Haven’t been around a ton, life gets the best of us sometimes. But wanted to give a few thoughts from the couple practices i’ve been to, some of the stuff that is sobering to hear about NIL, and give a tibdit a little birdy told me about S&C.
I want to caution with the practice stuff that it’s tough to gauge what exactly a team or player is from a couple practices. I’m not in film, seeing his grades, or seeing the other 90% of his play. Further, practice needs to be a safe place to fail, so i’m going to try and stay positive with a lot of it while talking in generalities about the negative. Let’s go!
Offense – In watching the practices I have, I can tell you this is the Whipple show. I was quite certain before all this began that Frost was having someone be an extension of him and give him ideas, but we are definitely running more of what our OC wants to do. I had made mention that I was getting so frustrated with people blaming Austin for how our OL blocked, but the reality is that’s how outside zone and RPOs are blocked. You can’t just go running up to the second level on an RPO, that’s illegal lineman down field and a penalty. So I will be curious how that meshes with what schematically we try to do. But let’s be honest, i’ve been saying for the last 4 years now our linemen aren’t athletic and aren’t great side to side, they need to be more downhill and attack because reacting just doesn’t work if you aren’t athletic. We tend to be gravitating more towards that. Let’s break down the positions.
Quarterback – Just like I told people it really wasn’t a competition between Martinez and McCaffrey and got yelled at, i’ll tell you the same thing now. Thompson was the guy we landed with a big NIL deal and while we didn’t promise anything, we promised something. He’s getting a majority of the reps with the 1s and is showing flashes. What i’m always curious about is I’m not entirely sure he’s better than Martinez, and I would love to see what AMart could have done under Whipple and his new coaching style. I just never liked Verduzco and when our OL struggled so much, all we could do is ask Martinez to make a play. Eventually you are going to make bad decisions or a mistake. Conversely, a QB at Michigan or Ohio State can hand the ball off behind his unbelievable OL or toss a TE delay to his unreal TE and he’s not asked to do as much. So he has to make 5 or 6 plays a game as opposed to Martinez who was asked to make 15 of them. Hell, his jaw got broken because we had no answer to get a first down so we just called a play for him on 3rd and 15. Wow I got off track… I can tell you the #1 QB against Northwestern will be Thompson unless something negative happens.
That takes us to the backup spot where the real competition is. I can tell you that Smothers was always unimpressive to me in games and practices when it came to the passing game, but I can see a difference now in his throwing. He’s much more comfortable and sets his feet to increase his accuracy. While I don’t know if there’s anything we can do to increase his arm strength for down the field throws, at minimum his speed coupled with improved accuracy in the short to intermediate game gives him more of a chance than I would have said before seeing him in action. Whipples offense almost uses the pass to set up the run in many instances, while Frost always looked to see how people stopped his run to set up the pass, and I thought that spelled disaster for Smothers. I’m not as pessimistic there now. Purdy has been out all spring, and Haarberg has been in and out all spring as well. It will come down to Smothers vs Purdy in my opinion for the backup spot. It’s also great to see Torres out there competing after missing his senior year with a knee injury.
Runningback – Let’s bounce to runningback. For the past few seasons we’ve seen a struggle for Nebraska to come up with a viable option at RB past their #1 guy. I sat there and looked like a moron defending Held because of his recruiting, only to see us not have that great of RBs. Ozigbo was the best we’ve had, and when you only have one guy you get put in situations where Wan’Dale Robinson has to play RB for you when your starter needs a break. While Greg Bell, Dedrick Mills, Maurice Washington all have been guys that had glimpses of good for our team, they all struggled for one reason or another. Last year, we started our first true freshman RB in a season opener in the history of our program. Unfortunately he blew his knee out and I thought “here we go again.” But insert Rahmir Johnson, who many of us thought would be on transfer portal watch, and he came in to do a pretty decent/good job for us. But guys like Markese Stepp, Sevion Morrison, and Marvin Scott III could never reach and grab the spot.
