10 biggest questions as Nebraska enters preseason camp
It’s an important season in Lincoln.
Scott Frost is in his 4th year as head coach of the Huskers, but he’s yet to make a bowl game and has a record of 12-20. Fans are starting to talk about seats getting warm, and some already think Frost’s is a couple early losses away from catching fire.
There’s no question about it — Nebraska needs to show progress. The coaches know it. So do the players, fanbase and new athletic director Trev Alberts.
Nebraska starts preseason camp this Friday, so it’s a good time to start talking about a season that’s quickly approaching. Here are 10 questions — and answers — as Nebraska heads into preseason camp.
1. Who will lead the team in carries?
The Huskers head into camp with a question mark in the running back room. Who’s going to get the rock? Frost has always been big on running his quarterbacks. Doing that has its perks, sure, but it also puts your quarterback at risk for injury, and Adrian Martinez has a history of those.
One way to keep Martinez upright is to utilize the running back more, and the Huskers have guys who are capable — they just need a real opportunity to show what they can do.
The high-profile transfer from USC, sophomore Markese Stepp, will likely get the start if he’s healthy. But it’d be smart to use a rotation of backs, too. Several of them looked good in the spring game, including freshmen Marvin Scott, Gabe Ervin Jr. and Jaquez Yant.
Scott had 24 carries last season, so he has a bit of experience. Ervin Jr. has been praised by the coaching staff for his progress. Yant will be the fan favorite because of his size — the Florida native is 6-2 and 245 pounds — and bruising running style.
2. Will the passing game improve?
The passing attack needs to be better than last season’s. It produced just 190.1 yards per game, more interceptions (9) than touchdowns (5) and just 18 completions of 20 or more yards, which was tied for 12th in the B1G.
Luke McCaffrey is gone — he wound up at Rice after a pit stop at Louisville — and thus so is the quarterback drama. Martinez is the clear No. 1, and that should cut down on the mistakes in the passing game. While many of his attempts weren’t particularly difficult — remember all the swing passes, Huskers fans? — Martinez still had a 71 percent completion rate. That’s pretty good.
Nebraska’s offense needs to test defenses vertically more often in 2021, though. It was almost comical how predictable the Huskers offense was at times. That needs to change, and it likely will because it would be hard to be worse than it was last season.
3. Who will be the backup QB?
Not often is the backup quarterback a key offseason question, but it absolutely is at Nebraska.
With Martinez’s injury history, it’s very likely that two freshmen with zero experience playing in a college football game will be called on. Should Martinez go down or come off the field if, for example, his helmet pops off, the two candidates will be Alabama native Logan Smothers and Heinrich Haarberg from in-state Kearney Catholic. You can throw in walk-on Matt Masker to the equation, too.
Smothers is in the mold of previous Frost quarterback recruits — more of a runner than a thrower. Haarberg, on the other hand, looks like a quarterback at 6-5, 200 pounds with a cannon for a right arm.
Who will get the backup reps? The money should be on Smothers, as he’s been in the program longer, likely knows the playbook better and would probably hand the ball off or run it himself in the event he enters the game.
Long term, though? Haarberg has the higher ceiling. He’ll be one of the more interesting storylines to watch in the coming years.
4. Is center Cam Jurgens’ snapping issue fixed?
Will Jurgens accurately snap the ball in a shotgun set? You hate to keep piling on the kid, but it’s without a doubt a major question surrounding the Huskers offensive line. Jurgens is one of the more athletic centers in the B1G — he was a 4-star tight end from in-state Beatrice who almost committed to LSU in high school — but none of that athleticism matters if he can’t accurately snap the ball to the quarterback.
More than once, Jurgens’ poor snaps ruined a play because the quarterback needed to reach for the ball. Those snaps threw off timing and rhythm, two important aspects of any given play.
Jurgens needs to be confident in his snapping. He’s clearly a hard worker — this issue will be behind him in 2021.
5. Will the offensive line consistently get movement?
Let’s stick with the offensive line — can that unit show Frost and his offensive staff that it can consistently get a push and move opposing front sevens?
If the O-line can do that, maybe Frost will be more willing to play smash-mouth football. Use more of a north-south run game that worked so well in last season’s finale at Rutgers, where the Huskers racked up 365 yards on the ground and 6.2 per carry.
Jurgens will be the leader of the unit, which will have two freshman tackles in Bryce Benhart and Turner Corcoran. Benhart started every game in 2020 while Corcoran got the start at Rutgers. Redshirt freshman Ethan Piper will likely be the starting left guard, but the right guard spot is up for grabs.
Will this unit consistently get movement? Looking at the starters — however young they may be — along the line, there will be good games and bad.
6. Will Omar Manning make an impact at WR?
The 6-4, 225-pound Manning, a junior college product, came to Lincoln from Kilgore College in 2020. He was supposed to be the big-bodied receiver that Nebraska fans have wished for. But he never played outside of a couple series, and coaches cited his health as a reason without going into detail.
By all accounts, Manning is on track to play much more this season and seems to be progressing well. Manning making an impact would be a bright spot for the Huskers offense. Not since Maurice Purify has Nebraska had a receiver who could bully smaller corners and safeties and win jump balls. Manning has a chance to be that guy — someone who makes defenses think about how they cover him.
If Manning shows he can be a down-field threat on the outside, maybe defenses think about providing safety help on top of him. If that happens, space opens for tight ends, slot receivers and even the run game — it’s one less body in the middle of the field.
The talk on Manning has been quiet this offseason. That’s a good thing. He’ll contribute in 2021.
7. Will the special teams improve?
A big part about the special teams problem at Nebraska deals with the kickoff specialist. Do the Huskers have one who can put the ball through the end zone consistently? It remains to be seen.
Connor Culp was the Big Ten kicker of the year last season, but he excels at field goals, not kickoffs. Nebraska was 10th in the B1G in that department as just 30 percent (12 of 40) of Culp’s kickoffs were touchbacks.
Maybe the Huskers find the right person for the job in Brendan Franke, a newcomer to the team who had success at Morningside College in Sioux City, Iowa.
8. Will the red-zone scoring improve?
At times last season, Nebraska’s offense moved the ball well between the 20-yard lines. But once it got to the red zone, the Huskers struggled to score touchdowns and had to settle for field goals instead.
Nebraska scored a touchdown just 51.4 percent of the time when it got inside the 20 — that ranked 11th in the B1G and needs to get better. Frost and Co. hopefully learned lessons about what works and what doesn’t, so the Huskers should improve in that area.
Leaning on the offensive line and running game as the goal line creeps closer would be a good place to start.
9. Who will lead the team in sacks?
Lately, Nebraska’s defense hasn’t been good at rushing the passer. Of course every defense is different in how often it sends pressure, but with nearly every starter but two returning on the super-senior-led defense, Nebraska will be able to put more pressure on opposing quarterbacks.
Look for Pheldarius Payne to lead the team in sacks. Payne, a 6-3, 260-pounder, will have a full offseason knowing his role. He’ll also go through a normal spring, something he didn’t get last season due to Covid-19 when he came from the junior college ranks.
10. Will Nebraska be better in the second half?
Nebraska was outscored 113-60 in second halves last season. That’s an average score of 14.1-7.5.
With a clear picture at quarterback, a young but intriguing offensive line and a stable of capable running backs, Nebraska should be able to put more teams away in the third and fourth quarters. Having a defense with as much experience as Nebraska’s helps, too.