CHICAGO — Questions about managing the spotlight and navigating preseason hype are typical, especially at this point in the summer, when the college football season is more than a month away. The blue-blood programs certainly have answers ready. But for a team that won just four games last year? Well, Nebraska is in a peculiar spot.
At Big Ten media days, dozens of reporters gathered around Nebraska Coach Scott Frost to hear about the program that finished last year 4-8 and ahead of only Illinois in the Big Ten West. But that’s just the surface-level assessment of the season. Peeling back the layers of last year’s slate shows promise — so much that Nebraska is considered a contender to win the division this year.
The Cornhuskers started 2018 on a six-game losing skid then won four of their last six, with the defeats coming at Ohio State, a five-point loss against the eventual Big Ten champion, and at Iowa by three points. Nebraska started freshman quarterback Adrian Martinez, while Frost and his staff worked through their first year with the program, too. After the uninspiring start, the group showed progress, significant steps that will continue into 2019.
“If you went back and looked at our season last year, if the defense could have gotten one more stop a game and the offense could have scored one more time a game,” Frost said, “our record would have been a lot different.”
Frost believes in the oft-mentioned leap in performance from year one to year two for both his team and his quarterback. Frost has already seen how significant that jump can be.
At Central Florida, Frost inherited a program that finished the season winless in 2015. He led the Knights to six wins in 2016 and then a 13-0 mark in 2017 that put them in the playoff conversation. The team’s quarterback, McKenzie Milton, went from “okay to good” in 2016 to “lights out” in 2017, Frost said.
“The number one thing is getting the culture right,” Frost said when asked about the rapid improvement at UCF. “Coaches talk about culture more than they should, but it’s true. You’ve got to get everybody on the same page. As a leader, you’ve got to set the direction and then get everybody pulling the rope in that direction. That takes a lot. It does.”
Nebraska has had to work through that same process — learning schemes, building relationships, buying in. At this point, Martinez said, “we’re just a confident group.” Through last season, Martinez said he and his coach gained comfort with each other and playing within the system. Now he feels like they’re on the same page. Martinez, who threw for 2,617 yards last year, knows what is expected of him. Frost said he wouldn’t trade his quarterback for any other one in the country.
“We're probably going to go as far as he can take us this year,” Frost said.
As for how Martinez will handle the pressure, Frost has no concerns. He deserves to be in the spotlight, Frost said.
For this team, it all started to change after the overtime loss against Northwestern, the Huskers’ sixth-straight defeat. The Wildcats scored the last 10 points of regulation to bring the game to overtime, where Martinez threw an interception before Northwestern hit the winning field goal.
When asked Thursday how Nebraska didn’t manage to pull out the win in Evanston, Ill., inside linebacker Mohamed Barry said: “Whatever we didn’t do last year, I promise you we’ll do it this year.”
The following week, Nebraska finally won a game under Frost, scoring 53 points against Minnesota. It topped an FCS opponent a week later and nearly took down Ohio State after that. Barry said his confidence grew as the season progressed because he “felt like I had a coach that believed in me and a system that fit me.”
Nebraska’s defense allowed more than 400 yards per game in 2018, but Frost said the unit has had an impressive offseason. Barry said he believes in the group, which combines hungry newcomers and others with experience. There’s an “appetite” for football, Barry said, referencing how even after long film sessions, he and his teammates will sit at lunch talking about the game.
“I just see them believing it now,” Frost said of the defense. “I think they were dipping their toe into that pool of belief last year. I think they wanted to believe that we were leading them in the right direction. But again, they've had a lot of coaches coaching them that have told them the same thing.”
The Huskers won’t be affected by all the positive projections; they’re usually wrong anyway, Frost said. That might bring some confidence, but Frost said it won’t distract his group. The players agree that this team is different than the one that stumbled through the first half of 2018.
“I know we’re better,” Frost said. “We’re better than we were a year ago. But we still have to go out and earn anything.”
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