With that said, we do still have Jacquez Yant who has trimmed down this spring (just like last spring) and if he can figure out his fumbling issues, proves to be in the picture. I haven’t been as big of a Yant fan as others, people are pretty skewed by his Northwestern performance, but at the very least he will be a guy we could possibly lean on this year for depth.
But the real difference is going to be a guy like Anthony Grant in my opinion. While i’m not sure if he can unseat Johnson, it wouldn’t surprise me and he’s looked very good this spring. I think it gets dangerous when you ask a JUCO to come in and be your guy like with Bell and Mills. But with Grant having Yant and Johnson with possibly Ervin here, it makes it so we can truly have a battle and create competition. With Johnson, Yant, and Grant, it at least gives us the ability to let Ervin heal and get better instead of rushing him into the fold. I’ve seen Johnson be more than serviceable in actual B1G games, Grant has given me enough hope this spring, and Yant is a good X factor guy. Add in Ervin possibly being ready who obviously has the talent, and guys like Ajay Allen who will eventually be here, this is probably the deepest we’ve been in a while at RB.
Two last thoughts. None of what I wrote matters unless OL does their job. I expect at least one departure here.
Wide Receiver – Mickey Joseph has completely turned this room upside down. No offense to who we had coaching here before, but it’s nothing like what we have now. That will have some guys thriving, and others not so much. Zavier Betts is a Sunday talent who no longer wants to play football. Not great from a talent standpoint, but we have more than enough depth to figure it out. Running with the 1s has mostly been Brown and Martin on the outside, with Palmer at the slot. With the 2s you have Manning and Liewer on the outside with guys like Belt running the slot. They have been mixing some guys on the inside and outside a bit, so dependent on which practice you go to, you’ll see a different combination. Palmer is special in my opinion, and he only caught 30 balls at LSU. I’d take the overs on that for us in 2022. And for those of you who hate the bubble screen game… sorry, but Whipple likes it just like Frost did. The guy I will be intrigued with is Brown, I think he has a very high ceiling. And I think we’ve all seen glimpses of what he’s capable of and wondered why he didn’t play more. Clean slate with a new coach and he’s doing everything he needs to solidify being a weapon for us. Oliver Martin needs to just stay healthy, but that is where I could see him starting game 1 but if someone like Manning gets more consistent (with everything) or a newer WR starts to really show flashes, they could start taking some of his reps. The New Mexico State transfer has been out quite a bit so I don’t know much about him, all accounts are he is fast and ready to play, so watch for him to really push for playing time once he’s consistently on the field. he could be a guy to play the slot like Palmer or could fit outside as well. I’d say our WRs are upgraded from what we had last year for sure, a guy like Palmer doesn’t need the play to get him open like Toure did, he can route a defensive back pretty easily, and he’s one of the most elusive guys i’ve seen in the open field. But every single year the WR room is “upgraded in talent” and we’ve seen the results.
I expect a transfer or two here on top of the Betts move as well fwiw.
Tightend – This one gets interesting. Remember how everyone said we didn’t go after the kids going to Oklahoma and Auburn because we were so deep? I truly think we may need a transfer portal guy at TE. Vokolek out with a shoulder injury, Hickman out with a shoulder injury, Fidone out with a knee injury, and Carnie just got back from a knee injury. It got thin in a hurry here. Vokolek is your clear #1 and he looks every bit the part. I feel that guy has been limping ever since he got on campus with some injury, if he can stay healthy, that’s a great piece. But if you run 2 TE sets and you need usually 3 guys there. Brewington showed we could design goalline packages for him, but he’s not big so it’s tough to get him as an every down guy. And he’s injured too. Nate Boerkircher from Aurora is currently running with the 1s and while that scares me a bit, he’s doing pretty well. Trying not to go negative here, but be cautious with that statement. All i’ll say is I’m not sure he would be doing well in B1G play right now. But at minimum he is not holding us back offensively when we scrimmage ourselves. After that you have AJ Rollins who has actually been more serviceable than I gave him credit for during his recruitment, but we will see how that progresses. I just don’t like how thin we are here. But I also don’t know if we can “waste” a portal spot on TE either. I’ll be interested to see.
