For the first time in forever (it seems), Nebraska is the toast of the national college football media preseason. No less a luminary than Phil Steele picked Nebraska as his no. 1 most improved team for 2019. Nebraska has been in the conversation as a dark-horse national title contender. Nebraska just missed being in the coaches’ preseason top 25 poll.
That’s a lot of positive vibes for a team that went a combined 8-16 in the last two years and hasn’t been to the postseason since getting clobbered by Tennessee in the 2016 (!) Music City Bowl. Of course, there’s plenty of reason for such optimism, between head coach Scott Frost’s experience turning UCF around and having legitimate Heisman Trophy candidate Adrian Martinez back at quarterback for his sophomore season.
But Husker Fan having all the feels in August doesn’t guarantee the long-awaited turnaround for Nebraska football is at hand. Even with all the reasons for optimism, there are ways that Nebraska’s 2019 season could fall apart. If it happens, these could be the culprit.
One of the biggest questions about Nebraska’s roster in 2019, and certainly the biggest question on the offensive side of the ball, is who will play center. Cameron Jurgens, a redshirt freshman tight end converted to the position, seemed to have the pole position for the starting role given how highly Frost has praised him – comparing Jurgens’ potential to none other than Dave Rimington.
That’s about as high of praise as you can give for a center wearing the scarlet and cream, so clearly Frost likes what he sees in Jurgens’ potential. But injuries have sidelined Jurgens from participating in fall camp, and it is unclear if he would be ready to start the season.
That means Nebraska’s best case scenario is to play a redshirt freshman who has never played the center position before, coming in with little-to-no time in fall camp to get ready and to gel with the rest of the offensive line.
If Jurgens isn’t ready, or doesn’t get the nod, then Nebraska will likely turn to redshirt freshman Will Farniok or walkon freshman A.J. Forbes. Neither Farniok nor Forbes has played snaps at center, either, so no matter what Nebraska will be starting a freshman without experience at the most important position on the offensive line.
In Frost’s offense, with its focus on timing and precision, a clean center-quarterback exchange is crucial. The center is also usually responsible for making line calls to ensure coordination between the entire offensive line in their blocking scheme. That’s a big responsibility for a young player, whoever might step up and take on that role.
And a struggle for Nebraska at center could short-circuit much of the offensive progress made in year one of Frost’s arrival in Lincoln, which could result in a disappointing 2019 campaign.
There is, rightly, significant concern about Nebraska’s depth at outside linebacker. Alex Davis, a talented senior who has yet to produce, and JoJo Doman, who has just returned to fall camp after injury, are the most reliable options Nebraska looks to be fielding at a position of need.
But inside linebacker might be even more concerning with regards to depth. Mohammed Barry is the anchor of the linebacker corps (and, indeed, the entire defense), and Collin Miller is hoped to build on a solid end to the 2018 season.
After that? Nebraska is hoping JUCO transfer Will Honas can return from injuries that robbed him of the majority of last year’s campaign, but we don’t know yet if he’s able to return to form. Freshman phenom Nick Henrich’s injury will certainly keep him out of the lineup for the start of the season, and at this point anything Nebraska gets from him in 2019 has to be viewed as a bonus.
Behind those four (and, really, those three), it’s a grab bag. Can Garrett Snodgrass make a leap and gain playing time? How about Jackson Hannah? Garrett Hustedt? Nebraska has a wealth of freshmen in the room, but there’s no clarity who – if any – would be able to successfully fill that role in the middle of the defense against B1G competition to give the starting three a break – or to replace them in case of injury.
Unlearning the Past
This point has less to do with one specific position group and more to do with the team as a whole. Nebraska is coming off two straight seasons of going 4-8. Nebraska has had one winning season in the last four. Nebraska has losing streaks to conference foes like Northwestern (two straight), Iowa (four straight), Ohio State (four straight) and Wisconsin (six straight). Nebraska hasn’t been in a conference title game since 2012, and that one didn’t really go well for the boys in scarlet and cream.
In other words, it’s been a long time – since the current players on Nebraska’s roster were in middle school, at best – since NU has tasted success in football. Of course, everyone is excited and optimistic about the future. All the players love the chemistry of the team and say they are in the best shape of their lives.
That may all be true, but we heard it all before the 2018 campaign, and the 2017 campaign, and the 2015 campaign too. Until Nebraska proves something on the field, it hasn’t accomplished a darn thing.
And that’s the danger, if Nebraska happens to hit a bump in the road this season. Say things go wrong and Nebraska gets knocked off by Colorado in Boulder. Say Ohio State finds its mojo and does to Nebraska in Lincoln what it did to Michigan last year. Say Nebraska has an unfathomable clunker and loses on the road to Illinois or at home to Indiana.
In other words, what happens if the reality of Nebraska’s 2019 campaign doesn’t quite match up with the lofty expectations? Is there a risk that the sounds of Nebraska’s football failures in this last decade start to echo in the players’ minds? Could the prospect of a promising season slipping away start to make the jerseys weigh a little heavier on the backs of the players, prompting a downward spiral?
This isn’t to say that this doomsday scenario will happen. Indeed, given the combination of Frost’s accumulated talent and track record of success, this scenario is pretty unlikely.
But it’s not impossible. And it’s one that Nebraska fans will have to be cognizant of when (not if) NU hits a couple of bumps in the road this season. A serving of patience from a fanbase that is understandably desperate for national relevance will go a long way to help avoid a challenge turn into a disaster.