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Hail Varsity Mailbag
Photo Credit: Quentin Lueninghoener

Mailbag: Which Husker Football Assistant Is Having the Best Season, Picking Award Winners and More

October 27, 2021

With Nebraska football welcoming Purdue this Saturday and the No. 6-ranked Husker volleyball team hosting No. 3 Wisconsin tonight, it’s a big week for the Big Red.

Before all that happens, here’s the latest edition of the Mailbag. There’s a little bit of everything, including ranking hypothetical college football coaching hires, wondering if Nebraska’s offense should be like Iowa and Wisconsin’s and more.

If a school out there, a B1G school perhaps, happened to have an opening at head coach, how would you rank these candidates if you were the AD? Dave Aranda, Jeff Hafley, Dave Doeren, Billy Napier, Jamey Chadwell. (@BetsBruce) 

Steve Marik: The popular No. 1 picks out of that group for many will be Dave Aranda and Billy Napier. What Aranda has done as a defensive coordinator at Wisconsin and LSU is impressive—it got him head coaching opportunities. As a head coach, he made what appears to be an excellent decision this past offseason by bringing offensive coordinator Jeff Grimes to Baylor from BYU. Grimes was the man behind the Cougars’ offense that was tied for third in the country in scoring at 43.5 points per game last year, and he turned quarterback Zach Wilson into the No. 2 overall pick in the NFL draft. Right now, Baylor’s offense third in the Big 12, averaging 38.3 points, and the Bears are 6-1. Napier has had his name swirl around in the coaching carousel for the past few cycles, so it’ll be no different now. I may be in the minority on this, but I really like what Dave Doeren has done at NC State. In 11 years as a head coach, he has an 83-52 record. He went 23-4 in two years at Northern Illinois, then went to NC State (not exactly the cream of the ACC crop) where he’s currently 60-48 in nine seasons. In Doeren’s nine years in Raleigh, he’s only had two losing seasons, and one of them was hist first year there. I think if you can do that at a place like NC State, you know how to run a Power Five program. I’ll even throw out another Dave from the ACC—Dave Clawson. What that guy has done at Wake Forest is impressive. Hafley could be an option for someone wanting to start over, though it’s early in his head coaching career—he’s only been one for two seasons now. Maybe this certain Big Ten school wants to go with someone who has real experience running a Power Five program? Jamey Chadwell will get looks, too, and rightly so because of what he’s done at Coastal Carolina, turning that program into the cool new kids on the block (although the cool new kids got kicked off the block by the older, more experienced App State kids last week in primetime on ESPN2) and having other programs from across the country come to Coastal to study his offense. So, to answer your question, here’s my order, from top to bottom: Doeren, Aranda, Napier, Hafley and Chadwell. 

Brandon Vogel: Napier, Aranda, Hafley, Chadwell and Doeren. Napier has been at Clemson under Dabo and at Alabama under Saban. In my observations, I think he has the most comprehensive program plan with the highest upside. I like Aranda and Hafley because both seem to consistently have their teams playing up, though the sample sizes are small. (Both are also particularly good fits in the Big Ten.) Chadwell has great results, but I’m becoming a little cautious of the traditional G5 riser who gets there with a big offense. This has nothing to do with Frost and Nebraska’s performance thus far, more a larger observation. I think most of the time to be a great P5 head coach you will probably need more balance than that (or be a great recruiter or be great at identifying coaching talent). Doeren? I just haven’t seen much to make me think his ceiling is much higher than what he’s currently doing.

Heisman Trophy winner is…? Coach of the Year is…? Broyles Award winner is…? (@DrPeteyHV) 

Erin Sorensen: It appears to be the year of the quarterback for Heisman nominees, as most of your early favorites are QBs. Alabama’s Bryce Young tops the list, but I think I might go with Ole Miss’ Matt Corral (who barely trails Young in the odds anyway). I might be picking Corral mostly for Lane Kiffin’s reaction if he wins. For Coach of the Year, I’ll take Mel Tucker (pending things don’t go completely off the rails in the last few games of the season). This is the Spartans’ first 7-0 start since 2015, and Tucker has accomplished that with 15 transfers from 14 schools. As for the Broyles Award, I don’t have a pick for this spot just yet but I will say that I think Erik Chinander deserves to be at least be considered. Heck, I’m not even saying as a finalist. They have semifinalists now. Fifteen of them! I know Nebraska’s record will keep him out of consideration (and really, the team’s overall performance does play a big role here), but I do think it’s worth acknowledging what he’s done with the Blackshirts in 2021. 

Mike Babcock: Every year is the year of the quarterback in Heisman voting. In the 2000s only three non-quarterbacks have won Heisman Trophies, all from Alabama: Mark Ingram (RB), Derrick Henry (RB) and DeVonta Smith (WR). So I’ll go with Bryce Young, Alabama. Mel Tucker is a good pick, as Erin points out, at this point for Coach of the Year. For the Broyles Award, I’ll say Georgia’s Dan Lanning. 

