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LINCOLN — Inside the Husker bubble, they believe. They should, and they must. Coaches and players can no longer count on outsiders for compliments.

“We’re definitely going to surprise a ton of people,” receiver Zavier Betts said of his position group. Which is nice to hear. It’s been awhile since the pass-catchers have been a pleasant surprise.

“It’s fun coaching this team right now,” coach Scott Frost said.

Also good to hear. It seemed like for parts of 2018 and 2019, Frost was battling to forge his culture. And in 2020, all of us were battling just to keep our heads above COVID-19 waters.

“The guys have bought into it — man, they’re working hard in those drills, we can’t find any loafs at all, people taking a play off on those drills,” Frost added about NU’s new, robust approach to special teams. Three years late, but right on time for 2021.

“He’s playing at the highest level I’ve ever seen him,” tight ends coach Sean Beckton said of quarterback Adrian Martinez, who “went to another level” even from spring camp. “That’s the Adrian Martinez we’ve been wanting to see, and he’s really, really at a good spot right here, and everybody across the board on the team knows it.

“They’re following him. When the team follows your quarterback, you’re really going to have a great team.”

They believe. The outside world, for now, shrugs.

Case in point: I finally got my hands on Phil Steele’s annual magazine. (It’s easier at this point to order by mail.) Steele’s Olympic-pool-sized dive into every number imaginable tends to look somewhat favorably upon Nebraska in most years, and he was bullish on the Huskers in 2019.

In 2021, the preview is clear-eyed and, for anyone stirring a big jug of Husker-Aid at this moment, a little sobering.

There is great local confidence surrounding the talent, size, athleticism and experience on NU’s offensive and defensive lines. But Steele ranks neither unit inside the nation’s top 58. Texas-San Antonio’s offensive and defensive lines are inside the top 58.

Martinez is the No. 49 NFL draft-eligible quarterback according to Steele. He’s one ahead of Patrick O’Brien and one behind Max Duggan. Those two tight ends you (and I) think might be NFL guys, Austin Allen and Travis Vokolek, are not among the top 52.

This is what happens when a program posts four straight losing seasons. Benefits of doubt are not given. Exceptions are not made.

Steele concedes that most of his power ratings indicate “this to be the year Frost gets to .500 or better,” but even that is faint praise. Pundits set the ceiling for this team low. Too low, based on what is coming out of Husker camp, but Nebraska tends to lead the nation in media outlets, who paraphrasing John Lennon’s comments about a tuba, can make 8-4 out of a week of good practices.

But still, inside the bubble, it seems promising.

The BTN guys peeked inside last week and liked what they saw. I agree.

This year appears different, presuming the Husker vaccination numbers are such that we won’t experience a week-to-week drama. Thanks to the team’s experience, Frost and his coaches have turbo-charged gameplan installation — front loading the special packages and situational stuff — so the top of the depth chart can solidify and more “good on good” can take place.

Markese Steep is so far healthy after missing spring, which is a major development. Nebraska loves its freshman backs, but Stepp’s previous experience at Southern California gives Gabe Ervin, Sevion Morrison and Jaquez Yant time to settle in.

Big questions remain about special teams, the pass rush, stopping the deep pass, establishing a downhill run game so Martinez doesn’t have to run 20 times per game, and NU’s red zone offense, which as the Rewind has documented a few times, is one of the worst in the Big Ten. One could overlook a lot of Martinez mistakes if he were better once the team reaches the opponent’s 20-yard line. And if Martinez gets banged up like he did in 2018 or 2019, all bets are off.

Right now, he’s healthy, Nebraska’s hungry and the program Frost wanted — old, focused, a little on the cocky side — is present in training camp.

It’s not a game. The outside world — including you, Husker fan — continues to be skeptical. But the bubble is fully pressurized. No fissures in the locker room right now. That could change — over the last decade, things tend to pull apart in Nebraska football — or it could roll right into a 3-0 start. Few programs could use a three-game winning streak more than NU.

The Huskers haven’t had one of those since 2016.

On with the Rewind.

Five stats

Minus-29: Nebraska’s turnover margin since 2014. It’s a single number that says a whole lot, frankly, compared to Iowa (plus-45), Northwestern (plus-22), Minnesota (plus-14) and Wisconsin (plus-8). Among Big Ten teams, only Purdue and Rutgers (both at minus-36) are worse.

The Huskers have lost 58 fumbles since 2014; what make this stat remarkable is that from 2015-2017, they lost 13. Since 2018, they’ve had 32 in 32 games. That’s a lost fumble per game.

95.2: Steele compiles his own special team rankings, and in the past five years, Nebraska’s average rank is 95.2. That’s the worst in the Big Ten, though Purdue (92.4) and Northwestern (88.2) come close. Iowa’s average ranking is 14.6.

If you’ve watched the last two NU/Iowa games, you know the difference.

26-39-1: Nebraska’s record against the point spread at home since 2011, according to Steele’s magazine. In the Frost era, the record is 6-11.

NU does not play well particularly at home and has not, really, since the 2012 season — before the stadium expansion. On the road, NU is 26-20-2 against the spread. Funky, isn’t it?

NU obviously had zero home-field advantage last season, and Frost even considered it a disadvantage.

55.75: The average number of pass attempts per season for Nebraska’s backup quarterbacks since 2017. That’s two football games per year. So, yes, it rather matters what Logan Smothers and Heinrich Haarberg are doing in camp.

By contrast, over that same span, Iowa’s backups have averaged 5.75 passes per season.

130th: Steele’s rank for Northwestern’s returning starting experience. That’s dead last in the nation. In a year where almost every team is older than it has ever been, the Wildcats will return eight or nine starters.

You’ll likely see preseason AP Top 25 votes for Northwestern. It’s a bad bet.

Opponent watch

Ohio State added 2022 quarterback Quinn Ewers to the 2021 team because of some flap Ewers — or, actually, his dad — got into with the oversight body of Texas high school football, which prohibited Ewers from profiting off his name, image and likeness in high school unless he wanted to lose his eligibility. The Texas University Interscholastic League is wise to hold firm.

Friday Night Lights would become a real mess, and fast, with NIL. Ewers, the No. 1 recruit in the 2022 class, is bound to sit this year as CJ Stroud has, according to every report I’ve read, consistently worked first with the No. 1 group in training camp.

Watch OSU’s secondary. I still think it could be a weakness. Safety Ronnie Hickman get injured in practice last week.

Paul Chryst didn’t like how things unfolded with his quarterbacks last season — and before that, perhaps — so he’s taken over coaching them and calling plays. That’s a lot for a head coach to do. By contrast, Frost is choosing to do less in 2021.

Chryst told reporters in Wisconsin’s media event last week that in taking over playcalling, he’s moving Joe Rudolph back to coaching the offensive line full time. Chryst started coaching the QBs in February, when Joe Budmayr left for Colorado State’s offensive coordinator job. Chryst opted not to replace Budmayr and instead hire a cornerbacks coach.

Wisconsin’s signal-callers have thrown 41 interceptions since 2017.


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