The 2021 college football season was already set to hit a critical point in coach Scott Frost’s tenure at Nebraska, but Tuesday’s news of quarterback Luke McCaffrey, wide receiver Kade Warner and offensive lineman Will Farniok entering the transfer portal added to the growing question marks and general unease in Lincoln for next fall. No, the transfers didn’t represent a need to move Frost to the hot seat or suggest the program is in any long-term trouble. However, a team coming off three consecutive losing seasons under its current administration can’t afford more departures, setbacks and questionable development on offense.
The 2020 season was abbreviated, but the Cornhuskers finished 3-5. The three-win mark dropped Nebraska to 12-20 over the last three years and just 9-17 overall in the Big Ten. Frost was considered a slam-dunk hire when he arrived from UCF in 2018. The Knights went 19-7 from 2016-17 and were the top Group of 5 team with a perfect 13-0 mark in ’17. Recapturing that magic has been tougher in the Big Ten, and now entering his fourth year at the helm, Frost has to get the program pointed in the right direction. Nebraska hasn’t posted a winning season or beaten a team over .500 in the last two years. There's obviously a long way to go until kickoff in 2021, but Frost's team isn't likely to be picked in the top three of the Big Ten West and a tough schedule won't provide an easy path to a bowl.
On the surface, none of the three transfers are going to significantly alter the preseason outlook for Nebraska. McCaffrey could’ve been used in more of an all-purpose role and was slated to push Adrian Martinez for the starting job. Warner only caught five passes in 2020, but his departure adds to the question marks at receiver with Wan’Dale Robinson also opting to transfer earlier this offseason. Farniok did not record a start during his three years on campus.
However, the transfers also add to growing uncertainty about the offense. Here’s a look at how Frost’s offense has stacked up since taking over at Nebraska:
Yards Per Play
Passes of 40+ Yards
SP+ Rating of Offense
247.2 ypg (4th)
212.6 ypg (9th)
190.1 ypg (12th)
Here are some questions that must be addressed by Frost going forward:
The Quarterback Room
McCaffrey’s departure is arguably the biggest of the three on Tuesday. After completing nine of 12 passes for 142 yards and two scores in 2019, McCaffrey played in all seven games in ’20 and accounted for 466 passing yards. However, he tossed six interceptions to just one touchdown and averaged 6.1 yards per attempt (compared to Adrian Martinez at 7.0). On the ground, McCaffrey ran for 364 yards and three scores in 2020.
With McCaffrey out of the picture, the job is Martinez’s to lose again. The California native had a promising freshman season by throwing for 2,617 yards and 17 touchdowns and adding 629 yards and eight scores on the ground. Injuries seemed to hinder him in 2019, as his completion percentage dropped to 59.4, passing scores fell to 10 and yardage finished at 1,956 over 10 games. The sample size is small, but it’s notable Martinez watched his completion percentage jump to 71.5 in 2020. However, his passing yardage was just 150.7 a game and he tossed just four touchdown passes.
Can Frost get Martinez back to his freshman-level production? Or could the offense turn to redshirt freshman Logan Smothers – a four-star recruit in the ’20 class?
Can Nebraska find playmakers to stretch the field? Wan’Dale Robinson was the team’s best playmaker outside and departed after catching 51 passes – nearly one-third of the production (156 overall) in the passing game. Tight end Austin Allen ranked second on the team with 18 receptions, with freshman Zavier Betts and Levi Falck up next with 25 combined catches. Just one player – Betts – had a reception of longer than 40 yards in 2020. Betts and Alante Brown are a promising duo to deploy more in ’21, and junior college product Omar Manning could be ready to produce in his second year on campus. Additionally, Montana transfer Samori Toure is poised to add instant help. That’s a good group to build around, but Martinez will have to jell fast with this young and inexperienced receiving corps. Could incoming freshman Thomas Fidone factor in right away?
This section and the ground game go hand-in-hand. The offensive line has been a weakness under Frost. Last year, Nebraska gave up 16 sacks and cleared the way for rushers to average 4.82 yards per carry over eight games. This unit does have some turnover going into 2021. Left tackle Brenden Jaimes and guard Matt Farniok are off to the NFL, leaving center Cameron Jurgens, right tackle Bryce Benhart and left guard Ethan Piper as the lone returnees. Former top-50 prospect Turner Corcoran played in 106 snaps in 2020 and should be primed for a bigger role this fall. On the positive side, Nebraska pounded Rutgers for 365 rushing yards in the 2020 season finale – the second-most in a game in Frost’s tenure.
An Underlying Problem?
Is scheme, play-calling or personnel usage areas of concern? Or has the talent not developed due to coaching? Perhaps all of those factors are playing a role and need to be evaluated this offseason. Nebraska has regressed on offense since Frost’s debut – something that would’ve been unthinkable a few years ago.
The Transfer Portal
Could Nebraska get help from the transfer portal to add depth at quarterback or receiver? Toure is already set to join for 2021, and USC transfer Markese Stepp is a key pickup at running back. Could Frost and his staff explore more options?
Keep an Eye on the Defense
While much of the focus for the 2021 season is going to rest with how far the offense improves, Nebraska’s defense has showed signs of progress. The Cornhuskers held teams to 5.46 yards a play in 2020, which was the lowest mark under Frost. Also, just two opponents scored more than 27 points. The bulk of this defense is set to return thanks to a couple of key seniors – linebackers JoJo Domann and Will Honas, safety Deontai Williams, cornerback Cam Taylor-Britt and lineman Ben Stille – opting to return for an extra year. While the offense is in flux, don’t be shocked if the defense takes another step forward to allow the other side of the ball time to grow early in the 2021 campaign.