CHICAGO — Pick a position on Nebraska’s football roster besides quarterback, and the questions follow easily.
This is question-asking season — talking season, more like — and the games don’t arrive for several more weeks, so some roster-related queries will be settled between now and Aug. 31.
Even still, as Media Days kicked off here in the heart of Big Ten country, the Huskers are a trendy pick. Head coach Scott Frost and quarterback Adrian Martinez drew big crowds on Thursday. An informal media poll likes NU to win the Big Ten West. A program that has eight wins in the past two seasons combined wouldn’t meet expectations if it finished with that number this fall alone, according to some roaming the lower lobby at the Hilton this week.
The Huskers, though, have Martinez. That fact in and of itself carries significant weight.
“I wouldn't trade our guy for anybody in the country at the quarterback position,” Frost told reporters. “On top of being a great player, he's just a great individual, exactly what we're looking for to run our offense. We're probably going to go as far as he can take us this year.
“I played the position, not as well as he plays it, but I played the position. And from personal experience and coaching experience, I think particularly at that position, your biggest jump comes from your first year of playing to your second year of playing, and I've seen that happen with some of the guys that I've coached, as well. As good as he was last year, if we get a similar jump, we're going to be really strong at that spot.”
The prevailing wisdom is if the Huskers are really strong at quarterback, they’ll be at least relatively strong overall even given all the unknowns.
Who’s going to play center and left guard? Who’s the No. 2 receiver behind junior JD Spielman? How about after that? Can the tight end group emerge? Can a veteran defensive line make a big jump in production? Does Nebraska have enough linebackers to navigate a generally favorable but still rugged Big Ten schedule? Will the secondary continue its upward trend? Can the Huskers get at least league-average punting and/or find reliable return men?
“We still have a few holes, but most teams do. We still have depth issues at a few spots. But show me a team that doesn't. We're like anybody else,” Frost said. “We're going to need to stay healthy this year and have a few guys step up.”
You have free articles remaining.
Especially at the skill positions on offense. Shortly after spring ball ended, Frost admitted that NU, in a way, is "on the clock" with Martinez. The dynamic sophomore quarterback is only guaranteed to be in Lincoln for two more seasons, meaning anybody who’s not on the roster right now could potentially have just one year in the program with him.
"We feel like we have a really good quarterback, and we're in a hurry to try to surround him with the type of weapons that we need in order to have a really good offense," Frost said then.
Even since spring ball ended, players like junior college running back Dedrick Mills, Cal graduate transfer wide receiver Kanawai Noa, Rutgers transfer tight end Travis Vokolek and freshmen running backs Ronald Thompkins and Rahmir Johnson and receivers Demariyon Houston and Darien Chase have arrived on campus. NU obviously hopes many returning players take big steps, too.
“We’ve got Dedrick Mills coming in who, when I tell you he’s in the weight room working, he’s working,” senior linebacker Mohamed Barry said. “He reminds me of Devine (Ozigbo) a lot, so I don’t think there’s going to be drop-off in the run game. …A lot of the receivers have to prove themselves, but that’s OK. I’d rather have hungry receivers than maybe veterans that think they have it made. Someone’s going to emerge besides JD. We’ve got Jack Stoll at tight end and he’s been going off in 7-on-7.”
Noa, according to Martinez, can already play three different receiver spots.
“Some guys I think will play this year arrived kind of later for us,” Martinez said. “Having guys like Dedrick Mills and Kanawai, they’re really talented but they’ve picked things up on things fast. It’s helped us get more reps and pushed other guys to elevate their games as well.”
This is part of the balancing act for the Huskers. They’re trying to build as fast as possible and certainly not only because of their quarterback. It can be tempting to try to bring in a bunch of transfers or infuse some veteran juice to the offense — and in some cases NU has. Overall, though, Frost and company are going to lean on their own young players to develop quickly.
“Knee-jerk reactions are the wrong reactions,” Frost said. “In my experience, every time we’ve taken a chance on a guy to fill a need, nine out of 10 times it doesn’t work out. You can relate it to baseball: A lot of these teams are winning with homegrown talent that they developed and bring up the right way.
“The key for us is getting young people in the program that are the right guys that we can do that with. That’s usually more efficient than trying to find a quick fix to a problem.”
In the coming weeks and into the fall, just how many fixes NU has in-house will come further into focus.