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Chatelain: Signs of Husker progress must come in 2022 NFL draft
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Chatelain: Signs of Husker progress must come in 2022 NFL draft

Take a look at renderings of the latest expansion of Nebraska's athletics facilities.

The news came during Saturday’s spring game.

Brenden Jaimes, who started 40 consecutive games at Nebraska, was selected by the Los Angeles Chargers. 159th overall.

The NFL draft rarely falls on spring game weekend, so here was an extra burst of sunshine on a joyous day — a moment when Huskers past and present crossed paths.

Lately Nebraska’s relationship with the NFL draft hasn’t been so positive. The past five years (2017-21), only six Huskers have been chosen. That’s one fewer than NU’s 2011 draft class alone. In the five-year span, Ohio State has 42 draft picks, Michigan 36, Penn State 23, Iowa 20, Wisconsin 17. Only Illinois and Rutgers in the Big Ten have fewer selections (four apiece).

But total draft picks is not the most startling trend. Let’s dig a little deeper.

Jaimes got picked midway through the fifth round. Nebraska hasn’t had a player chosen in the top four rounds since 2016.

How many other Power Five schools fit that category? Two. Georgia Tech and Arizona. (The Wildcats’ best pick in that span was actually 152nd, a little higher than Nebraska’s, but still in the fifth round.)

Obviously “top four rounds” is an arbitrary threshold, but it illustrates Nebraska’s recent talent — and player development — deficiency.

Even poor programs have produced draft picks in the top four rounds since 2016. Vanderbilt has five, Arkansas four. Oregon State, Duke and Syracuse have two. Yes, even Kansas did it once.

Of course, the fact it’s Nebraska adds to the surprise. From 1997-2001, NU put 18 players in the top four rounds. From 2002-06, it was 11. From 2007-11, nine. And nine again from 2012-16.

Based on players drafted in the top four rounds the past five years, here’s the Big Ten tally:

» Ohio State 33

» Michigan 21

» Penn State 13

» Iowa 13

» Wisconsin 8

» Michigan State 6

» Indiana 3

» Maryland 3

» Purdue 3

» Minnesota 3

» Northwestern 2

» Illinois 2

» Rutgers 1

» Nebraska 0

Pretty stunning.

Isolated here on the Big Ten frontier, we have a habit of thinking Husker players are great when they’re merely good, and good when they’re merely average, and underrated when they’re really not. That’s how you end up with four consecutive losing seasons despite perennial Top 25 hopes.

Which brings us back to the spring game, an exhibition designed to show off newcomers and young talent. Scott Frost is clearly building better depth, especially on defense. It should pay off against mediocre opponents and boost Nebraska to bowl eligibility this fall. But that’s not the standard.

To beat winning teams and contend in the Big Ten West, depth is only half the formula. The other half is finding game-breakers. Havoc-wreakers. And it’s not enough to see your alumni drafted and making 53-man rosters. You need some NFL starters, too. Guys like Lavonte David, Spencer Long and Maliek Collins.

To state it simply: Frost more often needs the best player on the field. Or three of the best five players on the field. He hasn’t, which is why the NFL has looked elsewhere.

It’s tempting to argue Nebraska’s poor draft results are a reflection of bad records, but NFL scouts find players regardless of location or winning percentage. A North Dakota State quarterback with 318 career passing attempts went No. 3 overall Thursday. The third round Friday included a center from Division III Wisconsin-Whitewater.

There’s a level of talent out there we haven’t seen here for a while. Frost might be in the process of producing it. We’ll know more in four months when Memorial Stadium fills up again.

But the 2022 NFL draft will be a measuring stick, too. That’s when Huskers like Adrian Martinez, Cam Taylor-Britt, JoJo Domann, Ben Stille, Deontai Williams and Samori Touré potentially become pros.

If the best of them gets picked in the late rounds, that’s a red flag. But if a few get called Thursday or Friday on draft weekend, it’ll be confirmation Frost has finally broken through.

Omaha World-Herald: Big Red

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Reporter - Sports

Dirk writes stories and columns about Husker football in addition to covering general assignments and enterprise for The World-Herald. Follow him on Twitter @dirkchatelain. Phone: 402-444-1062.

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