Nebraska football: Grading the Huskers after 3-5 season
On Sunday morning, just before the College Football Playoff committee picked Alabama, Clemson, Ohio State and Notre Dame to play for the national championship, Nebraska announced that it would not play in a bowl.
The decision ends the Huskers’ season at 3-5 and extends the streak of not playing in a bowl to 4 years. It was the correct call. It’s been a grueling season, physically and mentally, full of starts and stops. Nothing would be gained for the Huskers if they played again and little would be learned about the team that wasn’t already known. It’s wise to call it a season and focus on the 2021 season.
Nebraska’s date with Illinois and Bret Bielema on Aug. 28 in Dublin, Ireland, will be here before you know it, Huskers fans.
Now that the end of the season is upon us, how would you grade the Huskers? Let’s break it down by position groups:
It’s been said many times before, but it’s worth noting again: Scott Frost and the fanbase came into the season thinking they had 2 legitimate options at quarterback in Adrian Martinez and Luke McCaffrey, but right now it looks like they have 1, kind of, in Martinez.
Fans’ opinion of Martinez had peaks and valleys in 2020. When the offense wasn’t running smoothly or quickly enough for everyone’s liking, Frost benched Martinez in the 2nd half of the 2nd game at Northwestern, which was the right decision all along. The coaches felt like they needed to see if McCaffrey had something to work with.
McCaffrey got his shot as a starter against Penn State and Illinois, but it quickly became apparent that he’s not, at least at this stage of his career, a Division I passer. Frost loves dual-threat quarterbacks — everyone does. But in the B1G, it might be best to recruit quarterbacks who can throw it well and run a little, rather than the ones who can run really well and throw a little. The latter may work against the East Carolinas and UCONNs of the American Athletic Conference, but not against those in the B1G.
Both Martinez and McCaffrey’s inability to accurately throw medium and deep routes — and even sometimes short swing passes — severely limited what the offense could do. Was that because the quarterbacks were confused or because they physically didn’t trust that they could deliver the ball to where it needed to be? No one knows except Frost and the quarterbacks.
Whatever the reason was, a change is needed at the quarterback position — whether that’s the quarterbacks themselves, or the ones teaching the position, which would be Frost and quarterbacks coach Mario Verduzco.
Running backs: C-
This was an odd position to grade because at times this season it looked like the coaching staff didn’t want to give the running backs the ball. Martinez had the most carries on the team with 91 while McCaffrey was 3rd with 65. Dedrick Mills, the starting running back who didn’t get consistent playing time this season as he was banged up a little bit, was 2nd with 84 carries. Wan’Dale Robinson, technically a receiver, was 4th with 46 carries.
It seemed like the coaching staff didn’t trust the freshman running backs — Marvin Scott III, Rahmir Johnson and Ronald Thompkins — to carry the ball. Much like the quarterback situation, the running back room needs to be figured out this offseason. It’s a tough way to make a living in the B1G when your starting quarterback is averaging 13 carries per game.
Much like the running backs, the receivers were hard to judge because they didn’t have great quarterback play. On more than one occasion — many more, in fact — fans would see receivers running free down the field, but they wouldn’t get the ball thrown their way.
To give one a sense of how rough the production looked for the Nebraska wideouts, here’s this: of the Huskers’ top 4 pass catchers, 2 were technically wide receivers in Robinson, who was 1st in catches with 51, and Levi Falck, who hauled in just 13, which was tied for 3rd with Mills. Austin Allen, a tight end, was 2nd on the team with 18 catches.
Zavier Betts, a young but inexperienced freshman receiver from Omaha, didn’t always play as much as fans would have liked. Frost and his staff are big on the “no block, no rock” motto, and Betts may still be trying to learn the playbook.
The big storyline with the wideouts was Robinson, though. His numbers were well below what everyone expected from the sophomore after a breakout freshman season. But again, it’s hard to judge Robinson when you consider the poor quarterback play.
Tight ends: B-
Out of any position group on the offense, the tight ends may be the silver lining.
An early-season knee injury slowed starter Jack Stoll, but it also provided an opportunity for the 6-foot-8 Allen, a fan favorite from Aurora, Neb. Allen had a career-best 236 receiving yards and caught 1 touchdown. Rutgers transfer Travis Vokolek chipped in with 9 catches for 91 yards while Stoll came back to catch 7 for 89. All 3 of those guys were a key part of the run blocking, too, which had its ups and downs this season.
