Sure, anyone can give you an instant breakdown of Nebraska’s Spring Game, feeding you the hot takes and farming for your sweet, sweet clicks. But we at the Double Extra Point know you come here for reasoned and thoughtful analysis, the kind that takes some time to generate.
OK, fine, I’ve been really busy, and a little bit lazy. But there is some value of taking a breath and looking back at where Nebraska football is after head coach Mike Riley’s third spring in charge. Here’s four big takeways as we prepare to go through the long dark summer of baseball, cookouts, and hot-weather tomfoolery until football starts back up in August.
It’s Not Year One for Riley, But it Kinda Is
Riley isn’t going to get much breathing room even with all the changes coming to Lincoln this autumn. He’s going into year three of his tenure, after a 5-7 season in his first year and going 2-3 to end his second year with an aggregate score of 140-37. Riley isn’t on the hot seat for 2017, but he may very well be a year away from it.
And yet, there very little about 2017 that will look like 2016 in terms of the team taking the field. New defensive coordinator Bob Diaco will be deploying his much-discussed 3-4 defense, and we won’t learn anything about the Blackshirts’ transition until Arkansas State comes to town. And Nebraska’s signal-callers are going to look different than … well, just about any time in NU’s recent history.
Shortly after the Spring Game, Riley said junior transfer Tanner Lee would be Nebraska’s starter going into fall camp (according to Sam McKewon of the Omaha World-Herald). Behind Lee will be redshirt freshman Patrick O’Brien and sure-to-redshirt freshman Tristan Gebbia. All three were impressive in spring practice, and showed well at the Spring Game.
But it was Lee who had the highlight of the contest, with a 30-yard touchdown pass to JD Spielman that brought a collective gasp to the Memorial Stadium crowd.
That’s … a throw Nebraska fans aren’t used to seeing their quarterback execute. So Lee being the first name on the sheet isn’t a surprise. But Nebraska’s quarterback depth now is as good as it’s been in quite some time – maybe since Tommie Frazier and Brook Berringer. Given what’s happened to Nebraska in the last few years when its starter went down, it’s hard not to see this season as something very different in terms of NU’s offense.
But with a quarterback like Lee (or O’Brien, or Gebbia) as opposed to the run-first guys like Taylor Martinez or Tommy Armstrong, and with the shift in defensive scheme, Nebraska is going to look very different in 2017.
Diaco the Poker Player
Anyone who thought they were going to get a glimpse of what Nebraska’s 3-4 defensive attack was going to look like in 2017 were sorely mistaken. At no point in the Spring Game did Nebraska come out in a three-man front, playing lots of nickel, and generally being super plain and boring with its defensive alignment.
That was by design. Diaco, and Riley, made a conscious decision to keep the Blackshirts’ new look under wraps to avoid giving opponents an off-season worth of film to study.
At one level, that’s kind of silly. A 3-4 defense isn’t exactly revolutionary, and any competent offensive gameplan will at some level know what’s coming and how to defend against it.
Having said that, though, at least some of the benefit of a 3-4 scheme is deception, with an offense not knowing from down to down where the fourth pass rusher is coming from even without a blitz. And given that Nebraska will be breaking in a new defensive structure (as well as a new offensive structure), any tiny little advantage might be helpful.
Recruiting as the Known
OK, sure, there’s no such thing as a “known” in recruiting, especially before national signing day. But still, what’s happened with Nebraska’s recruiting in the last few weeks is nothing short of remarkable.
Nebraska is currently sitting at no. 11 nationally (according to 247 Sports) with its 2018 recruiting class. Led by Brendan Radley Hiles, the sixth-best prospect Nebraska has signed since 2000 (!), the class of eight commits to date should be filling Husker hearts with hope about the talent coming to Lincoln. After watching the NFL Draft, and seeing Nebraska break its streak of 54 years with multiple players selected, it’s hard not to come to the cold realization that NU’s talent pool had thinned in recent years.
It appears that trend is reversing. But still, a note of caution should be heard. While Nebraska is rated no. 11 nationally, that’s still only good for fifth in the B1G. One spot behind Minnesota. So, take those numbers for what they’re worth.
Better Team, Worse Record?
Nebraska fans could be forgiven for being a little confused about what to think about their team. In 2015, the team wasn’t nearly as bad as the 6-7 record would have suggested, suffering one inexplicable loss after another. In 2016, the team likely wasn’t as good as the 9-3 record would have suggested, as evidenced by lopsided losses to Ohio State, Tennessee, and (shudder) Iowa.
Nebraska’s 2017 squad shapes up to be very different, and perhaps more dangerous, than Riley’s two previous teams. But the schedule it faces also looks to be more challenging than the previous two years.
Consider Nebraska’s road trips to Oregon, Minnesota (you know, the team with the no. 10 nationally ranked recruiting class) and Penn State, with home contests against Wisconsin, Northwestern, Ohio State, and Iowa.
The three most difficult contests are likely at Oregon, Ohio State, and at Penn State. If Nebraska drops those three games – not at all an unreasonable expectation given NU breaking in a new offense and a new defense – then it will have to run the table just to match 2016’s achievement. That would include wins over Wisconsin (which hasn’t lost to Nebraska since 2012), Northwestern (which perennially plays Nebraska tough) and Iowa (which hasn’t lost to Nebraska since 2014).
It’s very likely Nebraska’s 2017 team will be better on offense, and perhaps on defense, than the 2016 squad. It’s also very likely that the 2017 record won’t reflect that improvement.
Photos of the 2017 Spring Game can be found here.