Nebraska Football: Five Players Who Need to Emerge for the Cornhuskers

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As the calendar has turned to July, excitement about the 2019 Nebraska football season is turning to a fever pitch. Multiple national outlets are predicting Nebraska to win the B1G West and be a dark-horse College Football Playoff contender, even coming off consecutive 4-8 seasons.

There’s plenty of reasons for that optimism, of course. Head coach Scott Frost has a proven track record of success, including his remarkable turnaround of UCF. Sophomore quarterback Adrian Martinez put on an amazing show last season – the second coming of Russell Wilson, at times – and should do nothing but improve in 2019. Nebraska’s schedule is far less daunting on paper than last year’s, with no Michigan and games against Ohio State, Wisconsin, and Iowa at home. And if you look at the analytics, Nebraska’s expected wins from 2018 shows the team wasn’t nearly as bad as the final record suggests.

But the 2019 Nebraska squad is young, with significant holes to fill from a team that has been 8-16 in the last two years. So if Nebraska is going to match those lofty expectations, these players must be able to be effective.

Cameron Jurgens

Jurgens arrived in Lincoln as a highly-touted tight end prospect. But an ankle injury and a crowded tight end room gave Frost an opportunity to propose a position change for Jurgens. And not a small one either – from tight end to center. Jurgens took to the position change well, according to Brent Wagner of the Lincoln Journal-Star.

“I mean, shoot, you get to line up and hit someone every play, what’s wrong with that?” Jurgens said. “I love it. I get to be physical every play.”

It’s a great attitude. But it doesn’t change the fact that if Jurgens starts at center in 2019 – and it’s likely that he will – it will be his first time taking a snap in anger at the position. Given how crucial the center position is, and what a big ask it would be for Jurgens to go from tight end to starting B1G center in less than a year – Nebraska will need Jurgens to be a quick study.

Dedrick Mills

Devine Ozigbo’s breakout senior season last year was a delightful surprise, and helped salvage the position after transfer running back Greg Bell failed to deliver and ultimately transferred out of the program. But Ozigbo is with the Saints now, and the fate of Maurice Washington is very much up in the air.

Nebraska does have some talented freshmen coming to campus. But the bulk of the responsibility for success at the running back position will come from Mills, a junior college transfer who started his college career at Georgia Tech.

Mills arrives with power-five running back experience, and looks well suited to hit the ground (pardon the pun) running on day one. But we haven’t seen him in a Nebraska uniform yet, certainly not against B1G defenses. How Mills answers that call will go a long way towards how well Nebraska will be able to meet the lofty expectations it carries this summer.

Wan’Dale Robinson

Of course, Robinson almost didn’t end up in Lincoln. Originally Robinson committed to Kentucky, but with the persistence of the Nebraska coaching staff Robinson changed his mind and became one of the standouts of Frost’s first recruiting class.

While Nebraska does have a crowded receivers room, no one quite has the combination of speed and elusiveness that Robinson brings. A perfect fit for Frost’s Duck-R running back/wide receiver hybrid, Robinson has the potential to bring an entirely new dynamic to Nebraska’s offense. And with a shaky receiver corps after J.D. Spielman, if Nebraska’s offense is going to shine it’s going to need some extra dynamism in 2019.

Deontai Williams

It’s not like Williams didn’t see the field in 2018 as a sophomore. He played in 12 games, and at times flashed the kind of athleticism that could make him a special talent at safety. But he struggled to maintain playing time, particularly behind seniors Aaron Williams, Antonio Reed, and Tre Neal.

Well, that’s not going to be a problem this year. Williams has the athleticism and talent to be an impact player on defense, particularly at safety. But Nebraska needs Williams to be far more consistent if he’s going to take on a starter’s role.

Darrion Daniels

It’s a little strange to say that a player is going to be critical on the defensive line, given that it is likely Nebraska’s strongest and deepest position group. But this is also the group that struggled mightily against the run, and was likely Nebraska’s biggest Achilles’ heel against power-running B1G teams like Wisconsin and Iowa.

So Nebraska needs much better play, particularly in run defense, from its defensive line. But even more so, a graduate transfer like Daniels can bring leadership, attitude, and a level of toughness and experience that might help Nebraska’s defensive line find its potential and be a leader amongst position groups in 2019.

GBR, baby.

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Nebraska Football: Three Takeaways from the Arrival of Dedrick Mills

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On Tuesday, Nebraska’s 2019 football season got a huge boost with the news that junior college transfer running back Dedrick Mills had cleared his last hurdles to join the program. According to Parker Gabriel of the Lincoln Journal-Star, Mills improved his grade point average enough at Garden City Community College in Kansas to join the program on Wednesday.

The grade challenge brings to a conclusion a wild ride for Mills’ recruitment to Nebraska, including not being able to sign on signing day because he was dealing with a warrant for his arrest. Much like Maurice Washington last year, it was not at all clear that the talented running back would be available for Nebraska in the upcoming season. But like with Washington, patience and perseverance from head coach Scott Frost and his crew have paid dividends.

So what does Mills’ official addition to the program mean for Nebraska in 2019?

