Better or worse? Previewing Nebraska's offense in 2021
How does one accurately judge a college football program that played its shortened season during a pandemic?
Like every team in the nation, Nebraska didn’t have the full slate of spring practices. The Huskers got their schedule, then had it changed. Depending on who you ask, they had to open the season against the B1G’s Death Star, Ohio State, because they made Commissioner Kevin Warren mad.
Then Nebraska finished 3-5, and got embarrassed, outcoached and outplayed in home losses to Illinois — which wound up firing Lovie Smith — and an undermanned Minnesota team. The Gophers hadn’t played a game in 22 days before coming to Lincoln and were without 33 players who were out due to injury and COVID protocols.
The Huskers beat Rutgers — that gave the fan base something to cheer about and had it wondering if they finally found a winning formula on offense — then voted to not play in a bowl game.
If that weren’t bad enough, the departures on offense began. First, Wan’Dale Robinson, likely the team’s most lethal player with the ball in his hands, transferred to Kentucky. Then Luke McCaffrey, a quarterback whom the fan base and coaching staff quickly realized doesn’t have the accuracy or skills to play winning football in the Power 5, left. He wound up at Louisville for a cup of coffee before transferring again, this time to Rice.
Thankfully, all of that is in the past, and everyone can move on. Nebraska needs a winning season and a bowl appearance, things that haven’t happened since 2016 when Mike Riley was around. With a defense that will be bringing many super senior starters back, the focus turns to Scott Frost’s offense.
Will it be better or worse than last season’s unit that finished 4th in the B1G in total yards per game (391.5), but 12th in scoring (23.1)? Let’s discuss.
Key losses: WR Wan’Dale Robinson, QB Luke McCaffrey, RB Dedrick Mills, OL Brenden Jaimes, OL Matt Farniok, TE Jack Stoll
Key returnees: QB Adrian Martinez, TE Austin Allen, TE Travis Vokolek, WR Oliver Martin, WR Zavier Betts, OL Cam Jurgens, OL Turner Corcoran, OL Bryce Benhart, OL Ethan Piper
Passing offense: Better
Nebraska struggled so mightily last season that it would be stunning if it was worse in 2021. It ranked 12th in the B1G in passing yards per game at 190.1 and had more interceptions thrown (9) than touchdowns (5).
Frost flip-flopped quarterbacks, but that didn’t work, either. He benched Martinez for the young and intriguing McCaffrey, but that didn’t go well as the Colorado native tossed 6 interceptions against 1 touchdown. So the Huskers went back to Martinez, who played well down the stretch.
McCaffrey and the quarterback drama is gone, however. Martinez is the clear No. 1 heading into fall camp, and the offense will go as he goes. There’s no doubt about it — Martinez needs to be better, but last season’s struggles in the passing game weren’t all his fault. The receivers need to get separation and run the correct routes. The play calling from Frost and receivers coach Matt Lubick needs to be better as well.
There’s a real battle for the backup quarterback job between freshmen Logan Smothers and Heinrich Haarberg. Yes, the backup role is important. Smothers, who redshirted last season, is 6-2, 190 pounds and in the mold of previous Frost quarterback recruits — more of a runner than a passer. Haarberg, an in-state true freshman from Kearney Catholic, looks more like a traditional quarterback. He has a big arm and is tall at 6-5, with big shoulders that are able to add and carry more weight.
Neither Smothers nor Haarberg are probably ready to make an impact, so the health of the often-injured Martinez will be something to watch. What happens when Martinez does come off the field, for whatever reason? Who’s going to take the next snap?
The offensive line will be tasked with keeping Martinez upright. The tackle spots are set with young players who were big recruiting wins in Bryce Benhart and Turner Corcoran. One guard position should go to Ethan Piper. There will be a battle for the other spot, but the Huskers have experienced candidates, including Trent Hixson and a couple of transfers in Nouredin Nouili from Colorado State and Ezra Miller from Iowa.
Cam Jurgens will start at center, but there’s an issue: his shot-gun snapping. Can he do it accurately? There were too many instances last season where his inaccurate snaps ruined the timing and doomed the play. Will it be corrected? Along with timing and reading the defense, Martinez had to worry about where the snap was going to be last season.
