Nebraska football kicked off its fall camp Friday, less than a month before they kick off the college football season August 28 at Illinois. In the next four weeks, there’s still plenty to learn about this team. Penalties, the turnover battle and special teams were all areas of major concern for the Huskers last year—all areas that head coach Scott Frost highlighted as primary focuses during camp.
Frost said he wants to settle position battles earlier in camp this year, saying more reps can help clean up those errors.
“Continuity helps,” Frost said. “Making sure that the main guys are working with the main guys a little more often earlier on is probably going to help us with that.”
That won’t mean the backups will get fewer reps. Frost said he is taking inspiration from his old Husker coach Tom Osborne, and splitting up groups to allow younger players to gain more experience.
“I think that gives a lot of young guys the opportunity to get reps and show us what they can do while giving old guys reps,” Frost said.
A combination of young and old is the makeup of the team. They return a veteran core on defense, including nine of 11 starters, while adding former five-star cornerback Tyreke Johnson, a transfer from Ohio State. On offense they return six of 11 starters. They’ve lost running back Dedrick Mills, who declared for the NFL draft and leading receiver Wan’Dale Robinson who transferred to Kentucky. Frost said two of the most intriguing battles in camp will be who fills those two spots.
Frost said he wants a “main horse” at running back, not a committee, and the competition to fill that spot is wide open. The team returns four running backs from last season: Marvin Scott III, Rahmir Johnson and Cooper Jewett. Scott III leads the group of returning running backs with 62 yards on 24 carries in 2020, while Rahmir Johnson was the only returning running back to score. Ronald Tompkins retired from football in the off season.
Added to the mix are the following: Markese Stepp, a fourth-year sophomore transfer from USC; Gabe Ervin Jr., a three-star freshman from Georgia; and Jacquez Yant, a walk-on who redshirted as a freshman last year. Stepp is the most experienced player in the running back room. He rushed for 505 yards over three seasons at USC. Ervin Jr. and Yant impressed in the spring game, with Yant drawing praise from junior cornerback Cam Taylor-Britt.
“He tries to just run everybody over,” Taylor-Britt said. “I believe when he finds his vision and hits that gap, it’s going to be very hard for a one-on-one tackle. He’s breaking through that.”
Finding a go-to running back is important for a Husker team whose leading rusher in 2020 was quarterback Adrian Martinez. Frost admitted that they’ve run the ball with Martinez too much in the past. The three-year starter feels the wear and tear on his body. Martinez said his physical condition has been a priority this offseason.
“I think it’s all encompassing in the work I put in,” Martinez said. “Part of that has been getting leaner, slimming down a little bit to get faster and feel a little bit more confident. That definitely plays a part.”
2020 was a season of ups and downs for Martinez. His completion percentage of 71.5% was a Huskers school record, and his 74.4 rushing yards per game was second nationally among all FBS quarterbacks. Still, he threw only four touchdown passes. He was benched against Penn State before regaining the starting role later in the season. Martinez said he pondered his future and resolved to come back and make improvements.
“It wasn’t good enough and I needed to make some changes,” Martinez said. “That started as soon as I stepped back on campus. Putting all my effort toward those changes and being a better leader and better player to elevate our team.”
Martinez will be throwing to a wide receiver group that Frost called the best wide receiver room during his tenure as coach. They added Samori Toure, a senior transfer from Montana who was an FCS All-American in 2019. He’s expected to start, while receivers Omar Manning, Oliver Martin, Alante Brown, Zavier Betts and Levi Falck are other names in a crowded room.
Toure enjoyed tremendous success at Montana. In 2019, he was the second leading receiver in the FCS with 1,495 receiving yards on 87 receptions. He said he’s comfortable with the offense, and much of what he’s asked to do at Nebraska is similar to what he was tasked with in Montana. Toure said the competition within the position has brought the best out of the group of wide receivers.
“From all I’ve been hearing, this is one of the best summers that we’ve had here in a long time,” Toure said. “We’ve been pushing each other all summer and demanding more out of each other. I think it’s going to show during the season.”
Martinez praised the work of the skill players, noting that chemistry has developed quickly.
“It doesn’t feel like a new group to me,” he said. “We’ve done a great job of forming chemistry off the field that’s really helped the on-field transition come along a lot faster. We’ve also gotten a lot of work on our own time, and I think that’s added to that fact.”
The connection between Martinez and the wide receivers will be crucial for a team that struggled to put points on the board in 2020. The Huskers 23.1 points per game put them 101st out of 127 FBS teams in scoring, and was 13th in the Big Ten.
Martinez says he enters the season feeling as though he has “nothing to lose.”
“For me it’s prove it to myself, prove it to my teammates that I can be every bit of the player that I aspired to be when I first got here,” Martinez said.
His attitude shift is a reflection of many on the team. After back-to-back seasons that began with bravado and high hopes and ended with more losses than wins, the Huskers refuse to put a number on success this season.
Frost said he’ll define success this season by daily growth, while center Cam Jurgens said Husker fans would know it when they see it. Humble confidence matched with narrow focus adds to an environment that Frost said is the best it’s been during his time as coach.
Frost said the atmosphere is one of excitement and eagerness. He said the offensive line has become more aggressive and physical, changing mindsets from “I hope we get the job done” to “we’re going to go make this happen.” Taylor-Britt said cornerbacks are in the facilities alone at 9 p.m. to “get a little extra in.” Toure said receivers are catching up to 1,000 balls a day to get ready for the season.
Results would be tangible proof the Huskers are on the right path. For now, the proof is intangible.
“A lot of it is our team being accountable for the past,” Toure said. “Everyone knows that we haven’t been as successful as we’ve wanted to be in the past. Everyone knows we’re on the right track.”
“It’s just a feeling.”