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It’s been one year since Scott Frost became Nebraska’s coach — and what a year it’s been

December 3, 2018

LINCOLN — Scott Frost had a hunch Nebraska’s trip to the Big House could be a big loss.

The Husker coach knew Michigan, the team playing inside the massive, 110,000-seat bowl, was more talented and seasoned than NU. Frost’s freshman quarterback, Adrian Martinez, wasn’t yet full speed from a knee injury that kept him out of an upset loss to Troy. And Frost had seen NU practice poorly before heading to Ann Arbor.

“If you’re missing on details on Thursday and expecting to be right on Saturday, it ain’t going to happen,” Frost said in his usual blunt fashion after the worst loss of his head coaching career.

Michigan beat Nebraska 56-10, showing mercy in the fourth quarter. Wolverine players blasted the competitiveness of the Huskers. It was a familiar critique of NU players, who appeared to quit at the end of the 2017 season when Nebraska gave up 54, 56 and 56 points in its final three games. NU had been on the wrong end of so many blowouts in recent years that what happened at Michigan that day was neither new nor shocking — except to Frost, who’d gone undefeated at Central Florida just one year before.

“I honestly believe this is going to be the bottom, right here,” Frost said. “I don’t know how many times I’ve been a part of a game like that.”

It was the low moment of Frost’s first year back at Nebraska. His team would rise from it, too.

Sunday is the one-year anniversary of the day Nebraska announced it had hired Frost. Since December 2017, the Nebraska head coach has had to navigate one of the toughest schedules in school history, a rainout of his coaching debut, unexpected departures of several players and a struggling culture left over from multiple seasons of on-field mediocrity and administrative discord.

Even if an entire state united behind Frost when he returned, the Husker team didn’t change its fortunes right away. NU started 0-6 — unprecedented in school history — before rebounding to win four of its final six games. Martinez became one of the Big Ten’s most dangerous players. Nebraska’s seniors kept focused on the larger goal of creating a better culture.

Before the turnaround, Nebraska hit bottom at Michigan.

NU Athletic Director Bill Moos, who hired Frost after a whirlwind courtship the previous year, was there to see it. Athletic directors generally get suites in an opponent’s stadium, and Moos had one, but it was so full of Husker supporters that he spent part of his time right on press row with his wife, Kendra. Michigan was one of the few games Kendra could see in person because California — where their son, Ben, played football — had an off week.

As Bill and Kendra watched the game, Kendra caught up on bills she had to pay.

“I think she paid a lot more attention to the bills than the game when it got out of hand,” Bill joked.

After the game, Moos sat on one of the Husker team buses as players talked to the media. He made a decision to get off the bus and “be visible” just in case someone in the press wanted to ask him any questions.

Sure enough, reporters wandered over. Moos told them what he still believes: Frost is the right guy, the foundation needed to be laid and, once it was, the scoreboard, as Moos likes to say, would get right. It was a rare move for an A.D. who doesn’t like to go to practice or pace the sidelines during a game.

But Moos remembered what he’d told Frost before the season, as well. When Nebraska wins, Moos will be way in the back. When Nebraska loses, especially like it did at Michigan, Moos intended to be right by Frost’s side.

Frost, for his part, didn’t shrink from the moment. Nebraska got “whipped,” he said, but it wouldn’t get any worse.

“We’re really going to find out who loves football and who loves each other and who’s going to band together,” he said.

* * *

You could write one of those five-minute songs — the kind with rapid-fire lyrics recapping historical events — about Frost’s first year in Nebraska. A lot of things happened. Some of them were strange, too.

Frost’s new house was robbed of artwork, helmets and shoes, for one thing. Receiver Tyjon Lindsey left Nebraska after four games and somehow enrolled at Oregon State within the week, for another. Thunderstorms canceled one game and a snowstorm grounded Frost’s high-flying offense in another. An offseason almost free of pot holes begat a season full of them.

But let’s rewind to one year ago, when Frost arrived on a private plane near midnight, emerged the following morning to talk to the Nebraska football team and, by midday, was in a suit and red tie, ready to talk to Husker Nation.

Frost won the press conference on Sunday, Dec. 3, 2017, getting multiple ovations and cheers for his comments. His return to NU, where he quarterbacked the 1997 team to a national title, came just in time to stop a stunning decline of Husker football, and most notably reverse a 4-8 season under former coach Mike Riley that stood as the worst in more than a half-century.

“It’s my hope that by returning this to its roots, and maybe with me coming back, that we can get that passion all pointed in the right direction,” Frost said.

