Nebraska Football: Projecting the Cornhuskers’ Offensive Backfield Depth Chart

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With spring practice coming up quickly, now is a good time to start taking guesses as to what Nebraska’s depth chart will look like this autumn. Of course, these projections are subject to change, with injuries and what we learn from the results of spring practice.

You can take a look at the Double Extra Point’s new roster distribution tool, seeing how Nebraska’s 105-man roster breaks down by position and by class (including both scholarship and walkon players) to get an idea of what the coaches will be working with. So let’s get started with the glory-boys in the backfield.

Quarterback

For the first time since the 2010 season, Nebraska is entering spring practice with a legitimate quarterback battle. The three contenders look to be junior transfer Tanner Lee, redshirt freshman Patrick O’Brien, and true freshman Tristan Gebbia.

Lee almost certainly has a leg up on the competition, having played for two seasons at Tulane before his transfer to Lincoln. A marked difference from quarterbacks in the past, Lee is a true pocket passer presenting no threat as a runner. He only completed 53.6 percent of his passes at Tulane, but the surrounding talent at Nebraska will be a significant upgrade. As a co-MVP of the scout team in 2016, Lee is in pole position to start for Nebraska next season.

O’Brien has a tremendous amount of talent, and how has a year of experience under offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf’s tutelage. He also has enough athleticism to be at least a little bit of a threat running the ball. Gebbia was a highly-recruited target coming out of California in the 2017 recruiting class (although not quite as highly rated as O’Brien, according to 247 Sports). But at six-foot-three and 180 pounds, Gebbia is going to need to put some weight on before he’s ready to compete in the B1G.

The bottom line is that if Lee isn’t the starter against Arkansas State in September, then it likely means either he’s been hurt or O’Brien has blown the doors off of the coaching staff in terms of his improvement.

Projected depth chart, quarterback

Tanner Lee

Patrick O’Brien

Tristan Gebbia

I-back

With Terrell Newby’s graduation, competition for starting I-back should be just as intense (although maybe not watched as closely) as the quarterback race. Leading the team in carries returning in 2017 is junior Devine Ozigbo and sophomore Tre Bryant, so it’s hard not to think of them as having a leg up in terms of winning the starting job.

Senior Adam Taylor has been buried on the depth chart since an ankle injury in 2014 set him back. Junior Mikale Wilbon is a curious case in terms of how he’s been used. Of the four I-backs who got significant snaps in 2016, Wilbon easily had the highest yards-per-carry average. But he only had 15 carries, well below the next closest I-back, Bryant at 43. There’s a reason Wilbon hasn’t earned the coaches’ trust to see the field more, and he’ll be digging himself out of that hole this offseason. True freshman Jaylin Bradley will get a look this spring, but absent injures don’t be surprised to see him redshirt in 2017.

If you’re going to guess on one of these backs winning the starting position, my money would be on Ozigbo. When he’s been healthy, Ozigbo has the power to move defenders and enough wiggle to create space. He’s also got a violent running style that would allow him to punish defenders if he’s able to get into a rhythm. Given that Nebraska will be breaking in a new quarterback – and almost certainly an entirely new offensive system – a bellcow power back would be just what the doctor ordered.

Projected depth chart, I-back:

Devine Ozigbo

Tre Bryant

Mikale Wilbon -OR-

Adam Taylor

Fullback

It’s certainly odd to look at the roster distribution for Nebraska and see six fullbacks – and only one of them being a scholarship athlete (and that one being a true freshman, to boot). After the heady days of Andy Janovich’s 2015 season, we know that head coach Mike Riley isn’t afraid to use a versatile fullback as an offensive weapon.

And he’s got one in true freshman Ben Miles. Sure, being former LSU head coach Les Miles’ son helps with the recruiting buzz, but don’t think that Miles the younger is just a gimmick on the roster. He’s athletic enough to lead block as a fullback, catch passes out of the backfield, or even line up in the slot (much like how the Atlanta Falcons used fullback Patrick DiMarco last year) to cause defenses all kinds of matchup nightmares.

Senior walkon Luke McNitt did an admirable job last year trying to fill Janovich’s shoes. But with Miles’ arrival, Nebraska now has a chance to put a true weapon on the field at the fullback position.

