All this week the Hail Varsity staff will be selecting its Best of 2018 in multiple categories across any sport the Huskers played. It’s a way to remember the year that was, but also some of these selections may have notes of the future for Nebraska athletics and we’re all thinking at least a little bit about the future right now, right?
Here are our picks, with a self-imposed stipulation against duplicates, for the Huskers’ Player of the Year.
Brandon Vogel: Excellence is exciting to watch, but it’s only when confronted with true greatness that you realize how large the gap is between the two. Mikaela Foecke made it look more like a gulf.
Her match against Stanford with a national championship on the line was easily my favorite game of 2018. She had 27 kills on 71 swings (.296). Despite everyone in the arena, before they ever showed up at the arena, knowing Nebraska needed the ball to go to Foecke as often as possible that night, it didn’t make any difference. She executed anyway. Despite being prohibited by rule from winning her third career Most Outstanding Player award at the NCAA Championship, she was the most outstanding player that night.
Foecke was excellent very early in her career, but made the turn to great as an upperclassman when Nebraska became more or less “her team.” She was powerful and cerebral at the net, equally capable of overpowering opponents or outwitting them because she had every shot in the book at her disposal.
You don’t get to watch players like that very often. Nebraska fans got four years of it, each one a little bit better than the last.
Here’s how good Foecke was during that stretch: It would take too long to recap all of her accomplishments, but it would be redundant anyway. Everyone already knows what they saw.
Erin Sorensen: Look, I’m going to do it. I could have waited and selected Adrian Martinez as my Best Newcomer selection, but why wait? Martinez was one of the best players for Nebraska in 2018, so let’s just get that out of the way.
His numbers? They were good. (OK, very good.) He ended the 2018 season with a 64.6 percent passing percentage (from 224 completed passes on 347 attempts). He racked up 2,617 yards in the air and another 629 yards on the ground. As for touchdowns, there were 25 of those (17 passing, eight rushing). Sure, he had eight interceptions but I’m not nearly as worried about those at this point. And did I mention he did this all in only 11 games? You could even say 10.5, since he didn’t play the second half against Michigan either.
You could call Martinez Nebraska’s “freshman phenom.” The Big Ten Network did.
But it’d be OK if you just called him a phenom. No year designation needed. Because he’s better than that.
For example, Martinez finished fourth in the Big Ten in 10-yard runs with 30. That wasn’t just among quarterbacks either. That was all Big Ten players. He led the conference among quarterbacks in 10-yard runs. But if that’s not enough to convince you, how about this: There were only six quarterbacks in Division I football that had more 10-yard runs than Martinez during the 2018 regular season.
Martinez’s 64.6 completion percentage wasn’t a school record, but it got close. Joe Ganz holds the record with 67.86 percent in 2007. Ganz ended his career with a 65.13 completion percentage, which seems more than reachable for Martinez in his Nebraska career. And comparably, Martinez’s completion percentage was impressive next to recent Nebraska quarterbacks. Tanner Lee ended with 57.5, Tommy Armstrong with 53.3 and Taylor Martinez with 59.8.
While Martinez didn’t win the Big Ten Freshman of the Year honor (that went to Purdue’s Rondale Moore), he was named the Big Ten Freshman of the Week three times in 2018. It also doesn’t really matter that he didn’t receive the Freshman of the Year honor. Some of that was likely due to Nebraska’s 4-8 record, which is neither here nor there at this point. As Martinez and Nebraska’s offense gets rolling and the wins start rolling too, it’ll be hard to ignore him for plenty of honors. That includes the Heisman (pending no injuries). Maybe just mark the 2020 season down as one to watch for Martinez and those Heisman hopes now.
But it’s never been just about the numbers or the potential for Martinez. It’s about his X-factor, the one that’s difficult to explain. It’s what keeps him calm and collected in even the most stressful of situations. It’s what had people saying, “Wow, you’re sure this kid is a freshman?” every time he spoke this season. It was all of the things that happened off the field, in the locker room, where Martinez learned to lead a team at 18-years-old. (P.S. He turns 19 on Jan. 7.)
There were quite a few players I could have picked from the Nebraska football team for my Best Player honor this year. I thought about wide receiver Stanley Morgan Jr., who more than deserves it. I just don’t see Morgan hitting 1,000 yards without Martinez.
And that’s the catalyst.
STANLEY MORGAN JR.
Jacob Padilla: Well, Morgan didn’t get to 1,000 yards last year without Martinez, but he got darn close. As a junior, Morgan set a school record with 986 receiving yards on 61 catches last season, and he added 10 touchdowns to that stat line as well.
