Photo by Scott Bruhn/Nebraska Communications

Husker Notebook: Expectations Welcome

By Brian Rosenthal

What expectations, exactly, do media members outside the state of Nebraska have for the Nebraska football team in the second season of coach Scott Frost?

Opinions vary widely.

Initial predictions had the Huskers making a breakthrough, much in the way UCF did in going 13-0 in Frost’s second season in Orlando. That turnaround, combined with Nebraska’s strong wave of momentum to finish 2018, and star quarterback power in Adrian Martinez, had the likes of Phil Steele saying the Huskers would be the nation’s most improved team.

Steele’s and other preseason magazines picked Nebraska to win the Big Ten West. So did media members who cover the conference. Others said the Huskers would win the conference altogether.

On the other end, you’ve got folks like Jon Jansen, the former Michigan player who hosts a podcast on Michigan athletics. Jansen served as a guest host Tuesday on Sirius XM College Sports.

“I’m not on the Nebraska train,” Jansen said before acknowledging the improvement under Frost, and how Nebraska could contend for titles in a few years. “But to go from 4-8 to people saying – some have even said, ‘Well, they could contend for a playoff spot.’ That’s ridiculous.”

Program host Chris Childers advised Huskers fans to “pump the breaks.” He understood the momentum and excitement, “but what have they done?” to deserve a preseason No. 24 ranking in the Associated Press poll, he asked.

“Nebraska is coming off a four-win season,” Childers said. “Nebraska hasn’t been good in years.”

As for the Huskers eyeing a trip to Indianapolis and the Big Ten Championship game?

“I think that’s a pipe dream,” he said.

Remember who else said expectations were too high in Lincoln, that Nebraska was overrated? Former Indiana and LSU coach Gerry DiNardo, an analyst on the Big Ten Network.

Then DiNardo and the BTN Bus Tour rolled into Lincoln for its annual camp visit on Monday. DiNardo left town with a different story.

“My opinion has totally changed,” DiNardo said. “They’re further along than I anticipated.”

A bigger, more physical Nebraska team is indeed capable of winning the West Division and challenging for a conference title, DiNardo said. But it took DiNardo seeing Frost’s team in person, in action, before he believed.

BTN studio host Dave Revsine also left Lincoln impressed, saying Nebraska fans want to see the program back in its rightful place in college football, “which is, from what I’ve seen today, not very far off.”

The BTN crew asked Frost about the high expectations some of the media has put on the program.

That won’t be a problem, he said.

“I hear people worried about expectations for us. I’m not too worried about it,” Frost said. “I actually think it’s good for our football team. I think expectations in Lincoln have been way too low for way too long.

“I think it helps our guys. We need to be confident. We need to expect a lot out of ourselves.”

Frost said Nebraska is “light years ahead” from last season from a leadership standpoint, especially on defense, where he mentioned Damion Daniels, Mohamed Barry and Ben Stille as strong leaders.

Overall, the team’s physical change has stood out to Frost the most – that, and the overall understanding of schemes, which has meant fewer mistakes, allowing for faster-paced practices.

“It’s a lot more fun to watch practice than a year ago,” Frost said.

The preseason AP Top 25 ranking, meanwhile, is Nebraska’s first preseason ranking since starting the 2014 season at No. 22.

Defensive coordinator Erik Chinander isn’t putting much stock in the ranking – at least not for now.

“We haven’t done anything yet, so I just assume we weren’t ranked,” Chinander said. “I hope none of those guys think they’ve made it, because we certainly haven’t. We're a 4-8 football team until we get in the season, so ranking 24th don’t mean diddly.”

Nebraska is among seven Big Ten teams ranked in the preseason Top 25. That’s happened only once before, in 2000.

 

Huskers Deep at QB

One position DiNardo said may separate Nebraska from its West Division brethren is quarterback, where not only do the Huskers return Martinez, but also have quality depth with Wahoo native Noah Vedral and true freshman Luke McCaffrey, in a contested battle for the No. 2 job.

Frost has said the same, that Nebraska is much deeper and more talented at quarterback, and that he’s seen improvement across the board. Vedral, who played in Frost’s system at UCF is playing as well as Frost said he’s ever seen.

“He’s doing some amazing things,” he said.