A replacement for Ozigbo’s production

Even though at this time last year Devine Ozigbo was an afterthought on the depth chart, by season’s end it was clear how integral he was to the offense. Ozigbo was the team’s leading rusher with 1082 yards on 155 carries. The closest production from a running back was Washington, with 455 yards on 77 carries.

More importantly, none of the backs on the roster bring the experience and the skill set that Mills does. Like Ozigbo, Mills has the size (five-foot-eleven, 215 pounds) to handle running between the tackles as well as running outside. The rest of the backs currently on the roster, like Washington and Miles Jones, really project more as outside-the-tackles pass-catchers rather than between-the-tackles thumpers. The backs with more size, such as Jaylin Bradley and Wyatt Mazour, have not showed an ability to perform at the level Nebraska will need to compete for championships.

So Mills gives Nebraska a different kind of weapon than it would have had otherwise at running back, in addition to the experience he brings.

Insurance for freshman performance

Nebraska has two freshman running backs in its 2019 class, Rahmir Johnson and Ronald Thompkins. Both are highly regarded prospects, and running back is a position where players can make an immediate impact if they have the talent.

But there’s a huge difference between freshmen having an opportunity to contribute and a team counting on freshmen to contribute. Johnson certainly could be the kind of back that Nebraska could lean on to perform. Thompkins has the potential to be a combination power/speed back, but he is coming off an ACL injury and it is not at all clear that he’ll be fully ready by the start of the season.

With Mills’ arrival, the coaching staff now has the luxury of allowing Johnson and Thompkins to develop, rather than needing at least one of them to break out immediately.

Less reliance on Washington’s availability

Washington is the defendant in a disturbing criminal case out of California. The case is still pending, and of course Nebraska’s coaching staff is hoping to get at least some clarity about how the case will play out before the start of the 2019 season.

But because of the case, Washington missed a good deal of spring practice, and at this point there is still a significant question about how much of a role he will be able to play. Towards the end of the year, Washington was beginning to flash as one of Nebraska’s most dangerous offensive weapons, and it is tantalizing to think about what he could do on the field this season.

With Mills addition to the depth chart, the potential loss of Washington becomes less catastrophic for Nebraska. If Washington’s playing status is cleared before the season, then Nebraska’s arsenal of offensive weapons becomes that much more impressive. But if Washington is limited – or unavailable – for Nebraska in 2019, Mills’ addition means Nebraska still has a dependable option at running back.

GBR, baby.

Nebraska Football: Lack of Development Fuels Nebraska’s NFL Draft Streak Being Snapped

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This year, Nebraska broke a 56-year streak of having at least one player selected in the NFL draft. After suffering through two consecutive 4-8 seasons, and having the memory of seeing streak after streak fall in the early 2000s, Nebraska fans had an uncomfortable sense of déjà vu at the end of the last round of this year’s draft, seeing players from such football powerhouses such as Valdosta State, Idaho, and Morgan State get selected over any Cornhuskers.

What made it worse for Nebraska is that two Omaha kids who didn’t end up as Huskers – North Dakota State’s Easton Stick went in the fifth round to the San Diego Los Angeles Chargers and Iowa’s Noah Fant went with the twentieth pick in the first round to the Denver Broncos.

After Iowa had four draft picks this year – including two tight ends in the first round – if there was evern any question about whether Iowa-Nebraska is a rivalry, you can put that to bed.

(Also, for no really good reason other than to pour fuel on the fire, here’s a great article by Brandon Vogel of Hail Varsity explaining how Iowa could have two first-round tight ends and still end a season no. 92 nationally in yards per play and no. 79 in pass yards per play).

Still, the fact remains that recently Iowa has done a much better job of getting Hawkeyes into the NFL than Nebraska, even though Nebraska is recruiting better talent. Take a look at the comparison of the last six years’ worth of recruiting rankings (from 247 Sports) and NFL draft picks (the rounds of each pick are in parenthesees.

Year NU Recruiting NU Draft Picks UI Recruiting UI Draft Picks
2019 18 0 40 4 (1, 1, 4, 4)
2018 23 1 (6) 39 3 (2, 2, 4)
2017 23 1 (5) 41 4 (3, 4, 5, 5)
2016 26 4 (3, 3, 4, 6) 47 1 (7)
2015 30 3 (2, 2, 5) 59 3 (1, 3, 4)
2014 35 3 (2, 3, 6) 58 4 (3, 3, 4, 4)

Please, don’t start with the whole thing about how recruiting rankings don’t matter. You’re wrong. So if Nebraska has been an average of 21.5 recruiting ranking spots better than Iowa over the last six years, why are so many more Hawkeyes hearing their names being called by Roger Goodell (or an orangutan) at the NFL Draft?

Three words. Development, development, development.

Iowa has a formula of drafting kids that fit their scheme and their culture, developing and improving them, and sending them to the NFL. It’s been amazingly effective in helping Iowa overachieve what their recruiting rankings say it should achieve. Wisconsin follows the same model.

