LINCOLN, Neb. — Given what he did last year at UCF and how badly his alma mater wanted him, Nebraska coach Scott Frost can afford to be bluntly honest right now. Yet it’s still a little shocking when the words come out of his mouth.
“This could get worse before it gets better,” Frost said this week. “We’re going up to play a really good team.”
Logically, a team that has already lost at home to Colorado and Troy should expect to lose at Michigan. Still, Frost’s disdain for sugarcoating feels jarring in a profession full of people who mouth the same platitudes every week no matter the result. But you saw what Frost saw, so he feels no need to mislead you. He also is convinced that, ultimately, this period of adversity will become the foundation for a Big Red renaissance. When Michigan coach Bo Schembechler posted a sign that said “Those Who Stay Will Be Champions” shortly after his arrival in 1969, he meant that the grueling offseason work would test the Wolverines’ will. He had taken over a team that had gone 8–2 and 6–1 in the Big Ten in 1968. Those who made it to the season in 1969 did indeed become champions—that year—after pulling off one of the biggest upsets in college football history against then-No. 1 Ohio State to claim the Big Ten title.
That’s not going to happen at Nebraska. Those who stay stand an awfully good chance of competing for championships someday, but it won’t be in 2018. The first year of Frost’s tenure will be difficult and often frustrating. This team will have to dig deep to even make a bowl game, and it certainly needs a bowl game and the 15 extra practices a postseason berth allows. But know one thing: Neither Frost nor his staff will panic. They will not make wholesale changes. They will not alter their practice routine or their offense or their defense. They’ve seen this work before, and they know it doesn’t work overnight. That’s why, after Saturday’s 24–19 loss to Troy, Frost told his players this: “You’ve got two choices. You fight back and you work even harder, or you give up. I also told them that if anyone doesn’t want to stay on board this ride with us, let me know now and we can get off. I know where this is going. We just haven’t had the results early that we need.” Consider that Frost’s “Those who stay…” for the millennial generation.
Monday, Frost offered further explanation. “I just want to get ahead of it,” Frost said. “Coming into Nebraska and hearing how things went down last year, I want to make sure nobody decides to go off on their own. We’re all in this together. There is a lot that had to be fixed. We’ve fixed a lot of it. There’s still a lot more to be fixed.”
Much of the off-field work has involved impressing upon players the need to go to class and to be mindful of what they eat and how much they sleep. Judging by what senior guard Tanner Farmer said Monday, these messages have hit home. When Frost arrived, he worried upperclassmen who may not be around for the eventual improvement might not buy in or might simply tune out the new staff. Farmer’s words suggest that hasn’t been the case.
Frost has tried not to openly criticize predecessor Mike Riley’s regime too much. The results of Riley’s tenure basically speak for themselves, anyway. It was a mistake of a hire by a since-fired athletic director (Shawn Eichorst) who, tired of Bo Pelini going 9–4 every year and yelling at everyone, hired perhaps the one football coach in America who would yell at no one. Unfortunately, Riley also couldn’t reproduce the nine wins part, and a fan base tired of living on a plateau learned living in a nadir feels much worse.
But after spending a week with an opponent preparing to play Nebraska, it’s clear Riley didn’t recruit bad players. Rather, it seems Riley recruited a team for another era of football. The roster Frost inherited would make a great Big Ten or Pac-10 team in 1995. It was full of big, strong offensive linemen, defensive linemen and linebackers who look great stepping off the bus but short on the freaks—read: people who are much faster and/or more athletic than others who play their positions—that differentiate the good from the average at those positions.
Troy’s offensive coaches didn’t like the way their offensive line matched up with Nebraska’s defensive line from a size standpoint, but they were willing to live with that because their line was every bit as athletic. They only had one game of Nebraska video to scout coordinator Erik Chinander’s defense, so they watched a lot of UCF from last year. Even for someone who has never coached a day, the difference was easy to spot. The Knights had linebacker Shaquem Griffin, and opposing offenses had to find him on every play. On most of the plays the Troy coaches watched, opponents ran plays in the opposite direction. Griffin’s mere presence limited the offense’s options. Nebraska doesn’t have that player yet, but rest assured Frost is seeking him.
