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LINCOLN — The text came at 1:58 p.m.
“He’s about to do it now,” the Jan. 11 message said in reference to receiver Wan’Dale Robinson announcing his departure from Nebraska.
The next line in the text: “More bad news coming.”
Another Husker player leaving?
After a phone call to the source of the text — who best knew Robinson’s decision-making process in leaving Nebraska — the answer was one word.
Luke McCaffrey. NU’s precocious No. 2 quarterback had been one of the people Robinson talked to about transferring, and the source said McCaffrey would be leaving NU as well.
For two weeks following that conversation, rumors swirled about McCaffrey’s status. In a Jan. 22 interview with two local media outlets, NU coach Scott Frost knew McCaffrey’s apparent concerns about COVID-19 but remained hopeful he’d rejoin the team.
He won’t. McCaffrey instead became the 12th quarterback to leave Nebraska in a decade, including multi-game starters such as Noah Vedral and Cody Green. The youngest son in a well-known football family — which includes one of the NFL’s best running backs, Christian McCaffrey — Luke was a quick-twitch, live wire of a player who could line up at receiver or running back but publicly desired to play quarterback. He started two games this fall, winning once, before being benched for three-year starter Adrian Martinez, who previously had been benched for McCaffrey.
The two were supposed to have a rigorous battle for the starting job in the spring. Now, Martinez is the man, and McCaffrey is on the move.
Like Robinson, McCaffrey was one of the young faces of Frost’s program rebuild. A “culture keeper,” as Frost liked to say, who stood at attention on the sidelines, chewing a mouthpiece, eager to enter the game. He, like Robinson, rarely broke character in interviews. He deferred credit to others. He scored well on the quarterback tests and could win sprints in practice.
“There's no doubt in my mind that Luke McCaffrey is the future around here,” Frost said just before Nebraska played at Iowa.
Wave a fond farewell to Luke McCaffrey and wish him luck, writes Tom Shatel, but it's a shame we never saw all he was capable of in a Husker uniform.
What happened? Why did two of the most dynamic players of the Frost era, who could make big plays out of thin air, decide that a future full of passes, carries and catches for the Huskers weren’t for them?
Neither Robinson nor McCaffrey immediately responded to requests for interviews, but several reasons have been cited in media reports and in World-Herald interviews with those who know them and their situation.
Frustration over how they were being used in NU’s offense is one. The long isolation of playing football during the coronavirus pandemic — not being able to see family, in particular — played a role.
Another, according to one college football expert: Nebraska isn’t winning enough games to appease elite recruits who could play almost anywhere.
Frost, in a Jan. 22 interview in which both Robinson and McCaffrey were discussed, generally chalked up transfers to the current landscape of the sport, defined by an NCAA transfer portal that can be entered without resistance from a player’s current coach. Players are typically free to transfer wherever they wish, even within conferences, as former Husker receiver Marcus Fleming did earlier this season when he left NU and landed at Maryland.
More than 1,400 players are in the portal, said Frost, who noted Northwestern, which won the Big Ten West division, had lost several contributing players from a winning team.
“Nothing surprises you anymore,” Frost said then, when he still expected McCaffrey to return. NU had five signees from its 2020 class leave the program — all five landed elsewhere — and seven total have left since the season ended.
Mike Farrell, national recruiting director for Rivals, a nationwide network of websites that focus on college football and basketball recruiting, said the transfer portal’s popularity is likely to grow.
“The portal itself is going to be the second chance to be recruited — or to make a choice that you regretted not making the first time,” Farrell said.
That was always part of Robinson’s issue, Farrell said. He long had two sides — Nebraska, and a personal camp that included his father and trainer — pulling him in “opposite” directions.
Robinson originally committed to Kentucky in November 2018 in part because of a heated phone call that Robinson’s trainer had with Frost. The concern then? That Robinson’s preferred slot receiver position was manned by JD Spielman. Frost, with the help of running backs coach Ryan Held and receivers coach Troy Walters, convinced Robinson to flip from UK to NU a month later.
But those concerns never fully waned with Robinson, who often served as the Huskers’ top running back because of myriad injuries and disciplinary issues among NU’s backs. He had 134 career carries at Nebraska compared to 90 receptions. He missed nearly three games at the end of 2019 with a hamstring injury.
“He was good enough to carry on that role, but he wasn’t big enough to be taking all the hits I took,” said Dedrick Mills, Robinson’s teammate for two seasons and the Huskers’ top running back when healthy. Mills is 5-foot-11, 220 pounds. Robinson is 5-10, 185.
Farrell said Robinson pictured himself doing the same things as his friend, Purdue receiver Rondale Moore, who had 178 career catches and 30 career carries and has the same trainer as Robinson.
“Getting the ball in space,” Farrell said of Robinson’s interest. “Anything that would show his speed and ability to make people miss. And Nebraska did that to some extent, but there’s always people in your ear saying, ‘Well, you’re wasting your time.’”
COVID-19 health complications with Robinson’s mother played some role in his departure. Like many Huskers, Robinson spent nearly nine months away from family preparing for and playing a football season during the pandemic. But Farrell said Kentucky also appealed to Robinson because the team recently hired a Los Angeles Rams assistant coach as its offensive coordinator. The Wildcats are pitching an NFL offense that will help Robinson reach the league of his dreams.
Robinson, according to several sources, nevertheless liked Nebraska teammates and coaches. Frost loved Robinson’s competitive spirit.
