How Scott Frost is transforming Nebraska

LINCOLN, Neb. -- Somewhere between despair and revival exists a period of understanding. At Nebraska, not five months into the Scott Frost coaching regime, the Cornhuskers inched closer this spring to the all-important threshold at which recognition of the task at hand has arrived.

In the 16 seasons since Nebraska last played on the big stage in college football, too often the point of entry to get back on top began on some faraway horizon, with no road visible to reach it.

Frost's first set of practices in Lincoln featured the largest crowd nationally this year for a spring game and marked "the first step in a journey for us," said the 43-year-old coach, a former star Nebraska quarterback who led UCF to a 13-0 finish in 2017.

At least, finally, they can see the path. That's understanding. That's a start.

Frost is undertaking a total reconstruction of the leadership structure at Nebraska. Safe to say, based on nearly two decades of evidence, the old way wasn't working. The Huskers last won a conference title in 1999 and most recently defeated a top-five opponent in 2001.

On April 21, as Nebraska readied to take the field with 86,818 tickets distributed for a scrimmage, one moment illustrated an element of the transformation underway.

"There's a different energy around this place -- completely new, but oh so familiar."

Those 13 words fit among a 30-second essay narrated over the Memorial Stadium sound system, leading to a series of scenes from Frost's first spring. A Gary Clark Jr. cover of the Beatles' "Come Together" from the film "Justice League" blasted in the background.

Go ahead, read into it. Batman is not walking out the tunnel in Lincoln. Frost's plan, though, involves a unique blend, devised in part from his staff's experience -- he brought everyone to Nebraska -- in rebuilding a contender at UCF in short order; it also plunges decades into the past at the fourth-most-winning program in the nation.

On the morning of the spring game, minutes into the two-hour pregame radio show broadcast to a statewide audience, former All-American Brenden Stai, who blocked for Frost's QB predecessor and fellow national champion Tommie Frazier, remarked that the program felt "alive again" under the leadership of Frost.

Can he work wonders? There's only one way to find out.

"You can see the energy of the team. Everybody was bonding. It's a beautiful thing." Nebraska linebacker Alex Davis

So far, two Frost themes resonate most with the Huskers -- come together, and don't be afraid to fail.

"Unity of purpose" and "no fear of failure," as Frost first mentioned the concepts publicly, have taken hold within the team, which finished 4-8 last fall in coach Mike Riley's third season.

Again, it's about understanding.

"I mean, it's kind of up to us all to be on the same page," said cornerback Lamar Jackson, a former four-star recruit out of California who has underachieved in two seasons at Nebraska.

But it's up to Frost and his coaches to light the path. Defensive coordinator Erik Chinander, according to Jackson, instructed the Huskers to play with joy and passion, "like you're on the playground."

All components that were sorely missing in recent years.

"You can see the energy of the team," linebacker Alex Davis said of the spring. "Everybody was bonding. It's a beautiful thing."

Yes, the problems ran deep in Lincoln.

Defensive end DaiShon Neal, at 6-foot-7, has added nine pounds of muscle and jumped from 275 pounds to 292 in this first offseason under Zach Duval, Frost's strength coach and another Nebraska graduate.

Neal collected a pair of sacks in the spring game, a 49-9 victory for the red team, which was stacked with top-unit players on both sides of the ball.

"I'm more aggressive," said Neal, who recorded one tackle last season as a third-year sophomore. "I trust myself more. I'm taking the chances. I'm taking the risk to go out there and make plays. I know if I make a mistake, I've got Coach Frost and all [of] them there to correct me."

After three years at Nebraska, Neal said he doubted himself.

"I didn't know if I was good enough to do what I was trained to do my whole life," he said.

Now, he said, "I've got coaches who believe in me."

Frost has not directly criticized Riley or the three coaches who preceded him and combined to win one league title after Nebraska claimed 13 under Tom Osborne -- Frost's mentor and coach from 1995 to '97.

But the new coach isn't shy when presented an opportunity to identify what he saw as wrong.

"I'm not sure leadership was developed really well here," Frost said this spring. "We've got some guys who are capable of doing it. We've just got to create opportunities for them to be leaders and let them take the ball and go with it.

"We need to train our leaders better. Once the team is holding each other accountable and the coaches don't have to do it, you've got a powerful team."

He's talking about player buy-in. Typically, only time and hard lessons lead to such a milestone in program development. But in less than five months, it's clear already that Frost arrived at Nebraska with near-instant credibility among the players.

"Compete, compete, compete," Neal said. "He tells us every day, you've got to treat this process like it's your last day of living."

Nebraska lost quarterback Tanner Lee, the 2017 starter, one year early but added four-star signee Adrian Martinez in December as a potential high-impact true freshman. Martinez wowed fans and defenders alike in the spring game, accounting for four touchdowns.

His composure most impresses Frost.

No decision is imminent on the QB position. Martinez remains embroiled in competition with redshirt freshman Tristan Gebbia, who also performed well this spring, and walk-on Andrew Bunch.

"Coach Frost has said this is just one step in the right direction, and I'm right there with him," Martinez said after the spring game. "I think we have a ways to go. But I'm excited about that direction we're going."

Frost said he believes that the transformation from understanding to implementation may happen more quickly in Lincoln than it did for his staff at UCF.

"Because the guys are so hungry," Frost said.

That's not to suggest that a Nebraska turnaround -- from despair to revival -- would much resemble what occurred at UCF, 0-12 in 2015, the season before Frost arrived from Oregon.

"Sometimes you get impatient as a coach and think that it's going to happen overnight," Frost said. "And it's not."

Nevertheless, the Huskers can see where they want to get from here.

"We're not where we want to be," receiver Tyjon Lindsey said, "but we're on the road."