then one off-topic rant at the end. 

The Center

Given the situation, this is maybe the best outcome. 

Preference, obviously, would be for Cameron Jurgens to be healthy and to stay healthy. Big guys with feet and lower leg problems make me sad, because it’s almost always out of their control and totally unfair. The hope is this isn’t chronic, just something that has nagged. A foot injury suffered last season and at least one known setback since limited the Beatrice native’s offseason. 

In fall camp, Jurgens was behind another redshirt freshman, Will Farniok. Nebraska wasn’t sure Jurgens was going to be ready for the season and he wasn’t quite ready for full-on team work, so Farniok was prepped to be the guy. 

Now Jurgens will be the guy. He went through the last week of fall camp and has all of this week in the lead up to the season-opener on Saturday. 

“We look a little different with Cam Jurgens back and full speed now,” Scott Frost said Friday. “So we've got to keep him healthy, but I think he's going to be a game-changer for us on the inside of the line.”

Frost thinks Jurgens can be really special. Maybe more importantly, line coach Greg Austin thinks Jurgens has the frame that will support the weight necessary to play the spot, which means, you know, he can stay on the field and reach that potential. 

Throughout this process though, Nebraska has insulated itself against what might happen if he can’t.

I wrote a few weeks back about the two routes Nebraska could take with center, and how neither would necessarily be a bad way forward. Is Jurgens fully healthy? Great, play him. He’s not fully healthy yet? Farniok gets to begin the season as the starter and you can have a guy with experience and a guy with loads of potential to pick from later on down the road.

The path Nebraska actually ended up going down is almost like a meshing of the two. Farniok got the reps in camp. No, they’re not anywhere close to being a substitute for game action, but he at least got to work with Adrian Martinez and the rest of the top line and build a little chemistry. Now Jurgens is the guy for game week prep. He’s the top guy for install and he’ll be the top guy when the offense takes the field to begin the season. 

South Alabama last season was horribly susceptible to the big play — giving up more 20-yard gains than all but 13 D1 programs and more 40-yarders than all but seven — and gave up 38.8 points a game (123rd) and it’s only got four starters from that defense coming back. Ideally, Jurgens’ first game is over by halftime. 

Same goes for Northern Illinois in Week 3. Colorado could go a number of different ways. Jurgens could have four starts and Farniok could have four appearances by the time the Buckeyes come to town. 

That would be good. 

Because as it stands now, I still have no clue what to expect from Jurgens once he’s actually on the field. We have half a spring game of him moving guys like Vaha Vainuku out of the way, sending some snaps into some precarious situations, missing a few checks and generally looking exactly how you’d expect a redshirt freshman to look. 

None of this is to say he can’t be great because we haven’t yet seen him be great, just that all we have to work on at this point are a handful of clips of him playing the spot in front of other people for the first time and Frost’s evaluation of him, and Frost loves him. 

If Jurgens has the blocking ability Frost says he does, and he can maintain relatively good health, the athleticism component of this thing means he’s probably the perfect center for this offense. 

We have some clarity now in the sense that he will for sure be the guy. Now we just need to see if he can meet expectations. This is how it should be. I’m happy for him that he gets to try right from the season’s opening kick.

The Captain Class, and the Class of the Captains

Nebraska announced its captains Saturday night in front of a mostly-student crowd in attendance for the Boneyard Bash. Offensive coordinator Troy Walters named Matt Farniok and then Adrian Martinez on his side of the ball, and then handed the mic to defensive coordinator Erik Chinander to announce his guys. Linebacker Mohamed Barry was a given at this point. The other guy though, even Chinander made reference to the fact he has only been here for a few months.

Darrion Daniels is a captain. Again. 

He was a captain at Oklahoma State. He was a crucial piece of the defensive line there. Then he came to Nebraska to play with his brother and from the moment he stepped foot on campus, he started leaving his fingerprints everywhere. 

Daniels arrived at the beginning of 2019, and by mid-August had done enough to see his teammates vote him a season-long captain. 

This is a guy who wowed Barry by running laps in Hawks after metabolic training sessions in the summer. 