Nebraska has struggled mightily in development. Bo Pelini had his share of NFL success, but that tailed off towards the end of his tenure. And even for a dope who wrote a near-tear-stained goodbye to Mike Riley, it’s hard not to see Nebraska’s recent NFL drought (no first-rounder since 2011, no second-day draftee since 2015, only two total in three years) as an indictment on Riley’s tenure in Lincoln.

Nebraska’s NFL pipeline was already slowed to a trickle almost immediately after Riley arrived. And when Scott Frost and his coaching staff took over, they had difficulty hiding their shock and contempt at the state of Nebraska’s physical and mental conditioning.

So, Husker Fan, you can look at this two ways. First, it should be a cold splash of reality as to the state of the program. As fans, we convince ourselves that glory is always just around the corner, just about to fall into our grasp.

Having Nebraska’s NFL streak snapped should be a stark reminder that while NU may have the recruited talent to compete and in at least in the B1G West, the shocking lack of talent development means Nebraska still has a big hole out of which to climb.

The silver lining? Nebraska’s current coaching staff understand the importance of development, and has a track record of taking far less heralded talent and sending them to the NFL. That’s the hook you hang your hope on for 2019 and beyond.

GBR, baby.

Nebraska Football: Position-by-Position Breakdown of the Spring Game

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On Saturday, Nebraska had its final practice of the spring, and over 85,000 people happened to show up and watch. The Spring Game, won by the Red squad 24-13, gave Nebraska fans a booster shot of football to get them through the long hot summer before South Alabama Week arrives.

Sure, it looked like a game and it sounded like a game. But remember, it’s just practice, and just one practice at that. So the standard caveat of “don’t read too much into this” applies. Having said that, though, it’s all we’ve got to work with, so let’s take a look position-by-position and see what we’ve learned about Nebraska’s upcoming campaign.

Quarterback

Weirdly, it’s easy to forget about Adrian Martinez. Closing Time is not only consistently remarkable, but he is so mature and undramatic that he’s easy to think of as a known quantity. And in a time where Nebraska has so many other questions to answer, fans can be forgiven for filing the signal-caller away and thinking “we’re good, Adrian’s here.”

That’s not wrong, of course. But it makes it easy to forget just how good 2AM is. Check out his touchdown throw here (starting at 0:51) and you’ll see what I mean. Martinez rolls to his left, uses his acceleration to evade a defender, then on the run against his body delivers a perfect 21-yard strike to a well-covered Jaron Woodyard.

It was a remarkable feat, but it feels like the play was somewhat lost in the shuffle only because we seem inured to Martinez’s consistent displays of awesome. (And that’s not even taking into account Woodyard’s amazing hoodie he wore under his pads!) We shouldn’t. Martinez is the most talented offensive player that’s worn scarlet-and-cream since Ameer Abdullah, and that’s just seeing him as a freshman. I maintain that he’s the second coming of Russell Wilson, and Nebraska fans should not take that for granted.

Behind Martinez, Noah Vedral looked smooth and confident, much different than the tentative and rusty version of himself we saw against Bethune-Cookman last year. Clearly, not being bounced between Nebraska and UCF and being able to settle into his role has made a difference. Andrew Bunch also looked solid and smooth, clearly benefitting from a year in the program.

Running Back

Keep in mind that there are four players (incoming freshmen Ronald Thompkins and Rahmir Johnson, transfer Dedrick Mills, and sophomore Maurice Washington) that didn’t play in the Spring Game this year. So the guys we saw on Saturday have a steep hill to climb just to make the two-deep.

Having said that, Jaylin Bradley looked good, with great lateral movement and decisiveness. Brody Belt and Wyatt Mazour were both very effective in the roles they were given. And Miles Jones got a good look on the White squad, although he still looks more effective as a pass-catcher rather than a running back.

Wide Receiver

Much like with running back, it’s hard to judge what we saw with the absence of incoming freshman Wan’Dale Robinson and junior JD Spielman. A number of players had opportunities to make a splash, and really didn’t. Woodyard looked good with his touchdown grab (and his hoodie!) but also missed a reception on the sideline. Andre Hunt seemed to get more into the game in the second half, and certainly has the frame to be the X receiver Nebraska is looking for. Jaime Nance had a few opportunities to show off his speed but was largely contained. And Kade Warner got loose again for a big play early in the game – do not be surprised if Warner ends up as a starter once we get to South Alabama week.

Tight End

A sneaky strength of the team. Projected starter Jack Stoll was unable to participate, so we got to see a lot of Austin Allen, Kurt Rafdal, and Katerian LeGrone. All three – although more Allen and LeGrone in this game – demonstrated the type of mismatches that these massive pass-catchers can present to a defense. Having an offensive difference-maker at tight end has been a unicorn Nebraska has hunted for many years – but 2019 might be the year it bears fruit.

Offensive Line

It looks like the tackles for Nebraska’s offensive line are pretty well set, with Brendon Jaimes and Matt Farniok installed on the ends. It’s in the middle that the questions arise. Walkons Boe Wilson and Trent Hixson look to be in pole position at guard, while the center position looks up in the air with competition between converted tight end Cameron Juergens, walkon AJ Forbes, and redshirt freshman Will Farniok in the mix.

