Husker notes: Scott Frost focused on efficiency, repetition entering first spring at Nebraska

Husker notes: Scott Frost focused on efficiency, repetition entering first spring at Nebraska
Scott Frost spoke with reporters for about 25 minutes Wednesday. (World-Herald News Service)

LINCOLN — The press conference ahead of Scott Frost’s first spring as Nebraska head coach featured many of the same qualities as the practices he will soon run.

There were quick hits, like Frost saying he knows more about hockey slap shots than placekicking. There was efficiency, like when all 10 assistants immediately followed Frost’s 24-minute media session with a 45-minute interview period at tables scattered around the sixth-floor room in Memorial Stadium.

Most of all, there was enthusiasm. After a 4-8 season, whirlwind coaching hire and breakneck recruiting finish, it’s finally time again to play football.

And Frost said playing football — a lot of it — is his main priority as the Huskers return to the field Friday morning for their first workout. Thirteen other practices will follow after spring break, leading up to the April 21 Red-White spring game.

“We gotta learn the offense, we gotta learn the defense,” Frost said. “We gotta be crisp. The more reps we can get, the better. Repetition makes you better at anything. We practice at a fast pace, so we’re going to get a lot of repetitions. We’re going to split the team some so we get even more reps. You don’t get better without practicing, and we want as many guys up and moving as we can get.”

Frost has seen those reps come in different forms. During his playing days at Nebraska, they came by dividing a large number of players into smaller groups practicing at once. At other stops he achieved more snaps through a faster tempo. Combine the two — Frost is aiming for 130-140 total reps per practice — and that should lead to better execution over time.

All the extra action should also help in roster evaluation. There are no first- or second-teams right now, Frost said. Only players working in open competition. That’s true for every position, including the high-profile quarterback battle between sophomore Patrick O’Brien, redshirt freshman Tristan Gebbia and true freshman Adrian Martinez.

“Guys are going to get plenty of reps in practice the way we practice,” Frost said. “And I think it’ll probably figure itself out and work itself out. Usually by the time you get as many reps as we get in spring ball and fall camp, it’s pretty obvious to everybody who the best guys are.”

That’s where another standard mantra of Frost and his staff comes in, one he picked up from current Pittsburgh Steelers coach Mike Tomlin: Have a desire to excel and no fear of failure. Coaches can’t learn about players unless they’re going full speed, and players can’t do it in games until they do it in practice.

Dive in headfirst, Frost said. If someone makes a mistake, coaches won’t be yelling or cussing.

“Once you take away that fear of what might happen if you make a bad play, it really frees you up to go make great plays,” Frost said.

The practice format will also be different, with workouts starting around 6 a.m. and occurring almost entirely after spring break as opposed to later in the day and split across the vacation time.

“I gotta be a morning person,” linebacker Mo Barry joked.

At the same time, reports of the difficulty of the practices might be overstated, Frost said. Coaches won’t be “killing” players with intense and frequent reps right away. The goal now is to give everyone a taste of what’s to come.

“This isn’t Navy SEAL Hell Week,” Frost said. “We have one SEAL on the team (defensive lineman Damian Jackson) and I’ll be anxious to talk to him about it because I don’t think this will come close. Our practices are fun. The guys are gonna enjoy them. We’re just going to get a lot done in a shorter amount of time than most people do.”

The assistant coaches said priority No. 1 is getting to know the players. Offensive line coach Greg Austin calls it “connection before correction.” Defensive backs coach Travis Fisher said relationships come before he can start erasing bad habits, like players missing class. Defensive coordinator Erik Chinander said knowing the players as people is helpful as Nebraska begins to establish position groups and depth charts.

Said offensive coordinator Troy Walters: “The more we can throw at them, the more they can learn how we practice — the technique and fundamentals — then this summer, when we’re not able to be around them, they can be on their own and they can get better.”

First, though, comes a rare chance at a first impression. Defensive end Freedom Akinmoladun said he gets the “jitters” at the prospect of being back on the field. Offensive lineman Jerald Foster said he’s never been away from football this long and is itching to do something “worthwhile.”

Said D-lineman Carlos Davis: “I just miss hitting people, grabbing people, putting my hands on another guy. I’m just ready to get out there with the boys, start playing some football, hitting people, getting the quarterback.”​

Scott Frost kicking Nebraska’s ‘fear of failure’ to the curb

One of the early mantras that came out of Scott Frost’s Wednesday spring football press conference was this: Don’t be afraid to fail.

It’s a perspective Frost took from one of his mentors, Pittsburgh Steelers coach Mike Tomlin. Desire to make plays. Mistakes happen. And Frost said his coaches will reinforce that.

“We’re not going to yell and scream at at kids. We’re not going to cuss at kids,” Frost said. “I don’t think that’s the right thing to do and I also don’t want kids to be afraid to go make a great play. If someone misses a tackle or drops a ball, they don’t need to be yelled at. They need to be taught the right way to do it so it doesn’t happen again.

“And once you take away that fear of what might happen if you make a bad play, it really frees you up to go make great plays. I always want our team to play with a desire to excel and no fear of failure.”

