Nebraska football: 3 areas the new Huskers' coach will need to address immediately
It’s been a dismal cycle for Nebraska football the past 20+ years. Six head coaches. System overhauls and a variety of recruiting philosophies have the Huskers stuck in the mud.
Any time an ounce of momentum is generated, a resounding thud seems to follow. So many different ideas on how to fix the mess that is Nebraska football. Little has worked.
Where does AD Trev Alberts turn? Does it even matter? Scott Frost was a “home run” hire. How’d that turn out?
Some say Nebraska football is cursed. It’s a hard point to refute. Since Frank Solich’s firing in 2003, Nebraska has qualified for a bowl game just 12 times. Zero appearances since 2017. Nebraska is the only Power 5 school to miss a bowl in every season since then. The struggle in Lincoln is real. And turning things around will be a mighty task.
Whomever is tabbed by Alberts to take over the program matters little if the following areas aren’t addressed immediately.
Let’s take a look at the biggest 3 areas of concern and what can be done to flip the script on each.
We could take a deep dive into a rabbit hole here. So many different ways to interpret recruiting.
But let’s keep things simple. Nebraska must settle on an identity and put all its efforts into recruiting toward said identity.
Nebraska’s recruiting rankings over the past decade have been good. Top half of the Big Ten. Many years in the top 4. The problem lies a bit deeper.
Coaching changes, offensive and defensive system changes keep things in flux. Recruits enter preparing to play in a certain system, but with a revolving door of coaches and coordinators, there’s seldom a 4-year cycle in which athletes are learning and playing in the same system. And for the same position coach.
Yes, you can say the same thing about many programs in this day and age of college football. But Nebraska’s different. For decades, the Huskers had a concrete identity. It began under Bob Devaney in the 1960s and continued under Tom Osborne until he retired in 1997.
Solich tried to emulate it — recruiting home-grown kids, especially on the offensive line, and developing them in a superior strength and conditioning program. But the one thing long-time observers of the program will say — recruiting took a hit. Veteran staff members tired of the grind. Hitting the road, finding the diamond-in-the-rough kids wasn’t a top priority.
You could see it slowly slipping each year on the field.
Bo Pelini didn’t enjoy recruiting either. It was a chore. A nuisance. The Huskers were getting by on sheer will and effort. They no longer had the advantage. Especially along the offensive and defensive lines.
Bill Callahan landed arguably Nebraska’s best-ever recruiting class in 2005. It didn’t quite pan out. Defense, and more importantly defensive coordinator Kevin Cosgrove, eventually cost Callahan his gig.
This past year alone, Scott Frost brought in several new coaches including offensive coordinator Mark Whipple from Pitt and offensive line coach Donovan Raiola. Players had to learn new techniques, terminology and system. Not easy to do. And not easy to get everyone on the same page.
Iowa and Wisconsin have never lost their identities. Yes, they’ve had a few clunkers of seasons. But Nebraska is headed for back-to-back 3-9 campaigns barring a miracle. The program’s in the deepest abyss it’s been in, in the modern era.
The Hawkeyes and Badgers have identities they’re true to. They recruit and coach to those identities.
Recruiting will never be the same as the 1990s when Nebraska dominated. It’s a different landscape and era.
Nebraska must figure out who it wants to be. Map out a blue print. Believe in it and recruit to it.
2) Player development
There’s no bigger indictment to the lack of player development under Scott Frost than the 2022 team.
Nebraska’s top 3 offensive players are all players acquired in the portal this offseason. Casey Thompson (Texas), Trey Palmer (LSU) and Anthony Grant (Florida State) are the undeniable leaders of the offense. All guys that were developed in other programs.
Where are Frost’s guys? In what ways are they contributing?
Maybe the biggest fish landed by Frost was one of his first. Adrian Martinez came to NU from California. He started all 4 years he was on campus at quarterback. He’s currently playing his 5th season as a transfer at Kansas State.
Martinez’ talent is undeniable. But how much better did he really get at Nebraska?
Turnovers were a constant bugaboo. He threw 30 picks. Close losses were a theme. Close only counts in hand grenades and horseshoes. In 2021, Nebraska lost 8 of its 9 games by a single score. All behind a senior quarterback.
The same can be said for the offensive line. Look at Nebraska’s current starters and their star rankings by 247sports
- Ethan Piper – 3*
- Trent Hixson – 2*
- Bryce Benhart – 4*
- Turner Corcoran – 4*
- Broc Bando – 3*
A mix of highly regarded and under-the-radar guys. Benhart and Corcoran were studs in high school. Benhart had a plethora of offers. It’s safe to say, they aren’t performing to expectations up front as far as pass protection and run blocking are concerned.
In fairness to the players, where is the development? Why aren’t they improving? Raiola has taken his share of criticism from the fans and media. Last year’s position coach Greg Austin was under similar scrutiny. Players weren’t improving. Penalties, missed assignments were weekly occurrences.
Maybe it’s the fact coaches were playing musical chairs with guys and their positions. It’s tough to be good at 1 position, let alone 2 or 3. Consistency in the rotation has been missing. Teaching basic run blocking technique? Hit and miss.
As for pass protection? Don’t get me started.
Injuries have hindered the unit. Left tackle Teddy Prochazka has missed the majority of the year. Nouredin Nouili, an expected starter, is sitting out due to a failed drug test.
Regardless of the situation, it’s clearly evident lack of player development is hindering Nebraska. Without gains being made year-to-year, how can Nebraska close the gap with the rest of the conference? It can’t.
The new coach will have his hands full. But making player development one of the top priorities and putting guys in the best possible position to succeed, has to happen.
3) Commitment to running the football
Sure, Nebraska’s said it’s committed to the run. But are they really? Have they been?
The painful answer — at least since the Callahan years — is no. Not even close to the same commitment level as Iowa. As Wisconsin.
Why is that? It goes back to recruiting and developing guys up front. Nebraska does not have (and hasn’t had) the same caliber of offensive linemen as Iowa and Wisconsin. It’s no secret why the Hawkeyes have won 7 straight in the series. The Badgers have won 8 in a row.
Those teams are built for B1G football. Nebraska has plenty of catching up to do.
Take a look at some of the guys Nebraska had up front during its championship years. The pipeline. Brutes and bullies. The architect was longtime position coach Milt Tenopir (1974-2002).
Zach Wiegert came from Fremont, Nebraska. Eric Anderson was a product of Lincoln Southeast High. Rob Zatechka hailed from Lincoln East High. Dave Rimington went to Omaha South. Homegrown guys who developed once in the program.
Sure, there were terrific out-of-state guys up front as well. Aaron Graham (Denton, TX), Brenden Stai (Esperanza, CA) and Dominic Raiola (Honolulu, HA) to name a few.
The common theme? Each one came to NU knowing the exact system they were coming into. It wasn’t going to change.
Tenopir was a staple under Osborne and Solich. All the guys mentioned above played for him. No changes. Same terminology. Same system. Same sky-high expectations.
It doesn’t have to be old school, triple option football. But running the ball, especially in this conference, is a necessity for top-level consistency.
Recapturing the glory
Nebraska must reclaim its roots. The program’s endured too many changes the past 20+ years. Too many failures. Coaches (and ADs) have come and gone. Trying this, changing that.
It may be too late to ever see the Nebraska of old again. But for the Huskers to give themselves a fighting chance, the new coach must go back to its roots. Hit the recruiting trail hard. Build a staff committed to player development.
And most importantly, go back to an identity of years’ past. An identity of hard-nosed, running football.