McKewon: Scott Frost must lean on everything he’s learned away from Nebraska

Scott Frost has had several mentors through his football career, including Tom Osborne, Chip Kelly, Tony Dungy and Mike Tomlin.

LINCOLN — Football recruiting is, at its essence, sales, and the buyer isn’t just the prospect himself, but parents and mentors. Sometimes an assistant can put one over on a parent, or vice versa.

But when Scott Frost sat in the living room of Pro Football Hall of Fame coach Tony Dungy, there was no wool to pull. Dungy knows the football business inside and out. As his son, Eric, went through the recruiting process in 2010, Dungy found himself impressed by a former quarterback who became a wide receivers coach at Oregon. Frost was a straight talker. He had a good plan for players. He had mentors, too, whom Dungy respected.

Tom Osborne and Chip Kelly — Frost’s boss at the time — were among them. But Frost also mentioned one of Dungy’s favorites — Steelers coach Mike Tomlin. Frost played for Tomlin — and Raheem Morris — in 2003 at Tampa Bay.

Tomlin was four years away from taking over the Steelers. Frost was playing the final season of his NFL career, but it was an important one because of the connections he made, not only to Tomlin, but Morris, who worked at Kansas State in 2006 when Frost became a graduate assistant there.

You see how these connections grow?

In Dungy’s living room, they grew even more. Eric picked Oregon. Tony got to know and admire Frost. And Nebraska’s new coach had another voice and mentor in his corner.

“I could talk about Scott for hours,” Dungy said Thursday. The NFL on NBC studio analyst was gracious to talk for 20 minutes before Thursday night’s Saints-Falcons game. Frost has a “really good teaching demeanor” and a commanding presence among athletes. When Dungy would travel to Oregon to visit his son, he saw it.

“Players just gravitate to him every time I came to see him,” Dungy said. “And it didn’t matter which position. Defensive linemen, running backs, they’d just come to his office. He’s a leader. You could tell right away how respected he was.”

Dungy also saw Frost’s vision and core beliefs. In that way, Dungy said, Frost was a lot like Kelly, Osborne and Tomlin.

“Those three have a way of doing things,” Dungy said. “I don’t want to say they’re stubborn. They have convictions.”

As does Dungy, the Super Bowl-winning Christian who’s generally beloved in the NFL, but who has taken some unpopular stances.

Not many folks would vouch for Michael Vick after the quarterback was imprisoned for running a dogfighting ring. Dungy did. In that way, he’s perhaps closer to Osborne’s worldview than any coach. Frost said as much to the Orlando Sentinel in 2016.

“Coach Dungy and Coach Osborne are so similar,” Frost told the Sentinel. “Both are absolutely phenomenal coaches, but even better men.”

Frost met Dungy at a tryout in 2003, when Dungy was coaching the Colts. Dungy talked to Frost afterward, seeing similarities in his own story and Frost’s.

Like Frost, Dungy had been a college quarterback (at Minnesota) who moved to defensive back in the NFL. Like Frost, Dungy had a brief NFL career. And like Frost, Dungy had a mind for the game, an ability to see it from both sides of the ball.

Let the Lord guide your life, Dungy remembers telling Frost. Don’t close doors.

More than six years later, Frost was at Dungy’s front door, recruiting Eric.

Tony and Frost grew closer throughout Eric’s career at Oregon. Frost was fair and consistent, Dungy said. Even after Eric transferred to South Florida, they kept in touch. When Frost asked for advice, Dungy gave it. At one point this fall, Dungy even tweeted that Nebraska had missed its opportunity to hire Frost in 2014.

“Just as several Power 5 teams did,” Dungy wrote on Twitter. “They are building something special at UCF.”

Dungy said Thursday that he knew Frost loved UCF.

“I just thought it was going to be a tough call,” Dungy said. “It wasn’t a snap decision.”

Frost picked his home. Nebraska is getting a coach “who builds relationships with people” inside and outside of football.

Dungy remembers a “really special” lunch at Oregon, when Frost wanted the coach to meet a Duck track and field athlete — Ashton Eaton, who went on to win two Olympic gold medals in the decathlon.

Coaching football can be a hermetic life, especially under a guy like Kelly. Yet Frost made the time to build a bridge to a track star.

It’s this aspect of Frost’s coaching journey that is most interesting to me, someone who has never lived outside the state of Nebraska. This state and this program, I know. The fans, the culture, all the ludicrous, laughable ups and downs of the past 15 years, the knitting-circle, scampish politics of this place, I know all that.

What I don’t know nearly as well is what Frost learned away from here.