Meanwhile, McCaffrey continues to impress the coaching staff. He scored the highest on quarterback coach Mario Verduzco’s infamous, 277-question test, and he’s also displayed the necessary physical tools.

“He’s faster than I expected him to be, and he throws it really well,” Frost said. “He also has that knack to make plays when stuff breaks down with his feet or with his arm – a little bit of magic we want our quarterbacks to have.”

In addition, walk-ons Andrew Bunch, the top backup to Martinez last season, and redshirted freshman Matt Masker, a Kearney native, are showing well in practice, Frost said.

Walk-ons Making Difference

Frost said he’s starting to see more benefits of the walk-on program take effect, and he expects it to keep helping more and more in future years.

He said lineman Trent Hixson, a sophomore offensive lineman from Omaha, has a chance to be a starter. Running back Wyatt Mazour, a senior from Albion, has impressed Frost, and true freshman and Lincoln North Star graduate Luke Reimer has gotten the attention of assistant coaches, Frost said.

“We’re starting to not just get depth from the walk-on program, we’re starting to be able to identify some guys who can help us win games and potentially be starters for us,” Frost said. “That’s the way Nebraska was when I was here, and we want it to be that way again.”

As for the newcomers in general, Frost said many of the freshmen on campus have met expectations, and in some cases have shown more than what coaches expected. He said they’ve adapted quickly to the culture, and several will become “household names” in Nebraska.

“They’re good teammates,” Frost said, “and there are some really talented kids in that group.”

Cornerbacks Make ‘A 180’

Among the strongest, most experienced positions on this Nebraska team is at cornerback, where every player from the 2018 roster returns, and six of the 12 cornerbacks are beginning at least their third season.

Leading the group are two returning starters, senior Lamar Jackson and junior Dicaprio Bootle, who combined for 22 pass breakups last season.

“And we’ve got a bunch of guys behind them that I think are ready and going to be good down the road,” Frost said. “That position group has made such a 180, it’s hard to describe.”

Bootle, a third-team All-Big Ten selection, had a career-high 39 tackles and 15 pass breakups in a breakout sophomore season.

“He does it the right way off the field. He does it the right way in the building,” Nebraska cornerbacks coach Travis Fisher said. “I just can’t say enough about him. He’s a pleasure to have in the room. He flies around, practices the right way, asks questions so he doesn’t feel like he’s got it all.”

Bootle still has learning to do, Fisher said, including working on his ball skills and where he’s putting his eyes, but overall, “he’s becoming a pro out here.”

Jackson, meanwhile, enters his third season as a starter after recording 29 tackles and intercepting the first two passes of his career in 2018.

“Lamar has bought into that culture. He’s become a leader in the room. He practices like a pro,” Jackson said. “You couldn’t ask him to practice any better than what he’s practicing. He’s holding guys accountable. He’s holding himself accountable.”

As for the nickel and dime positions, Fisher said he’s working multiple players at those spots, including Bootle and Cam Taylor, along with true freshmen Javin Wright and Quinton Newsome.

“We’ve got a bunch of guys plugging into those spots,” Fisher said. “It’s going to be hard for me to pick which guy’s going to be at that spot. All of them are practicing pretty good at that spot.”

 

Davis Impressing

If Alex Davis plays this fall the way he’s been practicing, look for the outside linebacker to have a good senior season.

That’s according to Frost, who’s highlighted Davis among a group of linebackers that’s pleased the head coach in fall camp.

“Alex has always had the skill and the gifts to do it. I think for him, it was just getting comfortable with the position,” said Frost, noting Davis came to Nebraska having played only one season of football.

Davis, from Riviera Beach, Florida, began his career as a defensive end and moved to outside linebacker as a sophomore. He remained at the spot last season, but in a new 3-4 system under Chinander.

Davis played in every game last season but finished with only five tackles, and none over the final three games.

“And I think he’d be the first to tell you last year there were times he was in the right place doing the right thing, but at the moment of truth, he didn’t go make the play,” Frost said. “Some of that I think he was thinking a little too much. This year, he seems to be cutting it loose. Looks a lot better in pass rush.”

Frost also said sophomore Caleb Tannor “looks faster and better” and that he’s happy to get junior JoJo Domann back in in the mix at outside linebacker. Domann joined the team a week into fall camp after rehabbing an injury.

Reach Brian at brosenthal@huskers.com or follow him on Twitter @GBRosenthal.

 

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