“In the air” might be a poor choice of words for the center competition, as a number of the shotgun snaps were errant enough that the quarterbacks had to show off their athletic ability to keep the ball off the ground and avoid a disaster. Center in specific, and offensive line in general, is the biggest question about Nebraska going into 2019.

Defensive Line

The strength of the 2019 squad, at least at this point. Nebraska’s defensive line – particularly at nose tackle – finally look the part of a Big Ten defensive line. The Daniels brothers (Darrion and Damion) and the Davis brothers (Khalil and Carlos) look ready to be far more stout against the run and generate an interior pass rush. Add in Ben Stille, and newly-added junior college transfer Jahkeem Green, and the defensive line could go from a disappointment in 2018 to a strength in 2019.

Linebacker

At inside linebacker, Mohammed Barry may well be the best player on the defensive squad. The depth behind him, though, is what is of concern. Collin Miller looked the part next to him, with Nebraska needing to count on a return to health from Will Honas and a contribution from true freshman Jackson Hannah for 2019.

At outside linebacker, JoJo Domann looks to be settled in to his role, and with some additional depth at safety it may be that he can settle there. Alex Davis looked the role as a pass rusher and athletic coverage weapon – but he did at last year’s Spring Game, so a word of caution still needs to be heard. Quayshon Alexander and Breon Dixon also showed flashes, which may help provide depth.

Secondary

Nebraska’s starting cornerbacks, Lamar Jackson and Dicaprio Bootle, are pretty well set. Cam Taylor will likely be the third cornerback up next season, with incoming freshmen like Noa Pola-Gates and Myles Farmer likely to get their first look at corner.

At safety, Deontai Williams looked to be the best athlete of the crew last season, and if he’s learned the defense then he could be the breakout Blackshirt of 2019. Marquel Dismuke looked comfortable at the other safety position, with Cam’ron Jones and C.J. Smith pushing for playing time.

Specialists

No one really stood out punting, meaning that Isaac Armstrong likely will be keeping his role at starter. Caleb Lightbourn announced that he was transferring, which will leave Armstrong a clear field at the position.

As for placekicker, well … *whispers* Barret Pickering hasn’t missed a kick since October 13, 2018, at Northwestern. It seemed like Nebraska fans kind of set their impressions of Pickering based on his early season struggles last year – and, in fairness, Pickering’s missed kicks (a field goal and an extra point) likely cost Nebraska a win in Evanston. But he also was a crucial part of Nebraska’s all-grit win over Michigan State, kicking three field goals in the snow. A smart and particularly handsome analyst referred to Nebraska as Kicker U, and just maybe Pickering can be next in that legacy.

GBR, baby.

Nebraska Football: What to Watch For at the Spring Game

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On Saturday, Nebraska will conclude Spring Practice with the annual Red-White Spring Game. Of course, it’s not exactly a game, more the final practice of the season with 90,000 fans watching. So everything about the Spring Game should be taken with that particular grain of salt in mind.

Of course, the most important thing to watch for on Saturday is simply this – we get to see Nebraska football again. We haven’t seen Nebraska football since Black Friday in Iowa City, so getting this fix will help tide us all over until it’s South Alabama week.

But there are a few things to keep an eye on as you watch head coach Scott Frost run his second Spring Game at Nebraska.

Standout Freshmen

One of the most exciting parts about the Spring Game is the chance to see the early-enrollee freshman on the field and get a glimpse of the future. Wide receiver Wan’Dale Robinson, of course, is the crowning jewel of these freshmen, although injuries may limit what he’s able to accomplish on Saturday. Receiver Jaime Nance and tight end Chris Hickman could also provide a view of what’s to come for Nebraska as additional offensive weapons. And Nebraska fans could be very excited to see a glimpse of quarterback Luke McCaffrey, and if nothing else have some faith that Nebraska’s offense won’t fall off a cliff if something happens to Adrian Martinez.

A Number One in the Making?

Junior wide receiver JD Spielman is the only real certainty coming back at wide receiver for Nebraska. After that, there’s a whole bunch of questions. And Spielman, while a dangerous receiver, doesn’t necessarily have the skill set to be a true number one receiver, with the body size and type to absorb that level of completions

So who on the spring roster could make a move for that position? According to the Lincoln Journal-Star, offensive coordinator Troy Walters said that Andre Hunt has been continuing to improve. Jaron Woodyard and Mike Williams never really grabbed their opportunity last year. Jaevon McQuitty should have his first real opportunity this year after injury.  Kade Warner got plenty of playing time last year, but would need to show he’s got the skill set to step up into that expanded role.

Running Back Opportunity

One of Nebraska’s biggest question marks next year will be at running back. Maurice Washington is clearly the best returning back, but the uncertainty regarding his legal situation in California leaves his ability to contribute next season in doubt. In the fall, Nebraska should have transfer Dedrick Mills and freshmen Rahmir Johnson and Ronald Thompkins to compete for playing time.