Frost got a seven-year contract worth $5 million per year and another $5 million for his assistants. He asked each staff member at Central Florida, where he’d just completed an undefeated regular season, to come with him to NU. Each said yes. Three — Greg Austin, Ryan Held and Barrett Ruud — were former Huskers.

Collectively, they helped UCF win the Peach Bowl and signed a top 25 national recruiting class at Nebraska. They toured the state — quarterbacks coach Mario Verduzco chewing a cigar almost like a prop — and, in December, found the quarterback of the immediate and near future in Adrian Martinez.

Nebraska renewed its commitment to the walk-on program, signing its largest class in years. The five-player haul from junior college recruiting ranks, and the willingness to accept four transfers from FBS teams, indicated Frost’s desire to swiftly overhaul the roster. The departures of many Riley-era recruits — Patrick O’Brien, Avery Roberts, Andrew Ward, Willie Hampton and Bryan Brokop among them — hastened the turnover.

Frost spoke and still speaks of strength and conditioning coordinator Zach Duval like he’s an oracle; Moos, staff and players believe it, as well. Duval’s fast-paced metabolic workouts initially overwhelmed a Husker team that had taken off a full month after missing a bowl game.

“They’re brutal, but it’s a good kind of brutal,” long snapper Jordan Ober said.

Several players hugged the trash can in mid-January and two, Lindsey and defensive lineman Dylan Owen, overexerted themselves to the point they developed rhabdomyolysis — the breakdown of muscle fiber — and had to be hospitalized. But as the winter, spring and summer conditioning sessions went on, Nebraska players embraced Duval’s “War Daddy Up” approach. Lineman Tanner Farmer squatted 765 pounds and wanted to squat 1,000. Several NU players gained 15 to 20 pounds in muscle.

In July, NU fused Duval’s training with a new director of performance nutrition in Dave Ellis, who’d been at the school in the 1980s and 1990s before nearly two decades as a private consultant for teams and stars such as LeBron James. Nebraska gave Ellis a handsome $250,000 salary for his expertise to oversee nutrition for the entire athletic department. Ellis is particularly hand-in-glove with the football team, embedded on the sidelines during games, usually armed with water bottles. He’s set up parfait bars and cooking stations for players and will offer suggestions on approved supplements or foods.

Those aren’t small additions, Moos intimated in an interview. He describes a Husker football program that once had all kinds of advantages — especially in strength and conditioning — before, over time, losing its edge. Duval and Ellis, he said, help restore it. Moos praises the quality of Nebraska’s post-game meals as surpassing that of any other school he’s seen.

“Lasagna, philly cheesesteaks, brisket!” Moos said. “Man, that’s a big piece of being the best. That kind of word of mouth gets out.”

Word-of-mouth on Nebraska’s on-field product was high coming out of Big Ten Media Days, too. Frost had a strong, impressive presence in Chicago, holding court on the demise and eventual return of Husker football.

“If we’re getting better day by day, we’re going to be really dangerous and hard to beat in the very near future,” Frost said. “We’ll see how this first year goes, but people better get us now.”

They would.

* * *

Frost never really let go of the lament. Even as NU ultimately proved Frost’s words at Michigan true — they won on Senior Day in a snowstorm, and Frost left the field with the game ball, pumping it excitedly in the sky — he kept returning to the strange confluence of events that occurred at the start of the Husker season.

“If the team could’ve started the season where it is right now, that would’ve been a fun year,” Frost said after NU’s improbable 9-6 win over Michigan State. “But some of the growing pains I think we had to go through were necessary.”

A few of the pains were either self-inflicted or the kinds of things that happen in coaching transitions. Players recruited by Riley — such as backup quarterback Tristan Gebbia — left. A new NCAA rule allowing players to keep their redshirts despite playing four games led to the departures of Lindsey and running back Greg Bell in the same week. Practice effort was inconsistent. Players didn’t always believe in the drill work from coaches, such as defensive coordinator Erik Chinander’s takeaway drills that only took on added import later in the season.

“Sometimes, it’s ‘I’m in, I’m in, I’m in — oh, I’m not in the starting lineup? I’m not in,’” Moos said. “That guy will let you down on third-and-3.”

Some of the growing pains were unavoidable. One, thunderstorms the night of Frost’s debut against Akron, was an act of God. It was the first game cancelled by weather in school history, a game NU officials so wanted to play they were willing to house Akron players overnight in unused dorm rooms to accommodate a Sunday morning kickoff.

Akron said no. A game Nebraska coaches had hoped would get the cobwebs out — NU expected Frost’s high-octane offense would run roughshod over the Zips — was lost until Nebraska found Bethune-Cookman as an October replacement.