The long and short of it is we are developing some depth for our younger guys and some of them are making cases to play more. But when we have a brand new DL and 4 out of 5 new guys in the secondary, I don’t know which way to lean.
Offensive Line – Ok, so here we go. Look, i’ve read everything you guys have. “OL coming off the ball way better” and “offense is dominating the defense”. None of what i’ve mentioned on these other positions matter if our OL can’t do their job. I’m not trying to go negative so i’ll paint it with a wide brush here. We lost our best guy to the NFL, and we have two other guys out with injuries that will be starters in Corcoran and Prochazka. So at best 2 returning players, and all of a sudden a new scheme and coach are making us unreal 5 practices in? Let me rephrase, if all it took was playing some of the guys on the bench and a technique change that gave results a few practices in to get unbelievable results, don’t you think that should have been done after the loss to Illinois? Or in 2019, 2020, or 2021? All i’m saying is when we are all new, new offensive scheme, and new coach, rarely in the history of football has it been that easy.
So let’s go into it. From left to right we are starting Banks, Nouilli, Hixson, Bando, and Benhart. Second team is Miller, Williams, Piper, Lutovsky, and Anthony. I truly think all of these are up in the air right now. Starters are there for a reason, but guys like Miller show you why he was a four star. Williams clearly belongs on the field with the rest of the guys. Piper is probably our most athletic lineman now that Jurgens is gone. Lutovsky i’ve been excited about since we signed him. While i’m not completely sold on Anthony, he at least gives us some more P5 experience and options.
What I will be curious with is how we recruited the tall/lean athletic guys, will that translate to the new coaching style? If we are working on getting low and to the second level as quick as possible, a 6’9 guy struggles to do that. And you saw our only OL recruit for 2022 didn’t get to the previous height requirement we used to have. So the long and short of it is I think this starting 5 battle is going to go into fall camp. Hell, I can’t be wrong there because Corcoran and Prochazka are currently out.
I don’t think we can be worse on the OL than we were last year, but we do have some things we need to figure out. I’ll be curious who rises to the top. That will be a fun battle.
Defense – Last year defense was by far our best unit. I think we definitely take a step back this year. We lose our two best defensive players in CTB and Domann, we lose both our starting safeties, and then we lose our all-conference NG who we saw a noticeable difference when he wasn’t in the game, on top of losing our all-conference DE in Ben Stille. We also lose depth guys in Jordon Riley, Pheldarius Payne, and Deontre Thomas. While I rarely worry about Fisher getting his guys right, he loses 3 out of 4 (4 out of 5 if you count Domann) and it may take some time to get right. I think our OLBs should be ok, but a bit thin, and Gifford will eventually be very good, but our DL is going to be an issue.
For those of you that think we are moving to a 4-3, well we aren’t unless we are working on what we things in the spring that we won’t do in the fall. It’s going to be more of the same. 3 WRs or more will be our nickel package that’s a 4 man even front with Tannor/Nelson on the DEs. And 2 WRs like the Iowa and Wisconsins will be our 3-4 with a NG inserted. Base is still the 3-4. I’d also challenge anyone that thinks we are shifting to a 4-3 to tell me what extra DL will be inserted after reading my next position preview. And if they say “well Nelson and Tannor basically play on the line” that tells you they don’t know what they are talking about. Let’s get into it.
Defensive Line – Woof. Casey Rogers out this spring. And Ty Robinson has seemed to do well in the beginning of the season and then get worn down eventually. For those of you that told me it wasn’t a big deal that Jordon Riley transferred, he would be a starting DE for us this spring. Whether you think he’s good or not good, it’s never ideal to have that transfer out. You can say the same about Deontre Thomas. So now your starting DEs are Robinson and Feist. And while I really like Feist, he’s one of those guys that needs to get heavy subbing reps this spring and fall while we sub out Robinson, Riley, etc. As it is, he’s starting. For those of you that told me Hutmacher was going to start as a true freshman that I argued with, he’s sitting on about a dozen snaps for his career going into his third year. He is your starter at NG right now. I’m hoping he gets to be a bit like Damion Daniels, if you remember, Daniels was not ready until his junior year if not his senior year to be a starter and major contributor. Daniels turned himself into an all-conference player and someone that will be sorely missed this year. Hutmacher may end up being good, he’s just not quite ready yet. Backup NG is Weaver who I did see destroy some of our centers, but he still has some work to do. Newsom is a backup DE with Black and Buckley. It just is thin at the starting spot and obviously even thinner behind them. The scary thing is if you listened to Sharp and Benning this week, they stated that we may even need to cut some fat and portal some DL out since they aren’t going to play for us. Scary to think about when you understand how thin we are already.