That means this spring will be critical for sophomore running back Jaylin Bradley, along with redshirt freshman Brody Belt and senior Wyatt Mazour, to make their mark. Keep your eye on these players to see if they will be able to stake a claim for a spot on the depth chart once the running back room fills up this fall.

Offensive Line Composition

It might not be easy to get a handle on what the starting offensive lineup is looking to be, in part because the depth chart is still in flux, according to Hail Varsity. Competition for center should be one of the most fascinating, to see if Cameron Jurgens can complete his transition from tight end (!) to center. Walkons Hunter Miller and Trent Hixson look like they have real shots to earn playing time. Brendan Jaimes should be locked in at tackle, but it will be interesting to see if Matt Farniok can stick at the other tackle spot, or ultimately move inside once freshman phenom Bryce Benhart arrives this fall.

Second Season Chances

Either through injury or getting buried on the depth chart, there’s a number of players who didn’t meet their potential in their first year in Lincoln last year. 2019 provides a fresh start and, for many of them, a second chance to make their mark on the program.

Redshirt freshman Miles Jones, with his combination of speed and elusiveness, looked tailor made to play in Frost’s offense, but injuries derailed his 2018 campaign. Same for junior middle linebacker Will Honas, who was thought to be one of the keys to defensive coordinator Erik Chinander’s transition last season, but was sidelined by injury. When sophomore outside linebacker Breon Dixon transferred to Nebraska from Ole Miss, it was hard not to be excited about a player with SEC speed being added to the depth chart. Dixon was never able to find much in the way of playing time last year, though, and 2019 should give him a chance to be the answer to Nebraska’s pass rush problems.

Keep your eye on these three and whether they are able to lay a claim to playing time this fall.

GBR, baby.

Nebraska Football: Osborne’s Legacy as Athletic Director Defined by Big Ten Membership

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Earlier this week, Nebraska athletic director Bill Moos announced that Fred Hoiberg would replace Tim Miles as head men’s basketball coach. For a long-suffering fanbase, Nebraska basketball fans were very excited, and Moos received a lot of praise for his hiring of Hoiberg and head football coach Scott Frost.

Of course, Moos deserves a lot of credit. In fourteen months, Moos has basically remade the face of Nebraska’s two most prominent revenue sports. And with that praise, inevitably there came some discussion about how Moos’ performance as athletic director compared to Tom Osborne. As summarized by a smart and particularly handsome analyst:

Initially I had thought that criticizing Osborne for anything amongst the Nebraska fanbase would be a dangerous proposition. But it turns out there is a contingent of the fanbase more than willing to question Osborne’s tenure at the helm of Nebraska athletics.

That tenure is, of course, open to criticism. It was Osborne’s decision to hire Bo Pelini as a replacement for Bill Callahan. Pelini ended up being a very divisive figure in the Nebraska fanbase, and was not able to deliver the success fans wanted in his seven-year tenure. Osborne also hired Tim Miles as head men’s basketball coach. Miles’ inability to deliver an NCAA tournament win in his seven-year tenure, combined with fans’ frustration about Osborne-hired head baseball coach Darin Erstad, has soured some on Osborne’s tenure as athletic director.

It’s fair comment. Osborne’s major hires as athletic director were certainly defensible at the time, but none have panned out. And coach hiring is one of the primary metrics you would ordinarily use to judge the success and legacy of an athletic director.

But notice the word “ordinary” there. Osborne was not Nebraska’s athletic director in ordinary times. Sherman, set the Wayback Machine for the summer of 2010. Nebraska was still in its unhappy marriage with the Big XII conference, but the problems were growing. Northern schools like Nebraska were always concerned about how the league tilted in favor of Texas, and the announcement of the Longhorn Network made those concerns even more stark.

Things really got serious, though, when rumors began to swirl that Texas was in conversation to take Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, and Texas Tech to the then-Pac-10 conference. With Missouri already having flirted with the Big 10 and Colorado with the Pac-10, it seemed almost a certainty that the Big XII would not survive for long. And for a program like Nebraska, without a massive population base, being frozen out of a conference home was an existential threat.

It was Osborne that faced down that threat, along with then-university chancellor Harvey Perlman. Osborne and Perlman ultimately pulled off the biggest pre-emptive strike, convincing the Big Ten Conference to accept Nebraska as a member.

The move was, to say the least, contentious. Nebraska would be abandoning rivalries with its former Big 8 partners that had lasted for over a hundred years. It would be sailing into uncharted territory, having to be the new guy on the block and competing for attention with blue-blood programs like Michigan and Ohio State.

But in retrospect, the move has paid off. Indeed, the decision to move Nebraska into the Big Ten is the most important one in the history of the Nebraska athletic program. Doing so has all-but-guaranteed Nebraska’s ability to continue as a top-flight college athletic program for the indefinite future. It has funneled more money into the program’s coffers (to the tune of $37 million dollars for fiscal year 2018, according to USA Today).

The importance of that decision, though, can only be seen in imagining the counterfactual. Take, for example, Connecticut athletics. Sure, UConn and Nebraska don’t have the same history or national brand. But it’s not like UConn has no history – in basketball terms, UConn has been a blue-blood for a long time.