This year, he one-upped himself with 1,004 yards on 70 receptions. He only caught seven touchdowns this season and his per-catch average dropped nearly 2 yards, but his catch rate jumped from a pedestrian 56 percent up to 63.1 percent.
Over the first half of the season, Morgan more or less took a back seat to JD Spielman as the sophomore slot receiver looked like the one who was destined for 1,000 yards. At the midway point, Spielman had accumulated 537 yards to Morgan’s 393, but then Morgan broke out in week seven with a 10-catch, 163-yard, two-touchdown performance against Minnesota. Morgan averaged 101.8 yards on 7.2 receptions with six scores over the last six games after scoring just once and averaging 65.5 yards on 4.5 catches per game during the first six.
Morgan was named to the All-Big Ten Second Team for his efforts and has a chance to be Nebraska’s earliest NFL Draft pick since Maliek Collins was taken in the third round of the 2016 Draft by the Dallas Cowboys.
Nebraska’s offense developed into a serious problem over the second half of the season and Morgan was a big part of that.
JAMES PALMER JR.
Derek Peterson: In the calendar year, Nebraska basketball has a 22-8 record. The overwhelming reason for that level of winning is the come-out-of-nowhere play of guard James Palmer Jr. Since Erin took Adrian Martinez, it wasn’t hard for me to go with Palmer. His case for Nebraska’s Player of the Year might be the best all-around.
The face of a program playing at a really high level? Check.
Elite performances? Check on that one, too.
In 2018 — with a game left to play mind you — Palmer averaged 19.4 points and 4.2 boards a game in 30 total games. In 12 games already this season, Palmer has six 20-point games under his belt. He had six in the 2018 portion of the 2017-18 season. He’s also scored at least 28 in a game six times.
Considering the senior from Upper Marlboro, Maryland, had as many 10-point games in his two years at Miami before transferring, Palmer’s emergence has been fun to watch.
He plays hard on the defensive end, gets his teammates involved and genuinely gets excited over their successes same as his own, and he seems well on his way to leading Nebraska back to the NCAA Tournament.
When Nebraska played Iowa at Pinnacle Bank Arena in January, a 98-84 win in which Palmer had 28, Hawkeye coach Fran McCaffery said something after that has stuck with me for the longest time.
“He has been a go-to guy in our league, and it’s hard to be that guy when you’re marked,” McCaffery said then. “And he is marked, and he’s still doing it. You’ve got to give that kid credit.”
No one knew what to expect from Palmer in his first season of eligibility with Nebraska, but when conference play opened and Nebraska moved into 2018, other teams knew him by name. He has been marked all year, continuing to draw the vast majority of a defense’s attention, continuing to be at the top of opponents’ scouting reports, and continuing to produce in spite of it all.
As great as Martinez was given the circumstances, Palmer was just as great with just as much narrative.
Greg Smith: Devine Ozigbo’s sensational senior season was about so much more than the statistics he racked up. Those were good too, though. He ran for 1,082 yard and 12 touchdowns while averaging 7 yards per carry. He also chipped in a career high 23 receptions as well. He was a steady, driving force in Nebraska’s offense all season long but that almost didn’t happen.
It seems like a long time ago when Ozigbo wasn’t even the starter coming into the 2018 season. That title belonged to Greg Bell. Ozigbo wasn’t the most anticipated running back on the roster either. That title belonged to Maurice Washington. All the Texan did was keep his head down and work while his opportunity presented itself.
In early November, coach Scott Frost really laid out just how well Ozigbo was playing.
“To me, he’s playing at an All-Big Ten level,” Frost said after the team’s win over Illinois. “I know there are other good backs in this league, but Devine’s consistent for us and making plays every week. I’m so happy for him that he’s shown the type of character that it takes to persevere what he’s gone through.”
What he went through was multiple coaching staff’s not quite seeing his value right away. He also came out of that tough situation while going becoming the poster child for Nebraska’s offseason conditioning program.
“Something that all of the coaches have talked about is just paying attention to the little things because they all matter, they all count,” Ozigbo said following Nebraska’s loss to Iowa. “That’s one that took me a little bit to learn, took me a little bit to apply to myself and really focus on it.
“Once I got going on it and really working out, it was the little things here and there like not missing this, accountability, just being completely responsible for what you need to do and doing it. I think that is what helped me out a lot.”
There were players at Nebraska that maybe had more impressive seasons like Foecke, Palmer or Kenzie Maloney. For my money, what Ozigbo went through to get his spotlight and the lasting impact he will have make him the real MVP.