Offensive line: C-
Generally speaking, a team with a good offense usually has a strong offensive line. That’s where football starts, with the big guys up front.
Whether it was the pull-your-hair-out snapping adventures of sophomore Cam Jurgens or the fact that the Huskers ended the season at Rutgers with 4 of the starting 5 being sophomores or younger, it’s safe to say Nebraska’s offensive line is a work in progress.
As Frost said following the win over the Scarlet Knights when talking about true freshman left tackle Turner Corcoran, who made the 1st start of his career in place of senior Brenden Jaimes, who opted to not play and instead focus on the NFL draft, “I didn’t notice him (Corcoran), and that probably means he played pretty well.”
For all the bad snaps and holding penalties, the Huskers still finished the season averaging 201 rushing yards per game, which ranks 2nd in the B1G. There are pieces to work with along the O-line, it’s just going to take time. But do fans want to wait?
Defensive line: B+
Anyone who didn’t see improvement from the 2019 defense to the 2020 squad is blind. Defensive coordinator Erik Chinander did a great job for the most part this season, and his young defensive line was a big reason for that.
Led by senior Ben Stille, the Huskers got strong play from junior Damion Daniels, sophomore Casey Rogers and redshirt freshman Ty Robinson. That group was instrumental in holding opponents to 4.17 yards per carry, which is better than last year’s mark of 4.82, which ranked 13th in the conference.
Once a question mark heading into the season, the D-line may be one of the strengths in 2021 with everyone coming back. We’ll see what Stille does with his extra year of eligibility, too.
The linebacker group as a whole was better than last year, with seniors Will Honas and Collin Miller looking more suited to stop runs and not over run their gaps as the middle linebackers, which was a problem in 2019.
Honas stayed healthy for the year and was 2nd on the team in tackles with 57 and was the top sack artist with 3. He was even tied for 1st in tackles for loss with 6.5. Miller was having a solid senior until his football career was unfortunately ended early with a spinal injury. Backup Luke Reimer didn’t play like one when he got in — that bodes well for the defense if Honas moves on.
It’s tough to put into words what senior JoJo Domann meant to the defense. The Colorado native was everywhere as a linebacker/safety hybrid and recorded a team-best 58 tackles and 6.5 stops for a loss. Domann tracking down ball carriers from the backside of the formation was a work of art.
The outside linebackers closer to the line of scrimmage were young, but had good moments. No one in the conference played harder or with the same fire as Garrett Nelson did. The sophomore from Scottsbluff, Neb., is a Husker through and through, and gave it his all every play. Sometimes offenses use his energy against him, but he did more good than bad in 2020.
Another linebacker who spent time as an outside and inside ‘backer was Nick Henrich, a local guy from Omaha. Henrich had a couple rough first few games, but he settled in to B1G football and had his best game against Rutgers with a team-high 12 tackles. He’ll be an important piece to the 2021 defense.
Caleb Tannor and Pheldarius Payne were solid at the outside spots as well, racking up a combined 45 tackles with 4 for a loss.
Defensive backs: C+
The defensive back group would have graded in the B-range had it not been for a couple vets in senior safety Deontai Williams and junior corner Cam Taylor-Britt refusing to not lead with their heads while going for highlight-reel hits instead of wrapping up to secure the tackle.
The two were called multiple times for targeting this season, and although the rule itself needs to be revisited and makes playing defense nearly impossible these days, Williams and Taylor-Britt needed to be more aware of rule and abide by it.
For the most part, the tackling in the secondary seemed better than last year, which isn’t saying much. Williams finished with 51 tackles while senior Marquel Dismuke had 47.
Will Taylor-Britt and Williams stick around for next season? Both may have an NFL future.
Special teams: C+
The good: Connor Culp. The transfer place kicker from LSU earned B1G Kicker of the Year honors as well as first-team all-conference. He ended the season 13-of-15, which is much, much better than the Huskers’ field goal kicking from last season, where 6 different guys went a combined 12-of-20.
The bad: kickoff coverage. It wasn’t good for most of the season, but it got worse in the final game against Rutgers when the Huskers allowed Aron Cruickshank to return a kickoff for a touchdown. Cruickshank did the same thing last year while in a Wisconsin uniform.