Before the conference realignments in the early 2000s, UConn was a founding member of the Big East conference, which was a premier college basketball conference and a member of the BCS. Big East membership for UConn guaranteed the Huskies a seat at the table as a major program in both NCAA revenue sports.

Then the Big East fell apart. Between 2011 and 2012, West Virginia, Louisville, Syracuse, Rutgers, and Notre Dame all left the conference for different homes. Seeing the danger, UConn tried but failed to get itself into the ACC. Trying to stay relevant in football – the all-important sport for revenue purposes – the remaining Big East school made a last-gasp grab and added Tulane.

But adding Tulane – and the travel to Louisiana that the addition would require – was enough for the Big East’s basketball-only schools (St. John’s, Georgetown, Providence, Marquette, DePaul, and Villanova) to break off and form a new conference. That left UConn truly without a home.

Now, UConn is competing in both football and basketball in the American Athletic Conference, a “non-power-five” conference. In addition to being all-but-frozen out of the College Football Playoff and being a “mid-major” in basketball, the move has had significant financial implications for UConn. The AAC’s television payout for 2016-17 was $74.47 million – compared with the Big Ten’s payout of $531 million for the same period, according to the Orlando Sentinel.

(A great breakdown of the Big East’s collapse can be found at SB Nation.)

Again, Nebraska isn’t UConn. But it’s not hard to imagine a dystopian future for Nebraska if Osborne wasn’t able to secure Big Ten membership. Imagine a world where Texas takes those four schools and Colorado to the Pac-10. Texas A&M and Missouri bolt for the SEC. And let’s imagine that Notre Dame rather than Nebraska becomes the Big Ten’s twelfth member.

Where would Nebraska be in that scenario? The remaining five teams (Kansas, Kansas State, Iowa State, Baylor, and Nebraska) would have been without a conference home and scrambling. While Nebraska would certainly be the most attractive of those remaining, it’s easy to see how NU could have ended up in the Mountain West with schools like Wyoming, or in a far-flung nationwide conference like Conference USA.

Either of those scenarios – which would be best-case scenarios without the Big Ten golden ticket – would put Nebraska athletics in a very similar circumstance to UConn’s current plight. It was Osborne’s leadership (along with Perlman and the rest of the Nebraska brass) that helped NU avoid disaster and protect its place amongst the elite of college athletics.

So criticize Osborne’s coach hires all you want. But solely on the basis of getting Nebraska into the Big Ten, Osborne deserves a statue for his tenure as Nebraska athletic director.

GBR, baby.

Nebraska Football: Spring Football Preview

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On Monday, Nebraska started spring practice in its second year under head coach Scott Frost. Unseasonably frigid temperatures kept work inside as the squad opened preparation for the Spring Game on April 13.

This is now Nebraska’s second straight season without a bowl game, meaning a second long winter of waiting for Nebraska football. So spring practice should bring a welcome relief for Nebraska fans weathering yet another cold winter of discontent. Here’s what to keep an eye on as spring practice begins.

OFFENSE

Returning Strengths

  • Quarterback. There is little doubt that Adrian Martinez is the biggest reason for Nebraska’s optimism in 2019. Martinez’s accomplishments last season have at least one Las Vegas sports book listing him as third-favorite for the Heisman next year. That might be a little optimistic, but at least Nebraska is coming into next year’s campaign with its situation at signal-caller settled.
  • Y and Z Receivers. JD Spielman is clearly Nebraska’s most dangerous receiving threat returning next season, and incoming freshman Wandale Robinson looks perfectly set to excel in the slot. While not every receiving position is clear (see infra), Nebraska does have a lot to lean on at receiver.
  • Tight End. Jack Stoll could very well be one of the team leaders next season, and Kurt Rafdal and Austin Allen both saw increased playing time towards the end of 2018. Kateriene Legrone should also have an opportunity to see the field, giving Nebraska at least four dangerous options to create mismatch opportunities and challenge the middle of the field.

Biggest Questions

  • Offensive Line. Nebraska does have quite a bit of returning talent, but it’s not entirely certain how it is going to fit together. And center for Nebraska is one of the biggest open questions, which is always a challenge. There’s enough talent for Nebraska’s offensive line to be successful, but it is still unproven.
  • X Receiver. Nebraska will be looking for a true no. 1, go-to receiver to make catches that get first downs as well as threaten downfield. Stanley Morgan’s leadership and production will be a huge challenge for Nebraska to replace, and while there is significant depth at receiver, it is unclear who (if any) in that room will be able to fill that role.
  • Running Back. At this time last year, it was hard to imagine that Devine Ozigbo’s graduation would be one of Nebraska’s biggest challenges going into 2019, but here we are. Maurice Washington and Miles Jones, Nebraska’s two returning backs with any playing time from 2018, are huge question marks for different reasons. The incoming backs, Dedrick Mills, Rahmir Johnson, and Ronald Thompkins, all have potential but are unproven.

