Pernell: Give Frost Time
To be fair, Frost did play a part in some of the recent blow back he’s gotten. His message since being hired has been that the turnaround will happen quickly. At the conclusion of his first spring practices back in 2018, Frost told Bruce Feldman of Sports Illustrated, “Year two is when it’s gonna take off around here – and taking off doesn’t mean we’re gonna go undefeated, but we’ll be a really good team in two years.” In the same interview, Frost added, “It takes a couple years or three years to get a program all the way there. Where you have the talent at every position that you need, that you have kids who understand how you need to do things, that you have kids who are putting needs of the team above individual needs. Those things don’t happen overnight. The patience part of it comes in. We’re going to be better this year, and judging by what I saw this spring, by Year 2, we’re going to be really dangerous.”
You probably could have given Frost a mulligan on that one. He hadn’t yet coached that team when it mattered. He surely didn’t know the roster or the challenges he would face in his rebuild. Except he doubled down on the expectations after the season when he proclaimed “I think we’ll surprise people with how much better we get and how quickly it happens.”
Frost has always been an extremely confident and competitive player and coach. I have to wonder if he wishes he’d have taken a more toned down, vanilla approach this past offseason. That would have tempered some of the expectations fans had coming into the year. Because I don’t think anyone considers Year 2 to be going as planned. Has there been progress? The 2018 Husker team that finished the season 4-2 would beat this years squad by double-digits. That wasn’t supposed to be the case. Did anyone expect 4-3 heading into the first bye-week? Even worse, did anyone think they’d be coming out of that bye-week as 2-point underdogs at home to Indiana?
Some will point to the comments Bill Moos made during July’s Big Ten media days and suggest those were the actual expectations this season. Moos stated his goal for the football team was to reach the six-win mark, where they would benefit from the 15 extra practices that would accompany a Bowl game. Those same people must gloss over Frost’s reaction to those comments. “I’m not sure any of us would be happy with six wins,” Frost confidently stated.
So why would Moos say that then? Because he’s smart and he has his coach’s back. Could you imagine if Moos had publicly echoed the same expectations that had the national media putting Nebraska in the preseason Top 25? Or the various Big Ten media outlets picking the Huskers as a West Division favorite? Talk about a bad look. I think those were the expectations inside the program, but it was smart for Moos to publicly take the high road. I don’t think Frost expected the O-line to be this bad after replacing Tanner Farmer and Jerald Foster. The fact is this turnaround won’t happen as quickly as Frost or the fans had wished. And in the long-run that’s fine, because Frost will get them there.
He just needs to stay the course. “We know our schemes on both sides work. They’ve worked for a long time. We’ve got to get better at them. We’ve got to keep recruiting better players to run them.” Frost said this past Thursday during his monthly appearance on the ‘Sports Nightly’ radio show. Those comments led to a few raised eyebrows, but he’s absolutely right. Every coach in the country tries to recruit over their roster. This staff has publicly stated that goal since they were putting together their initial recruiting class. On numerous occasions, several coaches have told the media when they go on the road to recruit that they flat-out tell the players they’re looking for kids who can come in and take their jobs. It’s the players responsibility to keep grinding to keep their job. In fact, coaches expect the current players to help the younger guys learn the system and welcome the competition. Then they expect those same kids to do the same throughout their Husker career as well. Wash, rinse, dry, repeat.
I love that culture. It sets the standard from Day 1. Coaches go out and sell that message to recruits, who in turn know the deal when they get on campus. They’ll have every opportunity to come in and earn a starting spot immediately. Then, those same kids know the coaches will be trying to do the same thing all over again and that their spot isn’t safe. It’s the sort of culture of competition that you see at Alabama, Ohio State, Clemson, Georgia, LSU and Oklahoma. An environment that is fed off of iron sharpening iron and letting the best man win. If it’s a true freshman beating out a two-year starter, so be it. If it’s a fifth year senior taking over a spot from a youngster who got complacent, so be it. That approach allows those schools to recruit four and five-star players on an annual basis even though kids know their position room is going to be flush with guys who arrived on campus with similar accolades. The best teams in the country are filled with kids who welcome the competition, and actually come to a school because of it. That’s where Frost wants to get.
Frost has struggled through depth issues, but has held strong with preserving redshirts, rather than sacrificing the future for immediate results. On the flip-side, I do question his decision to not give some of the younger guys more reps than they are getting. I think Garrett Nelson should be getting more playing time in place of Alex Davis. He’s appeared in six games on defense, but is only averaging about 8 snaps in those games. Quinton Newsome has played past the four-game mark and can no longer redshirt. Why didn’t he play against Minnesota after the game was decided? He and Braxton Clark should have played the entire 4th quarter, yet neither of them played a single snap on defense. Guys like Noa Pola-Gates and Myles Farmer have played in two games. When are they expected to get the kind of playing time they could have gotten against the Gophers? Does Frost think they’re candidates for playing time against Wisconsin or Iowa, barring another blowout?