Projected starting lineup, fullback:

Ben Miles

Luke McNitt

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Nebraska Football: Yes, Recruiting Rankings Are Important For the Cornhuskers

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So, we’re a little ways away from 2017’s National Signing Day, and Nebraska ending up with a no. 23 ranked class nationally (according to 247 Sports). Reports tended to think the class ranged from solid to good but not great. But there is a pretty universal agreement amongst those covering the team that Nebraska needs a good recruiting performance to win trophies.

But not everyone agrees with that premise. Keyshawn Johnson (senior, not the incoming freshman) thinks recruiting rankings are for fools (according to Erin Sorensen of Hail Varsity).

There is a not-insignificant portion of the fan base that feels this way about recruiting, too.  So, let’s imagine a conversation with such a fan – we’ll call him the Grumpy Recruiting Skeptic (GRS) – and help see if we can understand the tension.

GRS: I am so glad recruiting season is over.

DXP: I know, it’s pretty exhausting, but it’s nice to see Nebraska making some progress.

GRS: No, I mean I’m just tired of hearing about all this recruiting nonsense. It’s such a waste of time.

DXP: What do you mean?

GRS: This is Nebraska, we don’t need to worry about all that five-star nonsense. Back in the day, we’d win with grit and our walk-on program.

DXP: Well, even those teams in the nineties had some pretty talented players on them.

GRS: Of course. But we didn’t spend our time obsessing about which five-star kid was going to go where, because who knows what those kids will end up being. Highly rated kids flame out all the time, so I don’t know why we obsess about it so much.

DXP: You’re right, individual highly rated players do crash and burn. But in general, the better you do in recruiting, the more likely you are to win.

GRS: That’s what those sites want you to think. But how come teams like Texas and Florida get all the good recruits and don’t win squat?

DXP: Again, you’re looking at individual instances. The averages don’t take Mack Brown into account. Just read this piece from Matt Hinton from SB Nation, it explains why the ranking sites are helpful.

GRS: <clicking website, staring intently, putting phone down in frustration> TL;DR, what’s the point?

DXP: Basically, Hinton categorized schools in terms of their recruiting prowess as seen by the sites, ranking them from one-star schools to five-star schools. Here’s what their overall winning percentages are, from 2010-2013.

Five-star schools .679
Four-star schools .557
Three-star schools .495
Two-star schools .367
One-star schools .394

GRS: So, you’re telling me the good schools win a lot. Do they pay you for this?

DXP: OK, that was hateful. And besides, the numbers speak for themselves, I think. You recruit well, you win pretty often. You don’t recruit as well, you don’t win as often.

GRS: Yeah, but even those “five-star” schools have big time recruits that don’t work out. Even mighty Nick Saban at Alabama has his recruiting busts.

DXP: I think you’re missing the point. You’re right, college football is littered with individual five-star prospects that never amounted to anything …

GRS: See, you agree with me. I knew you’d come around.

DXP: Ahem. BUT, you can’t look at recruiting by cherry-picking individual cases. For it to really make sense, you have to look at it as a whole.

GRS: So you’re saying I shouldn’t be looking at all those amazing individual prospects that Jeremy Crabtree gets so excited about.

DXP: Well, sort of. Let me show you something Stuart Mandel of FOX Sports worked up. He was looking at the 2015 NFL Draft class.

So despite comprising less than 1 percent of all recruits, five-stars accounted for a quarter of 2015 first-rounders. Meanwhile, more than 90 percent of all recruits are designated as being three stars or less, yet their representation in the first round is nearly half that.

Put it this way: About one in four five-star recruits like No. 1 pick Jameis Winston goes on to become a first-rounder, but only about one in 64 three-star recruits like No. 2 Marcus Mariota does.

GRS: Well … that’s about the NFL, all I really care about is what happens in college.

DXP: But it illustrates the main point. You have to think of each recruit as a percentage chance to become a successful football player.

GRS: So think of these kids as numbers instead of as human beings. No wonder you run a blog out of your parents’ basement.

DXP: It’s a nice basement, thank you very much. And you’re avoiding the point. To really understand why recruiting rankings are important, you have to think of each recruit as a percentage chance to be successful. The higher the recruit (as we see from Mandel’s work), the higher percentage chance that he’ll be a successful player.