Steve: Coach of the Year? I’ll go with Luke Fickell of Cincinnati. He has a Group of Five team in the CFB Playoff discussion, and that’s really cool. Broyles Award winner? Bill O’Brien of Alabama, a nice award before he takes a head coaching job somewhere in the offseason. It’s a weaker field than usual for the Heisman Trophy this season, but to me, that’s just fine because it gives some lesser-known guys some shine. First, you have to take a good, hard look at the coolest (is that a word?) quarterback in all of college football, Matt Corral at Ole Miss. He’s the operator of Lane Kiffin’s high-scoring and high-fun offense, and he’s got personality, too. Love that guy. Next, Kenny Pickett, the quarterback at Pitt, has to be in the conversation. Pickett is a good story—he’s been around forever (2017 was his first action) and is finally having a magical season. Pitt is 6-1, ranked and just beat Clemson. Yes, Clemson isn’t the Death Star Clemson that it usually is, but so what. When you’re a team like Pitt that’s been throttled 52-17 and 42-10 in the past two contests against Clemson, you enjoy a win when you can. Pitt took advantage last week, beating Dabo and the Tigers 27-17 behind 302 passing yards and two touchdowns from Pickett. Maybe Pickett should tap out D.J. Uiagalelei to be in those Dr. Pepper commercials? Also, this will sound crazy but it’s probably not because this is college football and crazy stuff happens all the time—but Oklahoma’s Caleb Williams isn’t out of the picture. The Sooners are a CFB Playoff contender, and if they go undefeated, you have to look at Williams—the fact that he didn’t start the season won’t matter in my opinion. He’s still the quarterback at Oklahoma, so he’ll get a look. Just like Bryce Young at Alabama.  

Brandon: In the interest of brevity and variety: Kenneth Walker III (Michigan State), Luke Fickell (Cincinnati), Mark Whipple (Pittsburgh). Great year for Great Lakes states. 

Which Nebraska football assistant coach do you think has done the best job so far this season? (@TwinTwisterDad)

Jacob Padilla: All things considered, my vote goes to Sean Beckton. Austin Allen has developed into a real weapon for this team and one of the most consistent and reliable players on the roster. Beckton mixed in a few guys while Travis Vokolek was out to develop some depth, and walk-on Chancellor Brewington emerged during that time as a contributor after joining the team as a wide receiver. 

Erin: Beckton is a good pick. I was going to take Chinander, but I think my answer above shows that I think he’s one of the best on this staff already. I’ll take one of the assistants within his defense: Tony Tuioti.  

Mike: Barrett Ruud, with the play, in particular, of Luke Reimer and Nick Henrich, and without Will Honas. 

Steve: Jacob, Erin and Mike have great picks. I’ll go with Mike’s pick of Ruud. After losing Honas, it looked like the middle linebackers were going to take a hit in production. But that hasn’t been the case. I think Henrich and Reimer are having All-Big Ten-caliber seasons.  

Greg Smith: I’d give the nod to Beckton. His room is reliable and he’s gotten multiple players ready to play at a good level this year. Mike’s pick of Ruud is a sneaky one, too. He’s underappreciated. 

What are your thoughts on a pro-style offense like Iowa or Wisconsin’s? My point is, those schools haven’t had great quarterback play over the years, yet they still win games. It’d be nice to be able to rely on our offensive line or running back to win games. If AM2 (Adrian Martinez) has a bad game, we know what happens. (@TheRealSteveFox)

Jacob: Nebraska’s current style of offense would work a lot better with good line play too. Ultimately, I don’t think the offensive system matters that much. It comes down to how well the coaches can recruit to that system and develop the players. Nebraska has had to rely on Martinez so much, not because that’s what Frost wants to do on offense, but rather because nothing else will work consistently with the current personnel and level of execution.  

Drake Keeler: No thanks. This has nothing to do with whether it’d be good or not, that offense just isn’t as fun (well, compared to when Nebraska’s current offense is actually functioning). Anyway, as Jacob said, the system is not the problem. The Huskers can be a good Big Ten team with this system, but they just haven’t done that yet.  

Mike: Agree with Jacob and Drake. Stick with the current system. And make it work. 

Steve: I agree with you, TheRealSteveFox, if you can’t recruit good-enough skill guys, it’s smart to play like Iowa and Wisconsin do on offense while really focusing on building a strong offensive line and a gritty run game (you need an elite defense in this case, though, which Iowa and Wisconsin have). I agree with Jacob—better offensive-line play would make Nebraska’s offense look different, but that’s true for a lot of teams. The game of football starts up front on the o-line. 

Greg: Nebraska couldn’t run those systems well for the same reasons they struggle with the one they run: offensive line play and avoiding big mistakes. I’m 100% with Drake here, though. I wouldn’t be a fan of that switch just from a boredom standpoint.  

What would the Nebrasketball season record be for one to consider this season a success? Otherwise, if you choose not to put a number on wins vs. losses, what metrics would you look at to make an assessment and what benchmarks would you set? (@Starkastic8)

Jacob: I was just having this conversation with somebody the other day, and it’s a difficult one to flesh out. The reality is Nebraska is coming off back-to-back seven-win seasons and last-place finishes in an incredibly difficult conference. Going directly from that to a top-half finish and winning an NCAA Tournament game is asking a lot. However, it’s very possible that Nebraska’s entire projected starting lineup (or at least most of it) could be gone after this season, so it’s important to capitalize on the mix of continuity and immediate-impact newcomers that Fred Hoiberg has this season. Check out my column for a more expanded answer, but I’ll respond to your second question here: Nebraska should be shooting for a top-75 finish in KenPom at least. The Huskers finished at 162 in Hoiberg’s first season and 109 last year. They’re starting at 80 this year. If they find themselves in the top-75 at the end of the year, it should put them in the mix for an NIT bid at least, if not an NCAA bid.

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