Even if some fans, media and former teammates are frozen in the amber of the 1990s, Frost hasn’t been.

Frost picked Nebraska because he’s a former Husker quarterback, but, if that’s all he had been — if he’d kicked around Husker football for the past two decades instead of sponging up experiences outside the bubble — Nebraska wouldn’t have picked him. Lots of ex-players “know this place” as well Frost does. They couldn’t win six games here. Frost wants to win championships.

Which is why, I suspect, NU Athletic Director Bill Moos made a point of calling Frost “the pick of the litter.”

If you agree with Moos, it frames Frost’s decision to bring his entire UCF staff in a different light.

If you agree with Moos, then you believe Nebraska got a coach so much better than NU’s previous four coaches that Frost earned the latitude to give relatively unheralded assistants big raises and more resources to do their jobs.

If you agree with Moos, you think Frost knows something about his defensive coordinator, Erik Chinander, that will bear out when Chinander has to stop Kevin Wilson’s offense at Ohio State. Or Paul Chryst’s offense at Wisconsin.

And if you believe all that, then you should also believe that Frost’s journey since he left Nebraska is more important than the one before it.

Lots of Husker quarterbacks sat under Osborne and went into coaching. But only Frost got the job.

I’d argue he got it because underneath the self-confidence lies a seeker who built, over 15 years, a base of knowledge and relationships far larger than the confines of this job.

At least, Frost better have. Winning big at Nebraska will take every bit of what he learned while he was gone.

Based on Husker season-ticket sales, it sounds like NU fans are buying whatever Frost’s doing.

On with the Rewind.

Five stats

42.3: Frost has been offensive coordinator/coach/play-caller for 66 games. Three years at Oregon, two years at UCF.

In those 66 games, his offenses averaged 42.4 points per game. Six touchdowns. That’s production.

Only three times did a Frost-led offense score fewer than 20 points: a 42-16 loss to Arizona in 2013, a 51-14 loss to Michigan in 2016 and a 31-13 loss to Arkansas State in 2016. By contrast, Frost-led offenses scored more than 50 21 times.

226.70: Rushing yards per game in those 66 contests. Frost-led offenses carried the ball an average of 42.7 times per game the past five years.

Oregon/UCF averaged 5.30 yards per carry. This season, it was 5.2 yards per carry and, even better, 5.61 yards per carry on first down.

Good rushing teams always meet or top 5.0 yards on first down. None of Mike Riley’s three teams at Nebraska ever did, and the 2017 bunch slumped to 3.75 yards per carry. Yuck!

From 2011-2014, Tim Beck’s offenses always did — peaking in 2014 at 6.21 yards per carry. A Frost-led offense peaked in 2015 at Oregon with 6.17 yards per carry on first down.

4.6: That’s the difference in yards per pass attempt for UCF quarterback McKenzie Milton in 2016 vs. 2017. In 2016, Milton was mediocre, averaging 5.9 yards per attempt with a 57.7 completion rate. That’s bad on both accounts. In 2017, Milton shot up to 10.5 yards per attempt and a 69.2 percent completion rate. Among eligible quarterbacks, both figures ranked second nationally behind Heisman Trophy winner Baker Mayfield.

The lesson: Frost’s offense hit its rugged patches in the first season before humming, right from the jump, in Year 2.

10.9: Guess what? The same thing happened in the Chip Kelly era at Oregon. So Kelly takes over as coach in 2009 — he’d been offensive coordinator since 2007 — and the offense is good at 412 yards and 36.1 points per game.

One year later — with a new quarterback, since Jeremiah Masoli got run from the school — Oregon jumps to 47 points and 532.2 yards per game on its way to the BCS national championship game. Watch for a jump.

96: Plays of 20 yards or longer for UCF’s offense in 2017. That was No. 2 only to Oklahoma.

In that category, Oregon was No. 3 nationally in 2013, No. 2 in 2014 and No. 5 in 2015. In 2016, the transition year, Frost’s offense slumped to 96th nationally, but still, that was a vast improvement over UCF’s offense in 2015, which finished dead last in FBS in plays of 20 yards or more.

Opponent watch

Four Big Ten West teams — Wisconsin, Northwestern, Iowa and Purdue — qualified for bowl games. Wisconsin, Northwestern and Iowa are favored.

Purdue, which plays Arizona in the Foster Farms Bowl, is an underdog. Of the four games, Iowa/Boston College, in the Pinstripe Bowl, is most intriguing, in part because I have a hunch the ACC is better than the Big Ten, and Boston College will prove it against Iowa. The teams are largely mirror images of each other.

Forecast

A few recruiting commits under the Christmas tree.

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