“He did everything we asked of him,” Frost said. “He and I have a great relationship. I will never have anything bad to say about him.”
One day before he announced his transfer, Robinson called Mills to process the decision.
“Basically I told him, ‘Bro, if I was you I wouldn’t transfer,’” said Mills, who transferred twice during his college career. “'But you’ve got your own life to live. And I’m not going to be the one living your life for you. It’s your decision. You make decisions that are best for what’s in your heart.' So he decided to go with it.”
Frost “anticipated” the possibility of Robinson’s departure and added another wide receiver — FCS All-American Samori Touré — before Robinson officially left. Nebraska’s set of tall, thick receivers and tight ends signals a new direction with the passing offense.
You can't blame Wan'Dale Robinson for wanting to leave Nebraska, Tom Shatel writes, but this is still a big problem for Scott Frost, and he needs to start giving players a reason to stay.
McCaffrey’s departure was not as anticipated. Frost wanted to coax McCaffrey into staying.
But his role with the team was caught between being crucial to the present — in whatever way NU could use him — and the face of the future. From the start of the 2020 season to the end of it, he was a running back, receiver, change-of-pace quarterback, starting quarterback, backup quarterback and, finally, a guy on the sideline at Rutgers in street clothes for “health” reasons.
McCaffrey’s game-to-game snap counts, according to Pro Football Focus: 21, 30, 60, 68, 18, 7, 2 and 0.
Once Martinez regained his starting job, McCaffrey no longer had a receiver or running back role. If he hadn’t beaten out Martinez in 2021, it’s possible he would have played few snaps.
“Every rep we give him at running back or somewhere else, we're taking away from other guys that are trying to get ready at that position,” Frost said in December.
Farrell said McCaffrey didn’t pass the ball well enough to be Nebraska’s every-game starter.
“You can be a good athlete, but if you want to be a quarterback, you have to be accurate,” said Farrell, whose service rated McCaffrey a three-star athlete out of high school. “You have to be consistent, you have to have mechanics. And those were lacking. They were using him as a runner more than anything. First read, then dropping and running. That tells me there’s a lack of confidence in passing and fitting the ball in, either from the coaching staff or from the player himself, or both.”
Frost wanted McCaffrey to remain at quarterback — “he’s crazy if he doesn’t want to stay at quarterback,” Frost said — as did quarterbacks coach Mario Verduzco, who once joked he had “smoke coming from my ears” when a reporter asked about McCaffrey playing receiver.
And yet, with McCaffrey solely at quarterback, he may have had one option: Beat out Martinez, a captain with his own, NU-produced “2AM” logo. When McCaffrey led NU to its first win of the season over Penn State, it was Martinez’s selfless pregame speech that eventually became the story.
“I want to win,” Martinez said in a video released by Nebraska’s social media accounts. “You feel me? I want to win. It's not about me, it's not about him, it's about us. Let's not forget that."
Nebraska has struggled some in recruiting and retention of players, which is why coach Scott Frost wants to reimagine the director of player development role.
The Huskers won just eight games in two seasons while McCaffrey and Robinson were on campus.
When top recruits pick a school like NU, Farrell said, winning is crucial. Robinson transferred to Kentucky, which has won 13 games — including two bowls — in the last two years.
“Lincoln’s a great place, tremendous fans,” Farrell said. “If you’re a Southern kid, you’ll get used to the winter, and if you’re a Midwestern kid, you’ll understand it. But it’s not as much fun when you’re losing. That’s when the winter becomes longer and gets drearier. You see other people playing in big games that you knew and competed against, and you start to have a little bit of regret — ‘Here I am with a struggling football team.’”
Losing. A muddled or undesired role in an offense lacking all the pieces needed to run as Frost wanted. COVID-19. The ease of entering and leaving the transfer portal. These forces currently work against a Husker program trying in Year Four of the Frost era to regain its footing in the Big Ten.
Frost told reporters Jan. 22 that aside from keeping a few scholarships open to hunt the transfer portal himself, he’s not going to change his approach or philosophy because of the portal.
“I start treating kids differently, I’m not doing my job as a football coach,” Frost said. He touted the excitement of his team meeting room when players — minus Robinson and McCaffrey — reconvened in mid-January. He said he's never felt better and expects the team to contend for the Big Ten West title.
“In a perfect world, we have 150 kids who are so sold-out to win and help their teammates and be a good teammate that I don’t have to worry about it,” Frost said. “In a lot of cases, when we get to the point where there’s nobody on my roster that I have to worry about keeping happy or they might leave, we’re going to be a better football team.”
On Thursday, many remaining Husker players — including All Big-Ten cornerback Cam Taylor-Britt and starting offensive linemen Cam Jurgens, Ethan Piper and Bryce Benhart — took to Twitter with messages of unity and excitement for the future, a show of solidarity in the face of departing players and general criticism.
Farrell anticipates this new, complex dance between coaches and their own players is here to stay.
“Now you’ve got to re-recruit the kids who are already on your own campus,” Farrell said. “That’s going to be a huge challenge for coaches who don’t love to recruit. There’s a balance between, ‘I’m the coach and you’re the kid,’ and ‘I’m the recruiter and you’re the kid I want to keep.’ That’s going to be extremely difficult for a lot of schools to juggle.”
Scott Frost's boldness endeared him to Nebraska fans. But after three losing seasons and a rash of player departures, Dirk Chatelain wonders if Frost is becoming the man who cried "progress."