I think he’s wasted a few opportunities to get some of his younger guys meaningful reps. Not just true-freshman taking advantage of the four-game rule, but redshirt freshman as well. The offense is desperate for playmakers. Where has Miles Jones been? He’s played 21 offensive snaps in just four games, despite JD Spielman, Wan’Dale Robinson and Maurice Washington being banged up – or heavily taxed all season. Several players from Frost’s first two recruiting classes are going to be counted on to step into pivotal roles as early as next season. Are we going to see guys like Jamie Nance and Demariyon Houston take advantage of the four-game rule? Would they be any worse than Jaron Woodyard or Jaevon McQuitty? What about Ty Robinson and Mosai Newsom? It would be a shame if someone like Robinson didn’t play in four games while preserving his redshirt. Are there four more opportunities in these last five regular season games? Two of which you absolutely have to win. Will Nick Henrich be healthy enough to see reps, even if just on special teams? What about Jackson Hannah? Even if he’s still struggling to learn the defense, certainly the former four-star recruit can handle special teams duty, right? With the possibility of six more games this season, I’ll reserve final judgment until the season plays out. But it would seem Frost has had some missteps on this front.
There’s also been some discussion regarding how talented this roster is at the moment. A broad stroke would point to a roster – recruited by three separate staffs mind you – that is comprised of players who were a part of classes that were ranked 30th (2015), 26th (2016), 23rd (2017), 23rd (2018) and 18th (2019) according to the 247 Sports Composite Rankings. I’m a firm believer that schematic fit is just as important as overall baseline talent. Some casual fans will point to a kid who was a four-star offensive lineman and wonder why he might struggle in a new offense. That kid might have been identified and recruited for an offense that primarily runs gap or man blocking schemes. Then after a couple years, a new coach comes in and now he’s asked to zone block. Or how about a four-star safety who was recruited to play deep middle zone coverage and now is asked to play close to the line of scrimmage in run support or guard the slot man-to-man? People see ‘four-star talent’ but schematic fit is important in getting the most out of a player.
This roster doesn’t have the luxury of consistent, concise recruiting classes that were put together with a singular offensive and defensive system in mind. It’s a roster of upperclassmen who were recruited for one scheme and are now forced into another – in some cases for the third time. It’s a roster that has severe depth issues at several positions thanks to attrition following Mike Riley’s dismissal. Only 13 of the 21 signees in Riley’s 2016 class are on the 2019 roster. Just 10 of the 20 signees in Riley’s final class (2017) are currently on the team, and four (Austin Allen, Broc Bando, Jaylin Bradley, Chris Walker) are in-state kids, which probably factors into their loyalty. As is often the case, Frost’s 2018 transition class has also been decimated. With Maurice Washington, Andre Hunt and Katerian LeGrone all now suspended and unlikely to return, nine of the 24 signees have either transferred, never qualified or have been booted. A large chunk of those who remain are either youngsters from 2018 and 2019, or bad schematic fits.
The entire defense, particularly the front seven, are a mishmash of square pegs trying to fit into round holes. Who can you point to and say “That guy is better off at that spot” than where he was originally envisioned? You don’t think Mohamed Barry would look better 10-pounds lighter playing the WILL in a 4-3? Carlos and Khalil Davis wouldn’t be better off as 3-tech’s in a 4-3? I’ll give you JoJo Domann, but the coaches basically created a new position in their defense to take advantage of his skillset. And I’d argue he still isn’t getting enough playing time.
Just look at Nebraska’s two-deep along the front seven. How many of those guys are playing the position they were recruited to play? Of the 14 guys listed on the official depth chart who are in the regular rotation, only five are at their identified positions (Darrion Daniels, Damion Daniels, Will Honas, Caleb Tannor, Garrett Nelson). Now lets put that in proper perspective; Darrion Daniels is a grad transfer who joined the team in January. Honas is a juco recruit from Frosts transition class who played in a 4-3 at Butler CC and struggled to adapt to the 3-4. Tannor is a perfect example of what a lack of depth can lead to. He came to Lincoln as a heralded four-star recruit, yes, but despite weighing under 200 pounds, played in all 12 games because depth was already scarce. Thanks to that, he’ll be a junior next season when he is finally at the playing weight coaches would like and comfortable enough in the system to maximize his potential. Like Tannor before him, Garrett Nelson should be taking advantage of the four-game redshirt rule but is forced to skip that, again, because of depth. Damion Daniels is the only guy who was already here when Frost took over, and after three years he still can’t play more than 15-20 snaps a game because of his conditioning.
It’s going to take another couple years of recruiting and time with Zach Duval and Dave Ellis before this team looks like it should. Frost has a long runway and is trying to build the right way. It’s tempting, I’m sure, to throw guys like Bryce Benhart and Ethan Piper out there to see if they can fortify a struggling offensive line, but it’s not ideal. He wants to build his room so that those kids are two, three years into the system before they are relied on. That strategy is why a school like Wisconsin can lose four starters from last years O-line and not skip a beat this season. Frost wants to get there with Nebraska. Get back to a place where Nebraska is reloading each year and not rebuilding. But in order to get there, Frost is ultimately going to have to be better than his predecessors at key factors. He’ll need to balance the roster and routinely sign highly regarded recruiting classes. Things that Bo Pelini struggled with. He’ll need to find cultural fits and team-first guys, and then develop them and maximize their potential. Things that Mike Riley struggled with. Time will tell if he succeeds. But he deserves just that; time. Give him a punchers chance before you criticize too blindly.
Prior to contributing to HuskerMax, Jeremy Pernell co-founded the all-football website N2FL.com. From 2002-2014, he served as the editor in chief of the college football portion of the website which focused heavily on talent evaluation, which included NCAA recruiting and the NFL Draft. He has analyzed and covered the NCAA and NFL for 25 years. You can email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.