We have to get 1 if not 2 guys in the portal here. We are thin before any injuries even happen and conference play starts. We struck out on 4 or 5 guys in the portal and it’s going to be our #1 focus after spring. Get the bags of money ready, because we can’t go above .500 if we stay this thin in my opinion. Teams inferior to us like Illinois could just line up in double TE, make us be in a 3-4 and wear down our line with the little depth we have.
Inside Linebacker – It was very interesting the practices i’ve been to. Reimer is out with an injury, so of course Henrich is your starter. Mauga-Clements started one day next to him, and they rotate a bit on that. Honas transferring really showing this spring since we lose some experience. Kpai and Hausmann primarily run with the 2s while Gbayor sprinkles himself in there. We basically developed no depth last year sticking with Henrich and Reimer all game, but that is what this spring is for. Snodgrass is hurt, so hopefully we can get him back in a timely manner to let guys like Kpai, Hausmann, and Gbayor develop at an appropriate pace.
I’m not worried here, just a little thin with Reimer and Snodgrass out, and Honas transferring. But I can tell you our 2s look athletic as heck, they just might not always be in the right spot currently and they struggle at the point of attack if it’s right at them. Comes with weight room. Henrich and Reimer have had injury issues so our 3 (snodgrass) and 4 right now (Mauga-Clements) gotta be ready to go.
Outside Linebacker – What a difference a few years can do for guys like Garrett Nelson and Caleb Tannor. Those guys absolutely look the part now and have turned into definite positives for us. Further, Chinander has learned to play to their strengths. I still remember Nelson having his hand on the ground every play in high school, and getting to Nebraska and us working on coverage and shuffling with him and it just wasn’t going to work. We tweaked things a bit with our nickel and all of a sudden the guy becomes a big time playmaker for us. Those are your two at OLB. Behind them you have Butler and Gunnerson. While Butler looks the part, he still needs to show me, and Gunnerson needs to remain healthy. But we are somewhat thin here if we lose one of those top 2. I always wonder who will shift from ILB to OLB with our new guys, but the way we play some of them need to put on weight first. A guy like Hausmann I think could be very good on the edge. But we just have a lot of depth we need to develop here.
We are going balls deep for the TCU edge rusher, and it’s coming down to NIL. More on this later, but I have learned some interesting things about our NIL tactics/facilities and better late than never to figure it out.
Defensive Backs – I had once said that Fishers room I will never worry about. That guy can coach and he can bring in talent. I think we have the talent here, our problem is going to be he’s starting 4 new guys out of 5. Newsome has a spot locked up at corner, and Clark has been running with the 1s outside of him. I always liked Clark, long and athletic and can run well. Hopefully he is recovered from his shoulder and knee surgeries. Gifford will start at nickel and I like him. He won’t be all-conference this year but I bet he does at some point. We moved Kolarevic to nickel behind him to give us some more depth as he just wasn’t working great at ILB. At safety we are starting Farmer and Buford. While I still remember Farmer’s game against Northwestern with 2 INTs to give me hope, he just doesn’t do well in the open field. I think Buford will for sure start, and Farmer will to begin the season, but I wonder if a young gun may step in and crush some dreams later in the year. Again, I love Farmer, and i’m skewed with that Northwestern game thinking he can get a couple picks a game, but we have some work to do here. Second string corners were Hill and Morton and quite frankly I don’t know enough about them to say one way or the other. Johnson and Omar Brown are doing their thing as well but 2 practices seeing all those guys I have no opinion right now. Second string safeties are Pola-Gates and Singleton. I love Singleton, but Pola-Gates just isn’t going to get it done in my opinion. I also have been a big fan of Bretz out of high school so I will be curious how he develops in year 2.
