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A View From the Sideline: A Few Notes From Spring Football

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Nebraska v Minnesota Photo by David Berding/Getty Images

It’s been several weeks since I last posted anything on Corn Nation…I’ve been on the IR. Injured my shoulder in January, tore three of the four tendons in my right shoulder and had surgery in February. It’s been six weeks since the doc repaired my shoulder, I’ve started physical therapy, and I’ve been promising Jon and the other Corn Nation staff that I’d get back on my laptop sooner rather than later, so here we go…

With the recruiting season over, and spring practice nearly halfway through, there are a few keys that need to be examined.

There can be no question that the talent pool at Memorial Stadium is deeper than at any time in the Scott Frost era. This true of the players and the coaching staff. This has been true about the players every previous season since Frost was hired as head coach. The increase in the quality of the players has not translated into the results everyone wanted, and expected, on the field.

Too many self-inflicted wounds. Both on the field and on the sidelines. False starts, poor clock management, lack of execution, lack of identity, lack of toughness. This has been uncharted territory and the Husker faithful were SURE that Scott Frost was coming home to lead this once proud program out of the darkness of futility.

This spring has been different.

Nearly the entire offensive coaching staff has been replaced. A coach has been brought in to transform special teams from an embarrassment to a strength. It’s hard not to be optimistic.

And I’m trying. I really am.

The last 20 years have left me gun shy. Three key factors on offense have to show massive improvement to ensure we’re not all scratching our heads and looking ahead to next year after another season of disappointment.

  • The offensive line must be an elite unit by the time the B1G season starts.
  • There has to be a stud starting running back to consistently carry the rushing load in the new offensive scheme.
  • Finally, as the culmination of the two previous keys, this team must create an identity.

It turns out that Cam Jurgens really was a beast. His performance at the NFL combine leaves you wishing he was coming back to NU, but you have to understand why he’s going. He struggled at center for a long season or two before he got it figured out. He has left a gaping hole in his absence.

Gaping holes on an offensive line are not good. Literally or figuratively. The talk about the O-line from the first half of spring practice hasn’t been exactly thunderous. A few remarks about incoming line coach Donovan Raiola’s intensity and that the line is coming off the ball are minimally encouraging.

This group needs to get mean. They need to be Dominic Raiola intense. They need to be aggressive and punishing, from whistle to whistle, every snap of every practice. Two transfer linemen and lot of kids are in this group. The transfers, Hunter Anthony out of Oklahoma State and Omaha North HS product Kevin Williams, from Northern Colorado need to fill open positions in O-Line. Seniors Broc Bando and Trent Hixson need to compete for starting jobs and show leadership. And the kids, including sophomores Nouredin Nouili, Ethan Piper and Bryce Benhart, along with red-shirt freshman Henry Lutovsky and Alex Conn, and incoming freshman Justin Evans-Jenkins need to grow up fast. If the tackles play like last year, it won’t matter who starts at quarterback or running back, but Teddy Prochazka showed great potential before an injury ended his season. And if Benhart or Turner Corcoran can show consistency and nail down the other tackle spot the line should be vastly improved

If the mistakes continue this year; playing behind the chains, trying to convert on third-and-eight or worse will make establishing the running game a near impossibility. Maybe the improvement is there. Maybe the coaches are seeing it. Maybe they’re keeping their cards close to their vests. But this group has to show major improvement, and it’s been a little too quiet for that to be a given at this point.

The running back room this season is deeper and more talented than in previous years. Rahmir Johnson and Jaquez Yant are the most productive running back returning for the Huskers this season. Gabe Ervin earned the starting job but an injury early in the season opened the door for Johnson and Yant. Johnson is the leading returning rusher, but Yant is a big, physical runner who led the team in yards after contact.

Transfer Anthony Grant out of New Mexico Military Institute was the NJCAA Player of the Year and led NMMI to the NJCAA National Championship. Freshman Emmett Johnson rushed for 2,513 yards and 42, yes, 42 touchdowns in his senior season at Holy Angels Academy in Minneapolis.

Nebraska also got Ajay Allen as a signing day flip from TCU. The back from Neville, Louisiana rushed for over 2,200 yards and 34 touchdowns. These three explosive newcomers, along with returning backs Ervin, and Markese Stepp make for depth at running back unseen in Scott Frost’s previous seasons.

While it is reasonable to hope and expect that all of these talented backs will contribute this fall, one or two must separate from the crowd to lead Nebraska’s running game. Thus far new running backs coach Bryan Applewhite has yet to specifically name one guy as having a spectacular spring.

NU hasn’t had a 1,000 yard rusher since Devine Ozigbo in 2018 and, before him, Ameer Abdullah in 2014. Getting one this season could get Frost and his coaches, including all those new hires, off the hot seat.

One of the most frustrating characteristics of Frost’s previous teams, especially last year’s incarnation, was a lack of identity. There seemed to be no apparent consistent commitment to any specific philosophy, or even type of play. It often seemed that as soon as the obligatory false start was called, the ability to convert a first down after a 1st and 15 situation arose, was a simple impossibility.

An incomplete pass 19 yards downfield was all too often the result of the call on 3rd and 2. If a back got off to a good start and seemed to be on the way to a 100 + yard game, it seemed as though he, somehow, exhausted his eligibility at halftime. The most productive runner has routinely been the quarterback running for his life as the called play broke down.

Having a struggling offensive line, no go-to running back and no consistent deep threat receiver, can, obviously, make identity hard to come by. It can be a chicken or egg problem.

Do you decide and dedicate yourself to being a physical, bull-headed running team, and press the available talent into the mold to become that kind of team? Or do you take the players you have and try to adapt to maximize their results playing to their strengths, no matter what they may be?

A coach’s main job is to put players in the best position to be successful. That goal can be achieved either way. But a decision HAS to made about what kind of team you’re going to be. This is what most fans expected when Frost came to town and said the B1G defenses would have to adjust to the Huskers.

What fans in Nebraska want to see, I believe, first and foremost, is a tough, physical running game.

It doesn’t need to be a reincarnation of the 90’s teams, or even the 80’s, when Nebraska routinely led the nation in rushing yards, but they do have to be able to push the opposing defense off the ball, and impose their will in crucial times. Opening up the playbook on a second and 4, after a 6 yard run on first down would warm the hearts of Husker fans, and probably cool Frost’s hot-seat considerably.

Very little of that first day press conference swagger has followed the teams when they stepped out of the tunnel and hit the field. If the line improves and one of the backs steps up to be “The Man,” maybe, the identity takes care of itself. However it happens, this season, this team needs to be very good at something.

Otherwise, the December cold may be fatal.