Who will replace Robinson as the Huskers’ leading receiver? Many fans are eying transfer Samori Touré — an FCS All-American at Montana. Of course, there’s already an unfair amount of pressure and expectations being put on Touré. Husker fans desperately want someone to step up at receiver, and they were disappointed it wasn’t Omar Manning in 2020. Manning, a 6-4, 225-pounder, is still in Lincoln, and by all accounts, it seems like he’s going to play more than he did last season. If Nebraska can get real production out of Touré and Manning, that would be a huge positive.
Martinez will also have Zavier Betts, Oliver Martin and Levi Falck as returning receivers — they combined to catch 30 passes for 316 yards and 2 touchdowns last season. Betts, an in-state kid, and Martin, who was at Iowa and Michigan before Nebraska, are former 4-star recruits who had good moments in 2020. One intriguing freshman receiver is Latrell Neville, who is listed at 6-4, 195 pounds. Neville had offers from Alabama, Florida, LSU and pretty much everyone else.
One positive that Martinez and the offense should enjoy is the tight end room — it’s filled with talent and could be the best in the B1G. Austin Allen, all 6-8, 260 pounds of him, was 2nd on the team in catches last season with 18 for 236 yards and 1 score. Travis Vokolek, another huge target at 6-6, 260, should see more action in the passing game after hauling in 9 passes for 91 yards.
Nebraska’s staff will have to wait to see its prized recruit, tight end Thomas Fidone, who had knee surgery in April. It’s unclear when or if the former 4-star and top tight end recruit in the nation according to 247Sports will be available this season. At 6-5 and 220 pounds, Fidone is oozing potential and big-play ability. Healthy, he could have found the field immediately and played a little receiver, too.
Rushing offense: Same
Nebraska finished 2nd in the B1G in rushing last season at 201.38 yards per game. This fall, the run game will be as good as the offensive line is, and that unit has a lot of potential.
Jurgens, who was an in-state 4-star tight end coming out of Beatrice, Neb., is a very athletic center who has gotten better each season. The tackles — Benhart and Corcoran — are young and there will be growing pains, but the consensus is that Nebraska has 2 potential studs at that position. The question will be about the guard spot opposite Piper — who will it be?
Another big question is at running back. The hard-running Mills is gone. The Huskers snatched up Markese Stepp when he entered the transfer portal at USC, but he dealt with a foot injury during the spring. Recent reports are encouraging that Stepp could be ready for the start of the season.
Frost has long given his quarterbacks a lot of carries. But will that be the case this season with such little depth behind Martinez?
Along with Stepp, the Huskers have interesting pieces at running back, including Sevion Morrison, Marvin Scott, the 6-2, 225-pound fan-favorite walk-on Jaquez Yant and even 4-star recruit Gabe Ervin, whom the coaches have praised.
This doesn’t mean Martinez shouldn’t run by design, but Frost should pick his spots.
Kicking game: Same
The good news is Connor Culp, the B1G’s kicker of the year, is returning. The LSU transfer made 13-of-15 field goal attempts last year.
The returners who got most of the work last season are back, too.
Nebraska was 2nd in the B1G in punt return average, thanks to Cam Taylor-Britt. A starting corner and the defense’s top player, took 6 punts for an average of 13.17 yards. Alante Brown brought back 10 kickoffs for an average of 19.6 yards, which was middle-of-the-pack.
Talent doesn’t seem to be Nebraska’s problem on offense. Even after the departures of Robinson and McCaffrey, the Huskers still have good, young players along the line and at the skill positions.
Like last year, Nebraska’s offense will go as Martinez goes. Frost and his staff need to help protect Martinez, however, and cater the calls around his skills. Too many times last season fans wondered why so many passes were thrown when the quarterbacks clearly weren’t comfortable throwing the ball downfield. At times, it felt like Frost gave up on the run game too quickly.
Frost and Co. had a full slate of spring practices. They have a starting quarterback with all the experience you’d want him to have. A line with a multi-year starter at center and 2 young, but strong pieces at tackle. Very capable players at the skill positions. What should be a solid defense.
The parts are there for the offense to be better than last season, and it needs to happen for a head coach whose seat is keeps getting warmer.