GSP: That seems pretty obvious.

DXP: I know, but I don’t think most people think of it that way. The individual hits and misses are easy to remember and visualize. But it only makes sense when you think about the group as a whole.

GSP: Meaning …

DXP: Well, let’s take Nebraska’s 2017 class as an example. There’s 20 kids in the class. Let’s say head coach Mike Riley recruited well, and each kid had a forty percent chance of being a success. Compare that to, just as an example, a less successful recruiter whose class would have kids with a thirty percent chance of being successful. You following me?

GRS: You’re not talking about Frank Solich, are you? Don’t get me started on Solich being fired …

DXP: <exasperated sigh> No, I’m not talking about Solich. I’m not really talking about anyone in specific. I’m just trying to make the point.

GRS: OK, then I’m with you.

DXP: Now, which class would you rather have, the forty-percenters, or the thirty-percenters?

GRS: Well … the forty-percenters, I guess.

DXP: Because that gives you the best chance to win, right?

GRS: Yeah, I guess so.

DXP: Even though, statistically, more than half of even the forty-percent class will fail.

GRS: But how do you explain teams like Kansas State, that consistently win with lesser talent.

DXP: Good question. The short answer, I’m pretty sure, is that Bill Snyder is a warlock.

GRS: It would explain a lot.

DXP: But it’s true, teams with lesser talent do win all the time. It’s just really hard to do. Yeah, you can win with (using our example) a thirty-percent roster. But it’s going to happen less often than teams with a forty-percent roster, that’s just math. (And, as the amazing commercial reminds us, if you argue with math, you will lose). Or, you have to make up the difference with better coaching. Snyder can do that. But most coaches can’t. If nothing else it makes your margin of error that much smaller.

GRS: But … you know, they say that if we go back to worrying about recruiting rankings, we’ll go back to the Callahan era …

DXP: Literally no one is saying that.

GRS: Being good at recruiting means Callahan and Steve Pederson and Solich going to Ohio!!!!!!!!11!!1!

DXP: OK, slow down, take a deep breath. Here, put on your 2005 Ohio Bobcats jacket.

GRS: Mmmmm, so green and snuggly. OK, I’m better now.

DXP: So, are you feeling a little better about recruiting rankings?

GRS: Well … maybe a little. But don’t ask me to like the stupid thing with the hats they do.

DXP: Baby steps, my friend, baby steps.

Nebraska Football: What the 2017 Recruiting Class Means for the Cornhuskers (And a Super Six!)

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On Wednesday, Nebraska signed a class of 20 prospects who will join the Cornhusker roster for the 2017 season. The eight defensive and 12 offensive players were rated no. 21 nationally by ESPN, no. 23 by 247 Sports, and no. 20 by Rivals. Bill Connelly of SB Nation does an aggregate recruiting ranking, which puts Nebraska at no. 22 nationally this year, no. 22 over a two-year timespan, and no. 26 over a five-year timespan.

So, a decent class, but not the top-15 heights that some were hoping for. But what does this mean for where Nebraska is now as a program, and where it’s going?

Fishing in the Right Streams

Yeah, holding your breath on National Signing Day to wait for high school kids to put on a hat is a little nerve-wracking. And given that Nebraska only signed 20 players instead of the expected 22 or 23 means that spots were likely being held for Signing Day decision-makers like C.J. Verdell, Joseph Lewis, and Deommodore Lenoir, who went elsewhere.

Oh, yeah. And there was Jamire “Three Commitments” Calvin, too.

And while that’s frustrating and disappointing, it’s something you’d better get used to as a Husker fan if you want to sit at the Big Kids’ Table in college football. For Nebraska to get over its four-loss plateau, it’s going to need the talents of players who wait until National Signing Day to put on a hat.

The fact that Nebraska is in the mix right to the end with so many of these players is a great sign. Landing one more of those guys would likely have put Nebraska safely into the top 20. This year’s class has decommits from Ohio State and Florida, showing once again that head coach Mike Riley can go toe-to-toe with national juggernauts and win recruiting battles.

