Nebraska head coach Scott Frost answers questions at his opening press conference on Monday, July 23, 2018 at Big Ten Media Days (Chris Kwiecinski/MEDILL).

Commentary: Scott Frost is where he belongs. Now he’s ready to make up for Nebraska’s lost time

Py Patrick Engel
Medill Reports

Scott Frost should have been here three years ago.

Something just seems right about him standing behind a podium with “B1G” stickered onto it, sporting a Nebraska lapel pin with a matching red tie and stating that his move to coach his alma mater was the right decision.

Monday morning at the Marriott in downtown Chicago, it happened. Finally. And it was nothing like the Big Ten media days debut of his predecessor, Mike Riley. Nebraska hired the then-62-year-old Riley in 2015 instead of Frost, who was the offensive coordinator at Oregon at the time. Riley crooned through an answer about having “one more big adventure” left in him when asked why he took the Nebraska job after 12 years at Oregon State. It embodied his 16 minutes of uninspiring remarks that carried a sense of an inevitable middling tenure.

Frost’s session brought predictability too, but in the opposite way. Monday conveyed Frost’s unwavering mission to make up for Nebraska’s lost time and bring the program back to the status it owned when he was a Cornhusker quarterback from 1995-97 and won a national title.

A Nebraska media relations staffer brought two cans of Mountain Dew to Frost at the start of an hourlong podium session Monday afternoon. They remained unopened for the next hour as Frost gave impassioned, convincing and serious answers. This isn’t going to be a repeat of Riley, a pleasant guy who simply can’t match Frost’s mix of resolve, charisma and calmness amid the high stakes at this specific job that wanted Bo Pelini gone because he kept going 9-4.

“We’re carrying the hopes of a lot of people – really the whole state of Nebraska – on our shoulders,” Frost said. “But you can’t think about that. All we can think about is trying to do the right thing.”

The credentials are impressive. Frost is coming off a two-year run as UCF’s head coach that culminated in a 13-0 season. His installation of the breakneck-speed spread offense he learned as a Chip Kelly understudy creates buzz. The Nebraska connection gives him even more credibility among fans.

Frost surely appeased Husker fans when he said he hopes to play former Big 12 rivals in non-conference play. Two are already on deck. Nebraska will host Colorado on Sept. 8 and play Oklahoma four times in the 2020s. He wants to re-invest in recruiting walk-ons, which he said was a staple of Tom Osborne’s Nebraska teams and was dead when he came back Lincoln. He minced no words when he described the conditioning of the players he inherited: “Our guys were out of shape.” He recalled his frustration from afar watching Nebraska sink into mediocrity.

Now, Frost is actually in position to change that trend. He’s going to try and do it by mixing his high-scoring spread with some of Osborne’s “Husker power” philosophies that helped usher in success. It’s a display of the ingenuity he has and that Riley lacked. That melding is more or less what Frost did UCF. Except now it’s at a higher level.

“Coach Osborne had the formula that Nebraska figured out,” Frost said. “Some of the things he did to make the program arguably the best in the country can still work today. Nebraska has just gone away from them. We’re going to adopt a lot of things again and do it in a modern way and do it in a way that recruits are going to want to be a part of.”

Frost highlighted strength coach Zach Duval’s overhaul of the conditioning program as a crucial change. He said the returning Nebraska players had barely done squats for three years. That’s no longer the case. Frost hopes a new weight room attitude helps fix a problem he identified when he watched film of last year’s team: they looked like they didn’t believe in themselves.

“You don’t want guys letting go of the rope or feeling like what they do doesn’t matter anymore,” said senior nose tackle Mick Stoltenberg. “Just really building that competitive spirit that when things go south, instead of seeing what people saw on film last year, you see a team that continues to fight.”

Stoltenberg said he has observed a more competitive weight room with players lifting a lot more weight than they previously could. He has set new maximums, and while he can’t remember the exact number, it’s a lot bigger than before. And trying to reach them was often a result of seeing a teammate push himself.

“If one of the D-lineman is doing a certain amount of weight, some of the other guys are going to try it,” Stoltenberg said. “If they fail, they fail, but I think everyone wants to give it a shot.”

Frost already has a prototypical quarterback for his offense in freshman Adrian Martinez, a four-star recruit and former Tennessee pledge. Martinez was an early enrollee and impressed in Nebraska’s spring game, totaling four touchdowns. Frost has not named a starter, but Martinez is right in the mix.

“He still should have been in high school and every day got comfortable with something, then something else, then another thing,” Frost said of Martinez’s spring. “For him to have that kind of command over what he was doing at that young an age, that gives me a lot of hope for where he’s gonna go.”

Martinez’s outlook under Frost seems promising. UCF quarterback McKenzie Milton started 10 games as a true freshman in 2016, Frost’s first year there. In 2017, Milton ranked second in the country in passing efficiency and threw 37 touchdowns. Frost was Marcus Mariota’s offensive coordinator during his 2014 Heisman Trophy season. The following season, FCS grad transfer Vernon Adams replaced Mariota and ranked No. 2 nationally in passer rating. All of them were quarterbacks of high-scoring offenses that mixed power with speed.

Wisconsin, the class of the Big Ten West in recent years, does not boast that combination. Neither does anyone else in the division, which has lagged behind the Big Ten East and presents an opening for Nebraska to ascend quickly. The Badgers do, though, embrace physicality and have a tradition of finding productive walk-ons. Sound familiar?

“They’ve been out-Nebraska-ing Nebraska,” Frost said. “We’re here to fix that.”

Photo at top: Nebraska head coach Scott Frost answers questions at his opening press conference on Monday, July 23, 2018 at Big Ten Media Days (Chris Kwiecinski/MEDILL).