Players to Watch

  • Jaylin Bradley. Ozigbo is gone. The competition for running back carries won’t arrive until fall camp. So this spring, Bradley will be competing with Wyatt Mazour and the other walk-on running backs for a chance to get the carries that Ozigbo had last year. Bradley didn’t see the field last year, and with the other backs coming, this spring may be Bradley’s last, best chance to really make an impact and earn a spot on the depth chart.
  • Cameron Jurgens. One of the biggest open positions for Nebraska in 2019 is center, and Jurgens has taken a strange path to the position. Jurgens was a four-star prospect in Nebraska’s 2018 class (.9227 composite, according to 247 Sports) – as a tight end. But after a redshirt year, Jurgens switched positions from tight end to offensive line and looks to be competing for a spot at center. Given his composite ranking, Jurgens’ athletic prowess is unquestioned. If he can make the switch in positions – and make no mistake, it’s a massive switch – then Nebraska could get a quick infusion of talent in the middle of the offensive line.
  • Jaevon McQuitty. Much like with Bradley, there is an opening in the depth chart at X receiver, and McQuitty has his best opportunity to take advantage and seize a spot. He’ll have some competition from players like Mike Williams and Andre Hunt, in addition to the freshmen receivers coming in the fall. So this spring is the time for McQuitty to make his move, if it’s going to happen.

DEFENSE

Returning Strengths

  • Defensive Line. The returning experience is there. Particularly with the addition of graduate transfer Darrion Daniels, Nebraska front should have both experience and depth coming back. The production of that front last year, of course, wasn’t what anyone thought (no. 96 nationally in rush defense and no. 76 nationally in sacks, according to com). But after a year in defensive coordinator Erik Chinander’s system (and, in all candor, a year removed from former defensive coordinator Bob Diaco), perhaps the unit we thought would be a strength in 2018 will actually become one in 2019.
  • Secondary Starters. Three of Nebraska’s four starters in the secondary should be decided going into spring football. Dicaprio Bootle was Nebraska’s best and most consistent cornerback throughout 2018, and Lamar Jackson responded to his benching early in the season to solidify himself as a starter. At safety, neither starter returns, but Deontai Williams showed such athleticism and natural ability that it would be stunning not to see him on the top line of the depth chart this year.
  • Mohammed Barry. Martinez is arguably Nebraska’s most important player, but it’s hard to overstate the leadership Barry brings not only to the defense but to the team in general. With a number of Nebraska’s vocal leaders from last season graduating, the mantle looks to fall to Barry to take on that role in 2019.

Biggest Questions

  • Secondary Depth. After the three likely starters, there’s little proven talent in the secondary. There is a tremendous amount of potential, but all unproven. That should be enough to keep Chinander up at night, but also provides an opportunity for someone to stand out.
  • Pass Rush. A pass rush is a defensive back’s best friend, and Nebraska’s pass rush struggled last season. With no obvious pass rush specialist being recruited in this year’s class, Nebraska will be looking to manufacture a rush from the talent already on the roster. A healthy JoJo Doman staying at outside linebacker should help, and a return to 2017 form for Ben Stille may be part of the answer.
  • Run Defense. Take another look at Nebraska’s performance against teams like Wisconsin and Iowa – if you can stomach it. Wisconsin averaged 7.7 yards per carry against Nebraska, while Iowa averaged 5.5 yards per carry. Nebraska simply will be able to win the B1G West if it cannot significantly improve how it defends power running teams.

Players to Watch

  • Breon Dixon. After transferring from Mississippi, last year it looked like Dixon might be the kind of immediate infusion of SEC talent that could give Nebraska’s defense an instant jolt. But it didn’t happen for Dixon last year, who saw very little of the field and was unable to make an impact. With a year in the system, 2019 is the time for Dixon to make his move.
  • Avery Anderson/Eric Lee. Yeah, I know it’s cheating to list two guys here. But Anderson and Lee were both highly regarded recruits, now in their last year at Nebraska. With the questions remaining about depth in the secondary, these two seniors have a door open to see the field and leave an impact in 2019.
  • Collin Miller. Will Honas came in as a junior college transfer last year and looked to be part of the puzzle for Nebraska’s transition on defense. But an injury against Purdue knocked Honas out for the season, and is still recovering from that injury. So outside of incoming freshman Jackson Hannah, Miller has the opportunity this spring to solidify a starting position at inside linebacker.

GBR, baby.

Nebraska Football: 2019 Recruiting Class Super Six

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Nebraska finished its 2019 recruiting season signing a class of 27, including two graduate transfers. The class rated no. 19 nationally and no. 4 in the B1G, behind Michigan (no. 8), Penn State (no. 13) and Ohio State (no. 14). Nebraska’s 2019 class was rated no. 1 in the B1G West, besting Purdue (no. 25), Wisconsin (no. 27) and Iowa (no. 40).

Here’s a breakdown of how Nebraska’s 2019 scholarships were distributed according to position and their composite recruiting ranking, according to 247 Sports.