There’s a utility to this approach, at least as it pertains to practice. Frost’s practice style mirrors that of Oregon and Chip Kelly, which emphasizes repetitions.

If you’re stopping and correcting stuff every time someone makes a mistake, you’re not practicing with the kind of pace that Frost believes pays off in games. It’s possible that corrections will more often happen after the fact, and the players who play will be the ones who learn to master mistakes more quickly. Aptitude is important. The “fear of failure” is also especially important on defense, because defenders have to make split-second reactions. If they’re hesitant — even if they eventually make the right decision — it can cost the defense a first down or a touchdown.

Being “correct but late” on defense is often just as bad as being “early but wrong.” So often in Nebraska’s defense last season, the Huskers looked flat-footed and hesitant, afraid to step out of line in Bob Diaco’s complex mouse-trap defense. Teams would move the ball methodically, then a defender would take a risk, he’d be out of position, and it’d create a big bust.

Nebraska’s new defense under coordinator Erik Chinander will be more aggressive and take more risks. It’ll ask players to be looser and less afraid to fail.

So the mantra makes in-game sense, too.

Running backs coach Ryan Held loves fullbacks, but says Huskers will transition away from the position

Plug your nose, Nebraska traditionalists. Because this one might hurt.

The fullback position at Nebraska is pretty much gone.

“The fullback is probably not a position — as long as they want us here at Nebraska — that will be a position,” running backs coach Ryan Held said Wednesday.

In other words, treasure that YouTube clip of Cory Schlesinger barreling into the end zone, because you probably won’t see a Husker do that ever again.

In Frost’s offense, tight ends fill in where fullbacks would.

“We want big, long tight ends that can run and we can split them out and do different things that would do the same thing as a traditional fullback, but now you have more length,” Held said. “Trust me, I love the fullback position. It’s just not what we do.”

When asked about using fullbacks in the red zone, offensive coordinator Troy Walters basically said: don’t worry about it. They haven’t had an issue in the past.

“You can check with the head ball coach and the offensive coordinator,” Held said. “I don’t think that’s a position that will make it here.”

Rest in peace, fullback.

Tanner Lee takes matters into his own hands at Nebraska’s pro day

LINCOLN — For the past few weeks, Tanner Lee has been thinking.

After the Senior Bowl in January and the NFL combine in early March, the former Husker quarterback felt like he had more to show.

So over the past few weeks before Nebraska’s pro day, Lee began researching. He looked up what Blake Bortles and Sam Bradford did on their days. Talked with Danny Langsdorf and De’Mornay Pierson-El about a plan. And he scripted out plays — 48 — he felt he needed to show NFL scouts to improve his draft stock.

On Wednesday at the Hawks Championship Center, Lee threw on the run, threw deep, threw check downs and, in the end, completed 43 of his 49 passes. And overall, Lee felt good about his workout and chances in the draft.

“I felt it was a pretty solid performance,” Lee said. “We got to throw really anything we wanted to. We got to throw short, intermediate routes and finish with the deep ball and things like that. Anything that plays to your strengths, so we made our own script. So it was good in that way.”

Lee threw to Pierson-El, Luke McNitt, Tyler Hoppes and former Tulane wide receiver Xavier Rush. Other Huskers who competed in pro day included Chris Jones, Joshua Kalu, David Knevel, Drew Brown, Marcus Newby, Josh Banderas, Tommy Armstrong, Tyler Hoppes, Kieron Williams, Mo Seisay, Daniel Davie and Nick Gates. Twenty-seven NFL teams and three CFL teams were on hand to watch the former Huskers work out.

McNitt had an impressive day with personal bests in the vertical leap and broad jump. He also led all Huskers with 26 repetitions on the bench press of 225 pounds. Pierson-El had the highest vertical at 37.5 inches.

Jones and Kalu — both of whom went to the NFL combine two weeks ago — did not lift but did try to improve their 40-yard dash times.

Jones said he felt good about his workout and feels healthy as ever, even before a torn meniscus that forced him to sit most of his senior season. Jones cramped up at the combine, so he supplemented drills he missed in Indianapolis with his scores in Lincoln, including vertical and broad jumps.

“Every team doctor pulled and twisted,” Jones said of his knees. “There were six different rooms — a doctor in each one — half the time they looked at my right knee half the time my other one. Nothing came up. Everything was good. Got an MRI on both knees and nothing came back, and that’s a blessing.”

After the 40-yard dash, it was Lee’s turn. That’s when he and his former teammates laid the script on the turf and began slinging the ball around. Without former coaches on hand to guide them through the day, Lee ran the warmups for the receivers. He called out the plays and for a while didn’t even have a helper to toss him balls.

“It’s unfortunate the staff ended up getting fired, but this new staff has been nothing but great to us,” said Hoppes, who had 16 reps of 225 pounds on bench press and had a 33-inch vertical jump. “That’s why Tanner and all of the receivers went over all of this stuff. So we wouldn’t be out there having the scouts telling us, ‘Hey, you’re going to run this route.’ We had set in stone what we were going to do. It helped out a lot.”

