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Talented, inexperienced young group will have plenty of opportunities for Huskers

December 24, 2018

You don’t have to step out on too thin a limb to say that the 2019 Nebraska football team will rely heavily on its young players.

One needs only to look at the 2018 season — Scott Frost’s first at the helm — and the five true freshmen who held major roles in quarterback Adrian Martinez, running back Maurice Washington, outside linebacker Caleb Tannor, cornerback Cam Taylor and kicker Barret Pickering for evidence.

That number could have been much higher, too, had a rash of injuries not put a damper on what Frost and his coaching staff thought the impact of the 2018 class could be.

Now, with a raft of newcomers signed last week and more coming between now and spring ball, 2019 is shaping up to have real youth-movement potential.

“I think there’s some real talent there that hasn’t touched the field yet at Nebraska, and I’m looking forward to watching those guys develop,” Frost said last week during his hour-long appearance on the Sports Nightly radio program.

That group primarily consists of redshirt freshmen and incoming freshmen and is tilted heavily toward the defense, setting up an intriguing spring and summer.

Frost has said he would have liked to at least get four games of playing time for 2018 freshmen like defensive linemen Tate Wildeman and Casey Rogers, safeties Cam’ron Jones and C.J. Smith and tight end-turned-center Cameron Jurgens.

All of them, though, dealt with injuries at varying times of the year. That group saw game action in a grand total of two games — one for Jurgens as a goal-line tight end and one for Smith before he suffered a season-ending knee injury.

“What we want is competition, brotherly competition,” Frost said. “Guys trying to outdo each other and raise the level of the whole group. One of the unfortunate things this past year was … some of the guys we were hoping could contribute as freshmen and be ready to play next year all got injured this year.”

Now add to the mix 2019 freshmen like defensive lineman Ty Robinson, linebackers Nick Henrich and Jackson Hannah and defensive backs Myles Farmer, Javin Wright and Quinton Newsome, and there are a lot of options, particularly defensively, for the staff to evaluate who have not yet contributed for the Huskers on the field.

“We’re always trying to recruit the best we can and the guys we are recruiting we think have the athletic ability and skill to come in and play,” Frost said. “Usually the biggest factor in determining whether somebody plays or not is their level of maturity and if they approach their preparation and approach football like a pro and like an adult, so that usually has more to do with whether they get on the field their freshman year than anything else.”

Frost, not surprisingly, spoke highly of all of his 2019 signees. In particular, he pointed to Farmer as perhaps the most underappreciated, saying, “When you’re around him, you see a look in his eye that he wants to be great. He will hit you. I don’t think he’s even scratched the surface yet on how big and fast he can get.”

Frost also said he hopes Bryce Benhart can come in and push for some kind of role in 2019 and is, “the leader of the pack,” of the four-man offensive line class. On Henrich and Hannah, he wasn’t shy about applying some pressure.

“We need those guys not just to be players, we need them to be ready to be players early on,” Frost said. “We’ll see if they are or not, but I feel a lot better about (inside linebacker) if Jackson Hannah and Nick Henrich come in and are ready to play.”

Of Wildeman, Frost said, “Tate can be a big-time player too, and unfortunately he got injured in practice and missed most of the year.”

The list goes on and on. There’s no shortage of playing time opportunities for young players. Freshmen and redshirt freshmen are going to have opportunities at receiver, running back, on the offensive line and at all three levels of the defense.

In the process, a lot will be learned about just how ready a very green corps will be. There are returners at defensive line, but Wildeman, Robinson and others will have chances. Henrich and Hannah might not start Day 1, but they won’t be far from being thrust into action. Juniors Deontai Williams, JoJo Domann and Marquel Dismuke provide some experience at safety, but that’s going to be a wide open race.

There’s always a balancing act between being patient during a growing process and also thrusting players into action, but it might be even more heightened over the next few months.

Of NU’s 82 current scholarship players, 34 (41 percent) will be redshirt freshmen or freshmen in 2019. Of NU’s 16-man senior class, only about a half dozen were regular starters in 2018.

“We’re in the middle of a big build,” Frost said. “Offensively, we’re not going to lose one player off the team next fall. That means these guys are going to be together for a long time. We don’t lose too much off defense; there’s a few key guys but not much off of defense either. We’re in the middle of a big construction here.”

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