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Nebraska Football

Hot Reads: Some Huskers to Watch This Spring . . . Sorta

March 5, 2020
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I had an idea for a different way to approach the fairly standard "guys to watch this spring” story. Rather than just go on intuition and feel, I'd return to our old friend, Predicted Points Added as tabulated by collegefootballdata.com, and see if that would provide us with any insight into a group of Huskers we're all pretty familiar with at this point. I knew the usual suspects would lead the way, but thought it could also potentially identify some down-the-depth chart talent that was maybe more efficient than we noticed on a down-by-down basis.

I did not count on just how much the Huskers leaned on just a handful of guys on offense last season. Outside of what you'd consider "the starters" it was hard to find reasonable sample sizes that you could consider instructive. But I did still find this exercise somewhat interesting, so I'm going to forge ahead.

Here are the 2019 PPA averages for all offensive players returning for Nebraska in 2020. I'm not removing anyone based on sample size (i.e. number of countable plays), but you'll see how that complicates things.

PLAYER POS. PLAYS AVG PPA
Kade Warner WR 9 1.185
JD Spielman WR 78 .705
Kurt Rafdal TE 1 .678
Luke McCaffrey QB 34 .514
Austin Allen TE 10 .411
Noah Vedral QB 80 .316
Jack Stoll TE 34 .217
Dedrick Mills RB 162 .213
Adrian Martinez QB 387 .211
Wan’Dale Robinson WR 138 .109
Rahmir Johnson RB 24 -.152
Chris Hickman TE 3 -.501

Some thoughts . . .

>>Yes, I'm including JD Spielman. More just to show what he did last year. His average PPA jumped from .560 in 2018 to .705 in 2019. He had to become "the guy" without Stanley Morgan Jr. around, and Spielman largely did. Should he return in the summer, it would certainly be a big deal (though you already knew that).

Should he not return, this shows just how inexperienced Nebraska becomes at wideout. Kade Warner will be important this spring. His average PPA was encouraging, but on just nine plays. Even taking sample size into account, I think Warner's ceiling remains pretty high.  The Huskers might need it to be. As for the remaining returning wide receiver, that deserves its own section.

>>Before you panic about Wan'Dale Robinson, know this: His average PPA is being pulled down by rushing plays, not receptions. On passes, the freshman wideout had a .505 PPA. That's solid. On runs, however, his PPA was -.130. Nebraska didn't have much choice at times but to use Robinson in the backfield. These numbers, however, indicate that he's better suited as a pure pass-catcher.

The other thing to note here is that there was only one Power 5 player listed as a wide receiver that had more countable plays than Wan'Dale Robinson's 138. That was Kentucky's Lynn Bowden Jr., who had to become the Wildcats' quarterback a month into the season.

The Huskers put a heavy, heavy load on Robinson last year. It's probably not ideal to do the same in 2020, but Robinson's importance to this offense has only increased through the recent offseason departures.

>>We should probably talk about quarterback. The sample sizes for Luke McCaffrey and Noah Vedral aren't tiny compared to the rest of the roster, but they are small compared to the number of plays Adrian Martinez had. We'll start with the incumbent starter.

Martinez's average PPA dropped from .278 as a true freshman to .211 last season. The latter ranked 91st among 128 2019 QBs with at least 200 countable plays. His passing PPA dropped by 23% from his freshman season, his rushing 35%.

When Nebraska had to turn elsewhere at quarterback due to injury, the backups fared pretty well. Vedral was the Huskers' most effective running quarterback based on PPA, while McCaffrey's numbers, the most limited of the group of course, were solid enough that you have to at least stop and wonder if he's a player that you have to try and get on the field even if he's not the starter behind center.

>>There's not a ton to talk about a running back. Redshirt freshman Rahmir Johnson is basically starting from scratch. That his 24 plays produced a negative average PPA isn't alarming to me. More a reflection of the situations in which he got his opportunities.

Dedrick Mills, however, was pretty solid. His average PPA ranked 24th nationally among running backs with at least 150 countable plays and third in the Big Ten. Only Ohio State's J.K. Dobbins and Wisconsin's Jonathan Taylor had better PPAs last season, but they did it on nearly twice as many plays as Mills.

And if you're curious where Maurice Washington fell on this list, his PPA (.153) was between that of Martinez and Robinson. Washington's biggest impact was as a receiver (.308) rather than as a runner (.108).

>>Lastly, tight ends. This is a really intriguing spot this year. While we're only looking at 10 countable plays, Austin Allen's average PPA is encouraging. Jack Stoll's number ranked 92nd out of 98 tight ends with at least 20 countable plays.

In general, tight ends are high-value targets. Because they get the ball less frequently but when they do the result is often a big play, the average PPA for a tight end in 2019 was .636, higher than wide receivers (.544), quarterbacks (.262) or running backs (.146).

The Huskers will add Rutgers transfer Travis Vokolek to the mix this spring, Kurt Rafdal is an option and Chris Hickman has a chance to make a move, either at tight end or potentially wide receiver. Nebraska has as much depth here as anywhere on offense.

So, if you were to use this method as way to identify some "guys to watch"––which was the original intent––what are you left with? Not a ton, though hopefully that was offset by a different look at some of the names you already know.

Based on all of the above, I enter the spring with a couple of ideas and/or questions. One, Austin Allen might be a good breakout candidate if you feel the need to identify such things. Two, what does Nebraska do with Luke McCaffrey? (I'm not implying he should be a full-time option at wide receiver, but he does look too valuable to spend most of his time on the bench.) Three, a strong spring from Rahmir Johnson would be really helpful if the Huskers want to avoid what happened last year––leaving spring practice with a ton of work still to do at running back. And, four, the more Wan'Dale Robinson stays split out, the better.

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