So, yes, Nebraska’s 2017 can definitely be chalked up as a good-but-not-good-enough performance. But this is also coming off a second season of Nebraska’s on-field performances being somewhat less than inspiring. If the addition of a quarterback friendlier to Riley’s offensive system and the addition of new defensive coordinator Bob Diaco bear fruit on the field in 2017, then 2018’s class may have even more promise to offer.

An Incomplete List

Nebraska signed 20 players to Letters of Intent, bringing its total of scholarship players to 83 (the roster breakdown done by the Omaha World-Herald is here, although at the time of writing it did not have the entire 2017 class listed). In his discussion with the media about the 2017 class, Riley said that he liked the flexibility of having a couple extra scholarships available to use.

OK, sure, having those extra scholarships can be useful if there is a late-available kid or for a JUCO target. But let’s be real. Those spots would have been filled if guys like Lewis or Lenoir would have picked Nebraska.

That leaves Nebraska’s roster a little thin, particularly at wide receiver. And with all the talent departing next year, recruiting defensive backs is going to be a huge priority for 2018.

Winning the West

Nebraska hasn’t won a conference title since 1999. If there’s anything that’s an indictment on how far Nebraska has fallen from mid-nineties glory, that lonely “1999” on the West Stadium sign for conference championships should serve as a reminder in ten-foot-tall lettering.

But to win a conference title, you need to win your division. Perhaps in year seven (!) in the Big Ten, Husker Fan will finally be ready to embrace its divisional rivals as the primary focus for Nebraska’s success.

So how is the rest of the B1G West doing in recruiting (according to Bill Connelly’s five-year recruiting rankings from SB Nation)?

Team 2017 Nat’l Rank Two-year Nat’l Rank Five-year Nat’l Rank
Nebraska 22 22 26
Wisconsin 38 36 34
Iowa 40 41 50
Illinois 46 57 58
Northwestern 53 48 48
Minnesota 56 52 55
Purdue 69 72 71

What do all these numbers mean? Well, the first thing that jumps out is that no one from the West is ready to compete nationally. We’ll talk more later about why recruiting ratings matter, but here’s a fascinating bit of statistical analysis from Stewart Mandel of FOX Sports.

Power 5 teams (of which there are 65) that consistently recruit Top 20 classes have a 60 percent chance of becoming a Top 20 program and a 35 percent chance of regularly inhabiting the Top 10.

By contrast, Power 5 teams that finish outside the Top 20 in recruiting have a lower than 18 percent chance of fielding Top 20 teams and just a 6.7 percent chance of reaching the Top 10.

The only team that’s even close to consistent top 20 recruiting performance from the B1G West is Nebraska, but as you can see from the five-year ranking, even that has been buoyed by recent performance.

This, by the way, is precisely the point where those college football fans who disdain recruiting rankings (such as Keyshawn Johnson, by the way, as told to Erin Sorensen of Hail Varsity) will point out that Wisconsin has been one of the most consistent national powers over the last ten years, and that Iowa is only one season removed from an undefeated regular season and being one play from the College Football Playoff.

Wisconsin is a fair point. The Badgers have been in the final AP Top 25 every year since 2013, topping out at no. 9 this year. And in 2012, Wisconsin won the B1G (although I don’t remember what happened in the conference title game) and played in the Rose Bowl.

But that means Wisconsin is dramatically overperforming its overall talent. It does so by recruiting to a system and narrowly focusing on players that are good fits for that system (which might sound like some other guy Nebraska fans have heard of). It’s a valid strategy, as Wisconsin has clearly proven. But it also means you have to significantly outcoach opposing teams and consistently either unearth diamonds in the rough or develop average players into top-flight college performers.

That’s tough to sustain. Just as Michigan State, which follows a similar model to Wisconsin and endured a 4-8 season one year after a College Football Playoff appearance.

Well, how about Iowa? No one is going to take last year’s 12-0 performance away from the Hawkeyes. But it was also in large part the product of the stars aligning and the schedule softening. Outside of that magical 2012 run (which, unfortunately, ended with a bit of a thud), Iowa hasn’t lost fewer than five games since 2009. That would suggest 2012 was an outlier, and Iowa’s performance is about what a team that recruits in the forties nationally should expect.