Frost, Chinander and linebackers coach Jovan Dewitt discovered Griffin buried on the depth chart at safety at UCF. That’s a rare find. In most cases, such a player must be unearthed in the recruiting process, and at schools not named Alabama, Clemson or Ohio State, such a player must be projected and developed instead of simply plucked. Think TCU coach Gary Patterson watching Jerry Hughes play running back in high school and imagining Hughes as the ferocious edge rusher he’d eventually become. In other words, this type of acquisition is a process that won’t happen overnight.
Still, Frost has moved quickly to upgrade the offensive backfield. Freshman tailback Maurice Washington moves differently with the ball in his hands. His jump cuts are sudden and spectacular. And Nebraska coaches probably wouldn’t have been able to get in late on the Californian—who played his final season of high school ball in Texas—had academic qualifying issues not scared off other suitors during the process. But the biggest get was quarterback Adrian Martinez, a Fresno, Calif., native the staff was well aware of before coming to Nebraska. Martinez was committed to the Butch Jones staff at Tennessee, but when Jones was fired, Martinez re-opened his recruitment. Those Tennessee coaches prayed they could hold on for one more season, because Martinez is the type of quarterback who can save everyone’s job. You saw glimpses of what he can be in his first start against Colorado. Before injuring his knee in the fourth quarter of the Cornhuskers’ 33–28 loss, Martinez ran 15 times for 117 yards and two touchdowns. He also averaged a robust 9.4 yards per pass attempt, connecting on 15 of 20 for 187 yards with a touchdown and an interception.
With Martinez on the field, the Huskers probably have a chance against every opponent not named Ohio State. If he can’t play, they’ll have to play a near-perfect game against almost everyone to win. That means they can’t lose their discipline on punt coverage the way they did in Saturday’s second quarter. The 58-yard punt return for a touchdown by Troy’s Cedarius Rookard permanently altered the tone of the game and put the Huskers in a hole that walk-on quarterback Andrew Bunch couldn’t dig them out of.
A mention of Bunch wouldn’t be complete without a mention of Tristan Gebbia. Gebbia signed in Riley’s final class to great fanfare. He redshirted last season and spent this past spring and preseason camp competing with Martinez for the starting job. On the day after Nebraska released a depth chart with Martinez as QB1, Gebbia withdrew and headed to Oregon State. Though quarterback transfers are commonplace, the timing of this one was unexpected. The thought was Gebbia might transfer after the season. When Martinez went down, Gebbia should have been the one replacing him. Instead it was Bunch, who hadn’t even taken second-team reps for the bulk of camp.
Don’t be shocked if Martinez stays on the sideline again on Saturday. As badly as Frost and company want to win, they know Martinez is even more important to Nebraska in 2019 and 2020 than he is now. He needs to be 1,000% healthy before he sets foot on the field again. “We need him for the rest of this year and for the rest of his career,” Frost said. “The key is going to be if there is any added danger for more injury.”
Frost is playing the long game at Nebraska. Fortunately for him, he has a fan base and administration that understand the guy who took over a UCF team that went 0–12 the year before his arrival and left after coaching it to a 12–0 record in his second season knows what he’s doing. From the outside, there are a lot of jokes about Nebraska’s expectation to turn back the clock to Frost’s time as a Nebraska player. But remember, this is one of the most savvy fan bases in America. Most Nebraska fans understand how much work lies ahead of Frost and how unlikely it is that Nebraska will ever dominate the way it did when Tommie Frazier or Frost led the offense. But they do understand the Huskers can be better—much better—if Frost sticks to a plan that has worked before and can work again.
“I’ve been doubted in Nebraska before. I’ve been criticized all over before,” Frost said. “We’re just not going to change, because we know as a coaching staff that our approach and what we’re doing is going to work. It’s just taking a little longer than we’d hoped.”