Added Lee: “We didn’t have any coaches out here so we were running it by ourselves, which isn’t all a bad thing. I think we’re all close enough and good enough friends we work well together.”

Lee directed traffic and looked comfortable on the routes he completed at Nebraska, where he threw for 3,143 yards a season ago. Most of Lee’s completions came on slants, posts and go routes. He struggled with deep out and corner routes.

Lee feels good about his chances headed into the NFL draft, which begins April 26. Lee’s met with all 32 NFL teams and said they like that he played in two offenses in college, both of which were pro-style.

“It’s been a long time coming, it’s been a lot of hard work, it’s been about three months now of daily training and nutrition and throwing and the repetitive process of giving your best, so it’s good to see the guys come out and play well and perform,” Lee said.

No decisions yet on walk-on tryouts

LINCOLN — Nebraska gave members of the student body a shot at earning a spot on the football team Tuesday. On Wednesday, Scott Frost said he isn’t yet sure whether any of those dreams would be realized.

Frost said the team is in a “holding pattern” in regard to final personnel numbers after previously saying he’d like the roster to expand as large as 150 players. So any decisions on keeping anyone from the walk-on tryout at the Hawks Center will also be pushed back for now.

“You know what was great about that is just seeing kids that played high school football in Nebraska and the surrounding states coming out and working out for us,” Frost said. “There were some really good kids, there were some good athletes.”

The coach added that the larger goal accomplished was gauging whether anyone already on campus could help the Huskers right away.

“That might be the part I love about it the most is kids like that would come out and bend over backwards to get on this football team,” Frost said. “And I hope our football players realize that they’re lucky to be where they are and they don’t feel entitled.”

Beckton likes tight end competition

Tight ends coach Sean Beckton has an interesting task: Figure out, among six scholarship tight ends on campus, who is most worthy of starting.

Those six — junior Matt Synder; sophomores Jack Stoll and David Engelhaupt; and freshmen Kurt Rafdal, Austin Allen and Justin McGriff — have virtually no experience among them.

“My job as a coach is to keep them all involved,” Beckton said. “Make those guys feel like they’re part of it.”

One guy will be the starter, one will be the sixth guy, but each Husker, Beckton said, has to contribute.

“I like competition,” Beckton said. “If a guy’s not doing well one day, I’m going to sit him down and put somebody else in there. That’s been my motto as a coach: Make sure everbody’s competing on a daily basis.”

Beckton said Stoll “thinks he’s the guy already — which I like.”

“He really thinks he’s the guy,” Beckton said. “He’s really taken ownership of being captain of the group.”

Stoll caught eight passes for 89 yards and two touchdowns last season, including a 32-yard score against Northwestern.

As for Rafdal and Allen — who go 6-7 and 6-8, respectively — Beckton has been teaching them how to get good releases from linebackers.

“If they’re not rerouted, there’s nobody who can (cover them),” Beckton said. “If the quarterback throws the ball in the right spot, there’s no way they won’t make a play. Use your height to your advantage.”

Dixon’s status uncertain

Frost had no update on an immediate eligibility waiver submitted on behalf of safety/linebacker Breon Dixon, a transfer from Ole Miss who hopes to play right away this year. Dixon, along with other former Mississippi players, is asking the NCAA to grant immediate transfer eligibility based on the firing of former coach Hugh Freeze and NCAA violations and penalties that resulted from Freeze’s tenure.

Preparing for double duty

When Jovan Dewitt joined Scott Frost’s staff at UCF in 2015, Frost told him he would be in charge of the special teams. And since then, Dewitt’s decided he’ll only take the best.

Which is why on punt returns, punt block, field goal block and kickoffs, you’ll see familiar faces.

“If you can’t start on special teams, it’s going to be really hard for you to start on offense or defense,” Dewitt said.

Which means if you’re at starter on offense or defense, you’re likely going to play special teams, too. At UCF, Shaquem Griffin was an All-America linebacker a season ago. He was also a special teams starter.

“There weren’t players that were reserved that could just play on special teams. From our starting receiver in Tre’quan Smith to Griffin, they were on depth charts for all four special teams, and they played them. They absolutely played them,” Dewitt said.

Special teams don’t matter until they really matter, Dewitt said. No one cares until there’s a huge play or a massive screwup. And it’s important to put those situations in the hands of guys who are already starters.

Plus, he said, it helps the team buy in.

“When you have the starting wide receiver out there as corner on punt return, and he’s doing a really good job, the other players take notice,” Dewitt said. “So that’s one of those things from philosophical standpoint we’re trying to bring through here that we had at UCF.”

Kicker replacements

Frost was blunt about his lack of knowledge and experience when it comes to kickers.

“I couldn’t kick a ball from here to you,” Frost quipped at his press conference.

So he’s hoping kicker Barrett Pickering — a scholarship true freshman on campus — comes in and wins the job quickly. NU also has Omaha Burke walk-on Cole Frahm. They’ll be vying to replace four-year starter Drew Brown.

“That’s one of area of football I don’t know much about,” Frost said. “So usually when a guy is going out to kick a field goal I just stay as far away as I possibly can.”