Summary – My opinion is we are going to take a step back on defense this year. But that really doesn’t matter because we can afford to take a step back as long as special teams and offense take steps forward. I think we were literally dead last in special teams rankings, so there’s zero way to be worse there. And offense has to be better. If you remember when Frost got hired, I said “if our defense is our best unit, we will be a very bad football team with how we are building the roster and our philosophy.” Hate to say I told you so, but 2021 our defense was by far our best unit, and we went 3-9 for the worst record in close to 100 years around here. Take a step back, that’s fine. Just don’t take too many steps backwards.
Spring is a time to develop depth and work on your new schemes. That’s what we are doing so you can’t get a true glimpse of what we will be right now. When you add the transfer portal it makes things really tough because a position group you worried about could all of a sudden be really good with just one or two additions. But I think we have a couple spots that are proving to be not great this spring, and the coaches know we ned to address them.
NIL – As many of you that followed me know, I took a lot of heat for telling people Nebraska wasn’t going to be as great at NIL as we were hoping. Everyone thought with our fanbase and corporate partnerships there was no way we would struggle. I finally figured out where the disconnect is. Nebraska is probably top 5 in the country in terms of showing the vision and “if you come here we will set you up with Runza, Pinnacle Bank, Some Chevrolet dealer” and of course we have OpenDorse that alumni run. Nebraska was doing it the right way, when you come here we will set you up to have opportunities to work and make a ton of money whether that be by tweeting something out, commercials, podcasts. What I was getting at is what Saban was getting at, NIL has turned into something it did not intend to be. It is paying for players to sign on the dotted line. And as you can see from us not doing that, our recruiting class was the worst it’s been since joining the league as we were 9th overall and bottom 50% in average star ranking. We were playing by rules that others just didn’t follow.
Now, I think we understand the game a bit. And I also think we have some coaches that are helping us understand it. I expect a little bit of a comeback here on the recruiting trail.
But the problem is, we don’t have much more money for NIL. One of the narratives that Matt Davison is pushing now is that we are really lucky that we got approved for our new facility when we did, because people really aren’t doing that anymore. Other schools are spending most donor money on NIL to get the best players. Time will tell if facilities will matter as much to the kids as getting 1 million dollars. When I say we don’t have much more money for NIL, we still are only about 60% to our goal for dollars raised for the facility. Meanwhile A&M just paid 35 million dollars just to get kids to sign on the dotted line. No building. No tweeting. Just sign kid. One of the coaches looked at me candidly and said “so did he say we just wasted money on this facility?” I don’t think that’s the case personally, we were due for an upgrade. If Moos wouldn’t have extended Hoiberg and Frost probably would have had an easier time sooner. For a guy that loved spending money, not sure what was going on there.
But the bottom line is NIL is important, and we need to be spending more of it. It’s going to come down to money for the TCU transfer. His visit here he’s seeing the normal stuff, but a package is being presented to him on what he would get coming here. It’s just a crazy time. Not sure I like it. But it’s the world we live in now, so you better figure it out or get left in the dust. As one of my friends said, what’s stopping a kid from entering the portal and finding out how much he could be offered? Then when he gets nothing or “only” a 5k deal, taking his name out of the portal. Ugh.
S&C – So as many of you know, wasn’t a huge fan of what we did here. Frost made mention of changing some things up this past spring and doing more sprinting, I was pumped. But things may really be turning a corner. I’m a big central nervous system guy, it’s what helped me win national titles not blowing that thing out (even though that’s before I even knew what it was). But there was a strength clinic that just happened where a CNS specialist started talking to coaches, and the long and short of it is he’s being asked to come talk to Nebraska. He’s going to Stanford in a couple weeks. He does things a little differently than I would like, I prefer to prevent injuries. But I think what got Nebraska ok with him coming by is his philosophy is “do whatever good or bad shit you do, i’ll show you how to fix it after”. Long and short, I like that we are looking at all facets of what could make us better.
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