Husker columnist

Steven, a lifelong Nebraskan, newspaper enthusiast and UNL grad, joined the Journal Star in 1990 and has covered NU football since 1995.

Playoff Championship Georgia Alabama Football

Alabama's Tua Tagovailoa holds up the championship trophy after the Crimson Tide topped Georgia 26-23 in overtime of the College Football Playoff national championship in Atlanta.

David J. Phillip, The Associated Press

The 2017 college football season is in the books. Alabama again reigns supreme.

Roll, Tide, roll.

1. Because much of the Nebraska fan base likes to fixate on recruiting rankings, I’m guessing many Husker fans on Monday night noticed the true freshmen coming up big for Alabama and to a lesser extent Georgia.

My takeaway is that any team -- even a championship team like Alabama playing on the grandest of stages -- can lean on true freshmen if those freshmen have the right mindset and (of course) possess the requisite physical and emotional maturity.

Granted, that’s often a big “if.” But maybe not as big as it was, say, 20 years ago. Or even 15. Training has improved for players of all ages. Because of technical advances in communication, many high school players perhaps understand the game at a higher level, or at least understand their roles at a higher level.

There also are far more year-round football activities (camps, combines, et al) than there were 15 years ago.

Many players come to college with a certain savvy. They expect to play immediately, which is why more and more are enrolling in January.

Again, mindset is critical.

“When they just called anybody’s number, we were ready,” Alabama freshman receiver DeVonta Smith told reporters after he caught the game-winning pass in overtime. “That’s what everybody comes here to do. When your number is called, you’re just here to make plays.”

Watching Alabama freshman quarterback Tua Tagovailoa handle the big stage with such poise, I would completely understand if Nebraska fans let their imaginations run wild regarding incoming quarterback Adrian Martinez.

If Alabama freshman running back Najee Harris, all 6-foot-3 and 226 pounds of him, can deliver the goods late in the game against a defense as salty as Georgia’s, then Nebraska sophomore-to-be Tyjon Lindsey surely can make major strides in his second year in the Husker program. Lindsey, a ballyhooed four-star recruit, certainly has the physical tools to perform at a high level.

You could say the same thing about a lot of young players on Nebraska’s roster. If sophomore safety Marquel Dismuke, also a four-star recruit, decides he wants to take his game to a higher level, and does everything possible to accomplish that, chances are he’ll become a critical player for the Huskers, perhaps a star player, if not this year then next.

I could go on and on. Nebraska has plenty of touted young players in positions to make an immediate impression on the new coaching staff. If they come to the Husker football complex every day with the right mindset, some could make serious noise during the 2018 season, just as those Alabama and Georgia rookies did Monday night in Atlanta.

2. It should be noted that each of the freshmen who played prominent roles for Alabama and Georgia were highly-rated recruits.

I know, shocking. Here’s a rundown (with 247Sports ratings):

* Georgia quarterback Jake Fromm, four stars, Warner-Robins, Georgia

* Georgia running back D’Andre Swift, five stars, Philadelphia

* Alabama receiver Jerry Jeudy, five stars, Deerfield Beach, Florida

* Alabama receiver Henry Ruggs III, four stars, Montgomery, Alabama

* Tagovailoa, five stars, Honolulu, Hawaii

* Harris, five stars, Antioch, California

* Smith, four stars, Amite, Louisiana

So, Nick Saban, in the late stages of the national championship game, turns to a freshman quarterback from Hawaii and a rookie running back from northern California.

Makes perfect sense.

3. Ex-Nebraska offensive lineman Aaron Taylor, formally announced Monday as a member of the College Football Hall of Fame’s class of 2018, has some interesting thoughts on his alma mater’s O-line struggles during the Mike Riley era.

Taylor, during an appearance Tuesday morning on “Early Break” on 93.7 FM (click right here), said he believes Nebraska’s line had enough talent to prosper in 2017.

“I love the talent pool they have,” Taylor said.

He looks forward to how the group will look once it begins working with new Nebraska strength coach Zach Duval. As for the line’s poor play this past season – the Huskers ranked 87th nationally in total offense (385.0 ypg) and an embarrassing 120th in rushing (107.5) – Taylor said the foremost issue was the team’s lack of offensive identity.

“I’m going to tell you (Mike) Cavanaugh was a good coach,” Taylor said. “I think he was a little hamstrung with (Danny) Langsdorf’s offense, just because there wasn’t an identity.”

Offensive linemen crave a system that has a clear-cut identity. Put it this way: Taylor turns 43 in a couple weeks and can still tell you what Tom Osborne used to call on third-and-3 or second-and-8.

“As an offensive lineman, if you know what’s going to be happening and can get into that rhythm, which I don’t think this offensive line ever had the chance to do …”

His voice trailed off.

He added, “I also think they were a little bit let down in the weight room and strength and conditioning program.”

I’ll buy the lack of offensive identity part of Taylor’s assessment of the line play. But when I look back on the Riley era, I don’t regard the program’s overall softness as a strength-and-conditioning issue. I think it was a coaching issue more than anything else, starting with Riley and Bob Diaco.

4. Noah Vedral is coming home. Good for him. Good for his family. And, yes, good for the Nebraska football team -- right away.

There is an obvious benefit to having Vedral in spring and fall practices even though he will be ineligible to play in games in 2018. That is, he can help the other quarterbacks learn Scott Frost’s no-huddle spread system.

Vedral played in eight games this past season with UCF. He completed 22 of 29 passes for 276 yards and a touchdown while running for 77 yards and two scores. He has said he began to master Frost’s system late in the season.

As for UCF declining to give Vedral an outright release from his scholarship, it makes some sense in that it would set a precedent for other Knight players to follow their former coaches to Lincoln. Even so, not every player lives 30 miles from the Nebraska campus. Nobody at UCF asked me, but I think Knights brass has to consider the unique nature of Vedral’s situation -- his dad and three uncles played for Big Red -- as opposed to lumping him into a blanket policy.

5. Tracy Claeys is too good of a football coach to be sitting on the sidelines.

Which is why it was good to see Washington State head coach Mike Leach hired Claeys as defensive coordinator to replace Alex Grinch, who recently accepted an assistant coaching position at Ohio State.

Claeys, 49, was out of football in 2017, but was most recently the head coach at Minnesota in 2016, when he led the Golden Gophers to a 9-4 record and a win over WSU in the Holiday Bowl.

That Gophers squad played with a hard edge. It always kept fighting. The head coach usually has something to do with that.

6. A lot of people became fans of Jalen Hurts Monday night.

Count me as one of them.

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Reach the writer at 402-473-7440 or ssipple@journalstar.com.

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