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Shatel: There's a transformation taking place in Memorial Stadium
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COMMENTARY

Shatel: There's a transformation taking place in Memorial Stadium

Scott Frost

Scott Frost stressed an emphasis on the basics. "I want to really dial in on fundamentals this year," he said Monday during his press conference to open spring practices.

Nebraska opens spring practice this week.

LINCOLN — Shhh. Did you hear that?

Scott Frost gave a press conference the other day to preview spring practice. It was what you didn’t hear that was the headline.

No trumpets. No declarations or promises.

No hype. No excuses.

It was almost, well, boring.

Wonderful.

There was a lot of talk about special teams and improved power running game and bigger receiving targets and tight ends who do important things.

And fundamentals. Frost stressed the basics like a parent telling the kids that spring will be spent cleaning windows and pulling weeds.

It was almost like we were listening to a Big Ten football coach.

A transformation is taking place. It was all there between the lines of Frost’s message.

The hot-shot coach who had designs on making the Big Ten adjust to his style has seen the tables turned.

The reason why: 12-20.

Big Ten Country is famous for pie, and the league has offered ample portions of Humble Pie to Nebraska. No more, thanks. Everyone’s full.

There’s never shame in self-awareness. It’s a virtue, especially when building a football program in a league that has all the flexibility of a rock.

If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em. And then beat ’em.

That’s what I thought as I heard Frost talk about bringing back a long, lost friend to Lincoln.

“I want to really dial in on fundamentals this year,” Frost said.

The coach pointed out that was hard to do last year, but I think the change has more to do with the exasperation in Frost’s voice week after week after watching his team stumble over itself.

“We’re really going to focus on being a physical team, on fundamentals up front, fundamentals in the run game, on defense,” Frost said.

“I think if we get really good at those things, then our base things will work a little bit better and then we can get creative with the others.

“If we can lean on those things, then we’ll be able to make some plays with some other creative things.”

Translation: Frost still wants to roll out his version of Oregon and maybe pull a couple of surprises.

But it’s easier to do when leading after the first quarter and on second-and-3, not third-and-10.

Join ’em. Then beat ’em.

Here’s an interesting stat I found. It’s something I wouldn’t have guessed.

Among Big Ten teams, Nebraska ranked second, third and fourth, respectively, in rushing the past three seasons.

Did it ever seem like NU was a good rushing team?

Quarterback Adrian Martinez was the leading rusher in 2020 and was second in 2019 and 2018. Last year, non-running backs Luke McCaffrey and Wan’Dale Robinson were third and fourth.

That diverted role was one of the reasons why the talented Robinson left the program this offseason.

NU has vowed to change that. There’s a room full of young running backs eager to play. And they are led by Southern California transfer Markese Stepp, who figures to become eligible once the NCAA gives the green light to all transfers this spring.

Stepp is 6-foot, 235 pounds. He’s a freight train. If he can put Martinez on his back the way Devine Ozigbo (1,082 yards) did in 2018, Martinez might return to that freshman form.

Big backs, and taller, bigger target at receiver are the formula Frost hopes to take out of the bottom of the division.

And how about those tight ends: Austin Allen (6-8, 260), Travis Vokolek (6-6, 260), Thomas Fidone (6-5, 220). They might need to knock down a wall in the tight end room.

As offensive coordinator Matt Lubick said, “It’s a lot easier to throw to a 6-5 guy than a 5-9 guy.”

Football that makes sense. Brilliant in its simplicity. It’s so Big Ten.

This identity that Frost is morphing toward is more Iowa and Wisconsin chalkboard than Oregon video game.

The thing is, Nebraska has figured out the physicality part. Frost kept that promise. NU has caught up with the Big Ten in that department.

But that’s half the battle. Fundamentals are a way of life in the Big Ten, where they lull you to sleep with vanilla consistency and wait for you to make the mistake. Too often, NU has played the patsy.

But maybe that’s changing. On Wednesday, offensive line coach Greg Austin said if there’s a change, it’s not in the scheme.

“It’s about how we do things,” Austin said. “Doing what we do, but do it better.”

To do that meant a change that probably wasn’t easy for the head coach.

“Finishing our blocks,” Austin said. “That’s more of an emphasis in practice. I give Coach Frost a lot of credit. There is more emphasis on finishing to the end of the whistle and less on going fast.”

Austin added, “If you want to create explosive plays, you’ve got to stick on blocks longer. And you can’t stick on blocks longer if you’re tired.”

And maybe, just maybe, you don’t false start if you’re not in a hurry.

Slow down. Do things right. It’s got a nice ring to it.

Then there’s special teams. Now outside linebackers coach Mike Dawson is the point man in trying to turn a negative into at least a break even.

It would help if Dawson could kick the ball out of the end zone. But he’s no magic man. He’s going to need help.

Tight ends coach Sean Beckton said as much, admitting the entire staff needs to help coach special teams.

Back when NU did special teams right, nobody knew who was in charge. Because they all were.

Once upon a time, Nebraska also adjusted to catch teams it couldn’t beat. But instead of Oklahoma and Miami, it’s Wisconsin and Iowa.

It was the smart move then and it’s the smart move now. If the way to win in the Big Ten is to become more like the Big Ten, so be it.

As long as they don’t make Nebraska wear bow ties.

Does this mean Frost was bested by the Big Ten? On the contrary, it might turn out to be his first big win.


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