Shatel: Hopes are high for the Huskers. Good thing spring is the time for finding answers

Junior defensive Ben Stille showed up looking like he had spent some time in the weight room this offseason. That’s an image that has not exactly been frequent in recent years.

Hey, Nebraska’s ranked.

Stewart Mandel of the Athletic does a top 25 ranking of college football coaches in the off-season. And his latest offering has Nebraska’s Scott Frost at 25th, tied with his old buddy Chip Kelly.

Wasn’t Frost anointed just last year one of the great young minds in college football? That hasn’t changed. Line up all the Division I head coaches and let the athletic directors pick and Frost would go in the top 10, probably top five — behind those guys who play for the national title every year.

The ranking has everything to do with current status and what have they done for us lately. Which was 4-8, for all of you who haven’t erased last season from your memory.

You know what? That’s not a bad reminder for those who have jumped on the Expectation Train, which has left the station.

There are already big, or bigger, expectations for Nebraska football in 2019. Last year, Frost set the tone by saying he expected to be good in his second year. It happened at UCF, where the Knights went 13-0 in that second season.

Nobody in red is dreaming of that next fall. But the schedule is friendlier. And the Huskers have a great young quarterback, who is entering his second year. Las Vegas has noticed, with a handful of sports books placing Adrian Martinez in their top five odds to win the Heisman Trophy next season.

Presumably, Vegas knows who’s going to run, catch and block around Martinez next fall.

Nebraska is going to be a trendy preseason pick to take a giant leap forward, perhaps even winning the Big Ten West. An extremely giant leap, considering NU hasn’t beaten Wisconsin or Iowa in what seems like forever.

There are other reasons to like Nebraska, starting with culture in place, retention of the system and the pace of play. And there’s that weight room. We saw a preview of things to come on Tuesday, when junior defensive Ben Stille showed up looking like he had spent some time in the weight room this offseason. That’s an image that has not exactly been frequent in recent years.

But it didn’t take long for a reminder that for every high hope for next season, there’s a question that has to be answered this spring.

Starting at running back.

Frost addressed the Maurice Washington case first. The talented sophomore is expected to be the starter, but he will be a limited participant over the 15 spring practices. Washington has ongoing legal issues, stemming from criminal charges he faces in California for allegedly sending a sexually explicit video to a girl in the video.

It’s hard to know how this will go. In 40 years of covering this sport, I’ve never seen a case like this. Washington did not lay a hand on anyone. He’s alleged to have pushed a button on a phone.

What will the California legal system do with this? How long will this take? When will Washington play again? What's the punishment or discipline for something like this? There’s just no way to know right now, and that’s a big piece of the Husker puzzle in 2019.

Depth is not great at running back. There’s sophomore Jaylin Bradley, who should fit in Frost’s offense but redshirted last season. There’s senior Wyatt Mazour and a pair of walk-ons.

Frost said on Tuesday that a pair of young electric receivers, freshman Wan’Dale Robinson and Miles Jones, might get play some running back. Running backs coach Ryan Held said, “That’s why you recruit hybrids.”

There’s certainly no shortage of playmaking talent on this roster, including junior JD Spielman. NU’s going to have to find a way to get tough yards on the ground when it needs them, but Frost’s playbook and imagination might get stretched next season.

That’s for spring football.

So, too, is leadership. Martinez is expected to step up, not just because he’s quarterback, but also his demeanor. He already acts the part. Same for Mo Barry on defense. Offensive line coach Greg Austin said junior Matt Farniok has had the look of a leader this off-season.

Leadership is hard to predict, though. But this is the time of year — January through August — when you find out. NU has candidates, to be sure.

The things like offensive line rotations, secondary receivers to go with Spielman, what new defensive line coach Tony Tuioti can do with the pass rush — these are spring cleaning items, also.

A time for introductions and re-introductions. Hello, Nick Henrich. Welcome back, Will Honas.

Frost seemed to put the situation in perspective in back-to-back quotes.

First, he talked about how the Huskers have “added close to 10 pounds per man in lean muscle. They’re in better shape, they can run longer, they can practice a lot more efficiently.”

Then, he said, “We’re thin at a bunch of positions, and we will be until we get some incoming freshmen in and we’ll still be thin at some spots. I said before I didn’t think this was a quick fix — there’s some positions we can’t address in one recruiting cycle or two.”

Translation: This year, the Huskers are way ahead of last year, they know where to go and what to do. Now, it’s time to get to work.

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Sports columnist

Tom is The World-Herald's lead sports columnist. Since he started in Omaha in 1991, he's covered just about anything you can imagine. Follow him on Twitter @TomShatelOWH. Phone: 402-444-1025.

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