Readers of this column since 2015 know that I tend to emphasize the offensive line and its overriding importance in determining the Huskers’ level of success. Today, I’m taking the o-line pretty much out of the equation to focus on the offensive skill positions — most notably, the surprising escalation of talent from the transfer portal. So we’ll temporarily lay aside the biggest problem with Nebraska football, ignore the shortcoming of Mike Cavanaugh and Greg Austin over the past six years, and assume the status quo continues or, at best, that the relatively unproven Donovan Raiola will coax only a small improvement out of his players in 2022.
It’s impressive to see Scott Frost stockpiling talent at quarterback, running back and wide receiver. Frost, with the help of newly acquired coaches Mickey Joseph, Bill Busch and Mark Whipple, has exceeded my expectations since the season ended on Black Friday. Ultimately, it may turn out that NU had one of the better 2022 recruiting classes in the Big Ten, not the worst, as was widely reported after the mid-December early signing date.
Three new scholarship quarterbacks (Texas Longhorn transfer Casey Thompson, Florida State transfer Chubba Purdy and true freshman Richard Torres) are in Lincoln, joining Logan Smothers and Heinrich Haarberg, satisfying Frost’s preference for five scholarship players in his quarterback room. I’m optimistic about the direction this position is trending long term, but given the state of Husker football, we must focus on the short term, no matter who it is, will Nebraska’s starting quarterback this fall exceed the production of Adrian Martinez?
That depends on how you define “production.” I predict that in 2022, passing touchdowns will increase slightly over last year’s 14 (or 1.17 per game) and passing yardage will decrease slightly from last year’s 3,197 (266 per game), largely because in the absence of significant o-line improvement, NU quarterbacks will be sacked more often, up from last year’s two-per-game level. Whether you loved Martinez or were thoroughly frustrated by him, there’s no denying he excelled at scrambling away from pass rushers and making something out of nothing. It’s unlikely his successor will share that same ability. That total could climb to three sacks per game. Regardless of who wins the starting job, regardless of whether it’s spread option or pro style, it’s hard to foresee a quarterback-centric offense making much of a difference in the Big Red’s final win total.
Quarterbacks are vital in the success of any offense, so don’t misunderstand what I’m about to say.
Right now, if I had to choose, I’d gladly accept somewhat reduced production at quarterback (and wide receiver) for significantly improved production at running back, in other words, an explosive running back who holds up all season long, and a steady change-of-pace backup. The stakes are much higher at running back than at quarterback for Nebraska in 2022. No matter how many RBs they eventually get — and Frost and his staff should continue to seek more — a clear-cut difference-maker needs to emerge. Having a bunch of running backs who are all pretty good just won’t cut it. Without an epiphany in the offensive line, the Huskers need someone dynamic enough to make something out of minimal blocking, time after time. Could it be a vastly improved Gabe Ervin, Jaquez Yant or Rahmir Johnson? Yes. Could it be a brand-new name? Absolutely it could. So Anthony Grant? Glad to have you aboard. Deondre Jackson? Hope to see you this May. Ajay Allen? If you can run through small cracks in the line of scrimmage, come on in.
It’s not a hard decision. Give me a top-shelf running back, with a middle-shelf quarterback and wide receivers at Nebraska this fall. Why? Because the first thing you have to accomplish is becoming a contender in the Big Ten West. Run the ball and stop the run, and you’re a guaranteed contender in the West. If that doesn’t happen, Frost is gone by the end of November and the Huskers continue their current status as underachievers.
I said it last year, and I’ll say it again: Nebraska is a 1,000-yard running back away from an eight-win season. Why do I say that? A good running game cures a multitude of ills. Although the defense-dominated COVID-2020 Northwestern Wildcats showed it can be done, it’s difficult to win the Big Ten West without a top-shelf running back, and preferably, two.
Receivers? Tight end is heading in the right direction, with Travis Vokolek, Thomas Fidone and Chris Hickman showing promise, and the steady presence of Sean Beckton running the room. With Joseph coaching the wideouts, I think that position will become more productive. If he can get Omar Manning and Zavier Betts to play a physical style, featuring yards after the catch, it’s a win.
Keeping turnovers to a minimum and running the offense smoothly are essentials, but beyond that, quarterback heroics are not necessary to break through to the first level — Big Ten West contenders — the Huskers need to reach. And if they don’t get to that level, there’s little sense fretting about what the Huskers need to rise any higher.
To get farther than winning the West? Well then, you’ll need excellent quarterback play. Certainly you will. (And there’s that matter of offensive line play, which we’re not discussing today.) I’m all for a top-level quarterback in Lincoln. Bring ’em in, lots of ’em, the more, the merrier. If some can’t take the heat of competition, they’ll get out of the kitchen soon enough. I suspect Thompson will start against Northwestern this August, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see Smothers running some Wildcat packages as a change-of-pace.
Will the Nebraska offense once again see the day of adequate talent across the board? I think so, but the Scoring Explosion is still a few recruiting classes away. Until then, prioritize filling the tank at running back.