So old rival Colorado became the Huskers’ season-opener. Nebraska promptly fell behind 14-0, but Martinez, amassing 304 total yards, didn’t disappoint. In the waning minutes of a 33-28 loss, a CU linebacker noticeably turned Martinez’s knee after the play.

NU seethed at the deliberate play, which got little attention directly after the game. Pursuant to media requests, Nebraska sent out videos of Martinez’s injury, which loomed over preparation for Troy.

For the second straight year, a mid-major football program waltzed into Memorial Stadium, took a big check from the school and sent an even bigger check of NU’s ego. Troy beat the Huskers 24-19 thanks to a punt return for a touchdown and a conservative Husker game plan designed to protect backup quarterback Andrew Bunch.

“If anyone doesn’t want to stay on board this ride with us, let me know now and we can get off,” Frost said. “I know where this is going.”

To Michigan. The low point.

“This is the bottom of the pool,” left guard Jerald Foster said after the loss. NU players were angry but, unlike previous seasons, did not trudge off to the team buses in silence. They wanted to speak. “When you finally touch your feet on the ground, at that point, you’re able to push off.”

Next: A 42-28 loss to Purdue, in which the Huskers committed 11 penalties for 136 yards and never seriously challenged the Boilermakers despite amassing 582 yards. It left Frost fed up with the whole effort, especially the sideline dancing of several Husker freshmen, one of whom had his back turned to the field as he danced for teammates.

“They look like they love losing, and they look like they’re undisciplined,” Frost said.

It was after that loss, multiple players said, the culture truly began to change over the next several weeks. Frost used the pool analogy with his team and added another.

“When you’re sick, sometimes, you’ve just got to puke everything out,” senior center Cole Conrad said. “When you puke, you feel a lot better, right? That was the turning point, that speech.”

Nebraska was 0-4. It’d lose 41-24 at Wisconsin and then, in a particular gut punch, cough up a 10-point fourth quarter lead at eventual division champ Northwestern to start 0-6. As NU racked up the losses, its defense, coordinated by Frost’s long-time friend Chinander, struggled against the power run and the wide-open spread pass.

But Nebraska’s offense — powered by a healthier Martinez, paced by running back Devine Ozigbo, receiver Stanley Morgan and receiver JD Spielman — found its footing. NU had seven straight games of at least 450 total yards, a school record, and began to break off bigger and bigger runs and passes regardless of the opponent. It set up Oct. 20, against Minnesota.

The Huskers erupted for 659 yards and 53 points on the Gophers’ defense. When Minnesota sliced a 28-point lead down to a one-score game, NU answered instead of wilting. Frost had a Gatorade bath — and his first career win. The following week, Nebraska beat overmatched Bethune-Cookman 45-6.

NU’s final month, in which the Huskers lost 36-31 to Ohio State and 31-28 to Iowa while beating Illinois 54-35 and Michigan State 9-6, was the most encouraging November of Husker football in some time. The Huskers led the Buckeyes, a potential College Football Playoff contender, at halftime and nearly pulled off an upset, while the wins over Illinois and Michigan State meant Husker seniors won their final four home games. There was a particular irony to the MSU victory, considering it was Nebraska’s much-beleaguered defense most responsible for the win. As snow swirled and a chilled Memorial Stadium crowd leaned in, Nebraska got a fourth-down stop that sent the place into a frenzy.

“I haven’t seen these guys quit,” Frost said. “I’ve seen them keep practicing better and better. I’ve seen them keep playing harder. I’ve seen them come together better as a team. That’s a hard game to win. It would’ve been even harder to lose.”

Frost’s face as he walked off the field at Iowa, when the Huskers lost on a last-second field goal, suggested just how hard losing can be. The Hawkeyes’ powerful, ball-control offense successfully kept the ball away from Nebraska for most of the game until the fourth quarter, when an NU fake punt and two long touchdown drives led by Martinez erased a 15-point deficit and pulled the Huskers even.

Iowa won the game as the clock hit zero. It was nearly a full year since Frost had taken the job. His team finished 4-8 — the same record as 2017 — but closed the schedule with a force that belied its win/loss total.

Most importantly, Frost said, the culture had changed. Senior captains like Foster, Luke Gifford, Mick Stoltenberg and Morgan, who became the school’s career leader in receiving yards and catches, helped Frost make the change, and younger players began to want to send the seniors out on a good note. Frost referred to his players as “fighters” who no longer hoped to win, but expected to win.

“This team could have shut it down, could’ve quit, could’ve fractured,” Frost said after the Iowa loss. “The seniors just kept leading and kept pulling the rope.”

Scott Frost had seen several years’ worth of football wrapped up in one season. He’d seen his team touch bottom and refuse to stay there.

“They swam like hell for the surface,” Frost said.

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