Phase One of the football offseason is nearly complete in Lincoln.
On Monday, Nebraska holds the first of 15 spring practices that run through April 18’s Red-White Spring Game (1 p.m. on Big Ten Network).
Publicly, it’s been a quiet stretch. Head coach Scott Frost hasn’t talked with local reporters since National Signing Day in mid-December. Behind the scenes, though, there’s been activity aplenty. NU’s winter conditioning program stretched seven weeks. Several players transferred out and standout senior wide receiver JD Spielman left the team to address a personal health matter in Minnesota.
While Nebraska football media and fans fixate on what Scott Frost lacks on his roster, he's likely focused on what he does have in the fold.
Two coaches left the staff and two (plus a special-teams analyst) have been added.
So, there will be plenty to talk about not only when Frost, Husker players and assistant coaches meet with reporters on Monday, but all through spring ball.
With that in mind, here is a look at five storylines that figure to be prominent over the next six weeks.
The quarterback situation
There’s no use in ignoring it: NU’s quarterback room is going to engender a lot of conversation this spring and probably beyond.
For the coming weeks, one of the key factors will be the health of junior Adrian Martinez. If he is, as expected, limited to at least some degree after offseason shoulder surgery, there will be plenty of repetitions to go around for junior Noah Vedral, redshirt freshman Luke McCaffrey and freshman Logan Smothers.
How the race is framed — not only publicly, but behind closed doors — will be important. Martinez will likely get a chance to win the job when he’s fully healthy (whenever that is) — he’s a two-year starter, after all — but it would also be awfully hard to tell the other guys that there’s no opportunity to make a real move this spring.
Starting quarterback jobs aren’t usually won six months before the games start, but the intrigue certainly will be high right from the start.
Does strength in numbers begin to turn the trenches into an actual strength?
Scott Frost's job is getting tougher all the time, it seems.
Nebraska will have 16 scholarship offensive linemen in spring ball and 10 defensive linemen, meaning the numbers, for the first time since Frost arrived here, are getting close to the coaching staff’s ideal marks. Four more linemen (three defensive and one offensive) arrive this summer.
Both frontlines will feature heavy competition for playing time, but they will be of slightly different varieties. More is known about the offensive line — seniors Brenden Jaimes and Matt Farniok and redshirt freshman Cam Jurgens are virtual locks — and the challenge for Greg Austin, as he explained it last month to the Journal Star, is, “trying to figure out who’s going to be slotted where. So, it’s a good problem to have.”
The defensive line features more unknowns, but there are several options and the Huskers have stockpiled more of the body types that they like to deploy in Erik Chinander’s defense. Replacing three senior starters will be difficult, however.
Just how ready is the youth movement? Are there any surprise breakout candidates?
There are 21 redshirt freshmen who will now be turned loose to compete for playing time, no longer limited by the four-game rule. From players like McCaffrey to defensive backs like Myles Farmer, offensive lineman Bryce Benhart, running back Rahmir Johnson and many more, this group will drive a substantial amount of competition. Might there be some risers among the group who aren’t already on the radar screen? Offensive lineman Brant Banks or outside linebacker Jamin Graham or defensive lineman Mosai Newsom? There are a lot of names in that group alone, even before a talented set of incoming freshmen and a smaller group of true sophomores.
Greg Austin told the Journal Star this week that freshman Turner Corcoran and senior Matt Farniok can both play multiple positions.
How will NU navigate its lack of skill-position players this spring?
The Huskers head into spring ball with four scholarship wide receivers available — sophomore Wan’Dale Robinson, redshirt freshmen Demariyon Houston and Jamie Nance, and freshman Alante Brown. They also have just two healthy scholarship running backs (Johnson and senior Dedrick Mills).
How, functionally, will that work? And can it still be a productive enough spring for the offense as a whole when several players being counted on as perhaps major contributors this fall aren’t on campus yet? Frost and company have been light on offensive options in the spring for three straight seasons now.
What’s the team’s prevailing attitude? And who steps into leadership roles?
On the surface, this hasn’t felt like the smoothest winter for the football program. Even so, expect the Huskers to hit spring ball with a shot of energy.
It will be interesting to see who the leaders are, particularly on defense, where 2019 captains Darrion Daniels and Mohamed Barry are gone. Guys like Dicaprio Bootle, Cam Taylor-Britt and Ben Stille seem like good bets.
On offense, Martinez and Farniok are returning captains. Robinson emerged as a vocal leader as a freshman last fall. Mills earned respect. Jack Stoll is a senior. The feeling is that McCaffrey, too, is a natural leader. So on and so forth.
None of the questions here have to be answered beyond a shadow of a doubt over the coming weeks, but they will help set the stage for the summer and beyond.