Yes, Nebraska’s time in the B1G has not been as productive in the trophy cabinet as Husker Fan would have liked or expected. But, the bottom line is that Nebraska should have a clear talent advantage over the rest of its divisional rivals. Even more encouraging, Nebraska is one of only four teams in the B1G West (along with Iowa, Illinois, and Purdue) that is improving on its five-year average, suggesting positive momentum in recruiting. Now, it just needs to start translating that recruiting advantage to wins on the field and trips to Indianapolis in December.

Super Six (and a Sleeper)

It wouldn’t be a National Signing Day piece without an obligatory review of the signing class. So here is the official Double Extra Point Super Six for Nebraska’s 2017 class:

No. 6: Kurt Rafdal / Austin Allen (TE)

OK, OK, I know I’m cheating by listing both of them. But these are two impressive-looking tight end prospects coming to Lincoln. Rafdal is six-foot-seven and 230 pounds, while Allen in six-foot-eight and 210 pounds. Both are offensive weapons, and with the potential for a quarterback to truly spread the field, they should be able to create mismatches and allow the tight end to (finally) become a vital cog in Nebraska’s offensive engine.

No. 5: Brendan Jaimes (OT)

As with just about any offensive lineman, Jaimes will probably need a redshirt season to get himself physically able to handle life in the B1G. But he has the frame (six-foot-five, 250 pounds) and the skill set to be Nebraska’s left tackle from 2019 going forward.

No. 4: Guy Thomas (DE/OLB)

There’s a reason Nebraska fans were holding their collective breath on Signing Day to see if Thomas was still “N.” There’s nothing more valuable on defense than a natural pass rusher, something Nebraska has been without since Randy Gregory. Thomas probably isn’t a Gregory-level player, but he’s the closest thing in this class to a player that can heat up opposing quarterbacks. He’ll likely slide to an outside linebacker in Diaco’s 3-4 scheme, which should make him more dangerous as a pass rusher.

No. 3: Tyjon Lindsey (WR)

There’s a reason Urban Meyer wanted this kid to play in the Shoe. Lindsey is a game-changing playmaker with speed and moves and hands to score on offense and on special teams. Given his size (five-foot-nine, 161 pounds), he would be expected to at least start out in the slot. But given his talent, don’t be surprised if he ends up being able to play as an outside receiver. With Nebraska transitioning to a more quarterback-accurate offense, a player like Lindsey has the chance to make an immediate impact.

No. 2: Keyshawn Johnson Jr. (WR)

It’s unfortunate that Johnson’s talent is going to be lost in the shuffle a little, given his famous father and the expectations that brings. I expect Johnson to be an impressive contributor on the field, a bit in the Jordan Westerkamp mode in terms of the type of receiver he is.

But Johnson’s impact on Nebraska, both this year and going forward, is the buzz his commitment and continued recruiting has given NU. The “Calibraska” movement doesn’t happen without Johnson’s energetic commitment, and Nebraska’s recruiting momentum likely doesn’t take hold without that Calibraska movement.

So regardless of what his on-field contributions will be – and, again, I think Johnson is going to surprise with how well he plays – in a sense he’s already done his job for Nebraska.

No. 1: Damion Daniels (DT)

Daniels might not be the best player in the 2017 class. But he might be the most important. With Nebraska migrating to a 3-4 defense under Diaco, it is going to need a big run-stuffer to play the nose tackle, one that eventually will have the size to play “two-gap” on both sides of the center.

Daniels is six-foot-three and 315 pounds as a high school senior. He’s got the frame to be that true nose tackle in the future – with an outside shot of the future being 2017 if he has a good spring.

Sleeper: Ben Miles (FB)

Yeah, it was cool to see the Mad Hatter don a Nebraska lid on ESPN. But Les Miles’ boy can play. He’s an effective lead blocker, and a good enough athlete to be deployed as an H-back or even out of the slot as a receiver. He’ll play on special teams, and has a shot to be a four-year contributor.

Remember Andy Janovich’s senior campaign in 2015, and all the what-might-have-beens (such as those raised by a smart and particularly handsome analyst) if he would have been given a more featured role in Nebraska’s offense? Well, with Miles we might get to answer some of those questions.