This is a guy who would go to Jurgens following practices in the spring and teach him how to counteract the moves he’d literally just used earlier to beat him.

This is a guy who, as our resident football smart guy Greg Smith has noted a handful of times this fall camp, has both placed an emphasis on and urged other vets on the team to treat new guys like reinforcements rather than straight competition. Outwork them on the field, then teach them how to beat you off the field. As far as I’ve heard, that’s a Daniels thing. 

The hope is that this season isn’t as turbulent as last, and that this captain class won’t have to endure what their predecessors did. But if things do get rocky, Nebraska will be in good hands. 

The (Hopefully) Return to Form

Wan’Dale Robinson is set to have a significant role in the return game this season. Kickoffs will likely be his, while punts will be JD Spielman’s. Those are two of Nebraska’s most dynamic receivers shouldering responsibility for an aspect of the game that has been woefully below average in recent years. 

Just last season, here are the numbers on punt team:

  • Tyjon Lindsey: four games, five returns, 1 yard
  • JD Spielman: 10 games, six returns, 104 yards
  • Stanley Morgan Jr.: 12 games, four returns, 19 yards

Opponents punted to the Huskers 58 times last season and on only one out of every four kicks did a Husker field the ball and attempt a return. Comparably, that is terrible, and it’s worse than what the team posted in 2017 (27 percent of punts were fielded and returned). Nebraska had 15 returns as a team and Michigan’s Donovan Peoples-Jones, who led the conference, had 25 by himself. (Michigan returned 36 percent of the punts it received.)

Turnovers and penalties and a few other things contributed to Nebraska having, on average, some of the worst starting field position in FBS football last season, but the return game played the biggest role. Drives began on the 26-yard-line, which was further from the endzone on average than all but seven teams. 

Nebraska punted on punt returns, electing to just field the ball cleanly and minimize mistakes. 

It was also dead last in the Big Ten in average kickoff return yardage (15.8 yards; Iowa was first at 27.3 yards on only one fewer return)

The Huskers need 10 other blockers who are committed to blocking, but Robinson handled returns in high school and Spielman was great on punt return when he actually got to try last season.

It should be aggressive this season. Because it needs to be, and because it has the talent to do so.

No Luck

The takes on Andrew Luck’s abrupt retirement were all over the place. A lot of them were terrible.

A guy who quit a head coaching job after a week criticized Luck for being soft in an unimportant profession. Another guy who stole a teammate’s credit card in college to buy jewelry and food belittled Luck’s reasoning, that repeated injury and rehab took a toll on him both physically and mentally. Funny enough, neither of those analysts are who they are because they played football.

Fans booed their quarterback as he walked off the field at Lucas Oil Stadium for the final time. The video from field level shows fans close enough to hold a conversation with Luck booing him. No shame. They booed this man. They were either drunk, too invested in their fantasy football team, or part of the bigger problem. 

Athletes in the big sports, both professional and collegiate, are not people. They are props, absent of the right to free will or emotion. Their only utility is for the ticket-holder’s entertainment. And because the people purchasing that ticket are using their own money to fund the machine that pays athletes millions, they are then entitled to treat the athletes how they want. It’s at times toxic.

I don’t understand what the life of a professional athlete entails. I have a surface-level knowledge of the life a collegiate athlete lives and just that commitment, required on a daily basis, is comparable to maybe only a handful of jobs out there. And if you’re playing football, the cost is not your time in the present, it’s your future. 

Someone is risking standing with a son for a wedding photo or helping a daughter practice for basketball tryouts. They’re risking their body and their mind every time they brace for a hit. 

And if their body has been repeatedly beaten down over a seven-year career, they have the right to make the best decision for their own life without being berated. Mental health is important and constant rehab is mentally debilitating. It can be Sisyphean. 

“I've been stuck in this process,” Luck said Saturday night in a press conference to announce the decision. “I haven't been able to live the life I want to live. It's taken the joy out of this game.

“This is not an easy decision. It's the hardest decision of my life. But it is the right decision for me.”

And he doesn’t owe anyone any more than that.

 
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