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Steven M. Sipple: Pandemic creates sense of mystery; we'll all learn more about NU soon

Steven M. Sipple: Pandemic creates sense of mystery; we'll all learn more about NU soon

Top Journal Star photos for September

Memorial Stadium's north stadium video board projects the news of the return of Big Ten football in October on Wednesday, Sept. 16, 2020, as seen from the parking garage at the southwest corner of 10th and Q Streets.

It pains me greatly to say this, but we don't necessarily know what we're talking about. 

Or maybe this sounds better: We don't know as much as usual.

Chalk it up to the Godforsaken pandemic. As one would expect, media haven't been allowed to attend Nebraska football practices in the lead-up to the Oct. 24 opener at Ohio State. Husker coach Scott Frost in his first two seasons at NU was careful about how much practice he would allow us to see — much more careful than, say, Mike Riley, who graciously allowed us to watch at least a few full practices in preseason camp. We definitely saw enough to get a good idea of which players were going to be leaned on hardest. 

Even with the limited amount of time we watched practice with Frost in charge in 2018 and 2019, you could ascertain plenty about the depth chart and which players looked the most athletic. It was especially interesting sizing up newcomers. 

This year, the media is basically like everyone else. We have a lot of questions about what Frost's third team at Nebraska will look like and ultimately play like.

It's kind of fun, right? A sense of mystery creates anticipation — yes, even during a pandemic that will keep fans out of Big Ten stadiums.

That part will be strange. I hate it for the players who came to their respective Big Ten universities to compete in front of massive crowds. Make no mistake, some players are showmen. They're performance artists. They thrive in the limelight. They'll get the TV limelight. That helps matters. But it's going to feel eerie in gigantic stadiums such as the Horseshoe and Memorial Stadium in Lincoln. As Nebraska defensive coordinator Erik Chinander said earlier this month, the Huskers are going to have to bring their own juice.

I have an idea what could help in that regard. It's something we don't discuss nearly enough. 

Nebraska fans would welcome with open arms a team that excels in special teams. I'll take the conversation a step further. It would make sense for Nebraska to make special teams a prominent part of its identity. Wouldn't that be cool? 

Forget cool, though. Nebraska badly needs an "edge," something that plays a lead role in pulling the program from the doldrums that led to a 28-34 record (18-26, Big Ten) since 2014, Bo Pelini's last season as head coach. Pelini ended his tenure with NU playing strong special teams. The Huskers need to get back to that, quickly. Could Frost's fast-spaced spread offense be the program's identity? Maybe. But it isn't necessarily a unique system. I'd like to see Frost put heavy emphasis on special teams as a way to ignite his program. 

Frost has said special teams probably cost Nebraska as many as four games last season. Let's say it cost the Huskers three games in their 5-7 season. If they would've finished 8-4, think how much differently the fan base would feel about the program. 

Credit Frost for making a significant move in bringing Jonathan Rutledge to serve as special teams analyst. 

Rutledge came to NU after spending the past two seasons guiding Auburn's strong special teams units. Husker fans would be overjoyed by major improvements in this area. It's true the program operates with certain disadvantages because of its location on the U.S. map. But, with Frost entering his third year in charge, is there a good excuse to be consistently lackluster on special teams?

I think you know the answer. But we wish we had more answers for you.

We wish we could tell you if Nebraska will be significantly stronger defending the run. It's a safe bet the Huskers will be at least somewhat better than they were last season in conference play, in which they allowed a grotesque 5.7 yards a carry to rank last among the 14 teams.

We wish we had a better idea which new faces along Chinander's defensive line will be ready to play lead roles as run stuffers. Jordon Riley, a transfer from Garden City (Kansas) Community College, is intriguing. He certainly provides a different body type inside at 6-6 and 340 pounds. 

Nebraska's sizable struggles as a program during the past five seasons, with four losing records in that span, are somewhat predictable considering there's often been porous run defense coupled with an anemic pass rush. Perhaps newcomer Niko Cooper (6-5, 220) can bring some heat. He's apparently gifted athletically. It would've been nice to judge that firsthand by seeing a practice or two, or even warmups.  

That isn't a complaint. The pandemic has thrown a wrench into our lives. It's brought discomfort and uncertainty. Frost's crew could help bring some diversion — and joy — to a fan base that's endured its share of embarrassing defeats in recent years. But remember that freshmen, redshirt freshmen and sophomores make up roughly 70 percent of Frost's roster. He's still in the process of building his program. 

So, when Nebraska takes the field against Ohio State, media will be just as eager and curious as fans to see exactly what several newcomers — Alante Brown, Zavier Betts, Bryce Benhart, Pheldarius Payne and Ty Robinson, to name a few — have to offer.  

I wish I could tell you more about them. I wish I knew more about what I was talking about. But, hey, the season's nearly upon us. We'll learn together.

Reach the writer at 402-473-7440 or On Twitter @HuskerExtraSip.


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