Position No. Avg. Ranking
QB 1 .9070
IB 3 .8831
WR 4 .9058
TE 1 .8928
OL 5 .8741
DE 3 .8859
DT 1 .8410
OLB 2 .8864
ILB 3 .8953
CB 2 .9007
S 2 .8686

 

So now that we have a basic idea of how Nebraska did overall, who are the players in this year’s class that stand out? Here are the Super Six for 2019 – and keep in mind, this takes into account immediate production, potential long-term contributions, and position value. Listed after the recruit’s name are his position, height, weight, and 247 composite ranking.

6: Luke McCaffrey (ATH, 6’2”, 183, .9070)

Yeah, 247 Sports lists him as an athlete, but there’s no question about his status as a quarterback at Nebraska. Indeed, his solidity at the quarterback position looks to be the primary reason he is still in Lincoln, even knowing that he’s behind sophomore phenom Adrian Martinez. While McCaffrey might not see the field right away in the best of circumstances, having a dangerous quarterback behind Martinez does provide critical depth (see Troy 2018) as well as a path for the future.

5: Wandale Robinson (APB, 5’9”, 175, .9597)

It’s a little peculiar to have Nebraska’s highest-rated recruit sitting at number five on the Super Six, and that’s not a knock on his talent. Robinson’s quick-twitch elusiveness and gamebreaking speed look elite and a perfect match for head coach Scott Frost’s offensive scheme. But Robinson will be competing with players like JD Spielman and Maurice Washington, who have a similar set of skills.

4: Noa Pola-Gates (CB, 5’11”, 165, .9379)

One of the bigger late gets for Nebraska, Pola-Gates is the highest-rated secondary signing for NU in 2019. He’s listed as a cornerback, but it is not out of the realms of possibility that he will see time at safety, a position of significant need for Nebraska.

3: Dedrick Mills (RB, 5’11”, 227, .8817)

With the graduation of Devine Ozigbo, the only running back left in Nebraska’s stable that looks capable of replacing Ozigbo’s between-the-tackles running production is Mills. While Nebraska has a lot of exciting potential on the perimeter, that threat is far less dangerous if opposing defenses do not have an inside running game to worry about.

2: Ty Robinson (SDE, 6’5”, 283, .9284)

If there was one area that was left unattended in Nebraska’s 2019 class, it was the lack of a true pass rushing specialist. Robinson comes the closest to providing that ability, although will likely need to develop before Nebraska can truly consider that particular box checked.

1: Bryce Benhart (OT, 6’9”, 287, .9349)

Even with Frost’s flashy offense, ultimately strong line play makes everything work. Landing a four-star tackle like Benhart, who has the possibility of playing four years in Lincoln, makes a positive impact on every offensive skill position player.

Sleeper: Myles Farmer (S, 6’3”, 194, .8688)

Nebraska brings back no returning starters at safety, so a recruit of Farmer’s size and skill set has the chance to make an immediate impact on the depth chart.

All recruiting rankings according to 247 Sports

Nebraska Football: NU ReView, Iowa 31, Nebraska 28

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Nebraska’s 2018 campaign ended in heartbreaking fashion, with Iowa kicking a game-winning field goal as time expired to defeat Nebraska 31-28. Head coach Scott Frost’s squad made up a 28-13 deficit and tied the score, but wasn’t able to keep Iowa from getting into position to win the game at the end.

With the loss, Nebraska falls to 4-8 for the second straight season, and the third year without a bowl game. So as you prepare for another maddeningly-long offseason, let’s take a look back at this year’s Heroes Game.

THE GOOD

Culture change. In the last two games against Iowa, Nebraska did not respond well to Iowa’s challenge. In 2016, Nebraska entered the fourth quarter clinging to an ember of hope, down 26-10 but still within two scores. Iowa responded, though, by putting up fourteen unanswered fourth quarter points and notching an emphatic 40-10 win.

In 2017, hard as it is to remember, Nebraska and Iowa were tied 14-14 at the half. But a 28-0 explosion for Iowa in the third quarter left little doubt, as the Hawkeyes cruised to a 56-14 romp in Lincoln.

This year, Iowa was pushing Nebraska around, with a gutsy fake field goal failing and leaving Nebraska within 15 points, down 28-13. This time, though, Nebraska didn’t fold. Instead, Nebraska reeled off 15 straight, tying the score and requiring Iowa to hit a game-winning field goal as time expired.

Throughout this year, we’ve heard a whole bunch about judging the season not by wins and losses but by a nebulous concept called “culture change.” Well, Nebraska’s response against Iowa this year, compared to the previous two, is hard evidence of just what that culture change looks like.

Record-breaker. It’s hard to fathom that wide receiver Stanley Morgan is going to end his Nebraska career playing on three teams with losing records. His accomplishments have been amazing, and against Iowa he cemented his place in Nebraska’s record books.

Last week, Morgan broke Kenny Bell’s school record for total receptions. This week, Morgan passed Bell for total receiving yards in a career and became Nebraska’s first (!) 1,000-yard receiver in school history.

With Frost’s upscale offense still being installed, it’s entirely possible that Morgan’s time on top of the leaderboard may be short-lived. But that should take nothing away from a guy whose career spanned three coaches and ended in excellence.

Rivalry accomplished. Personal foul flags away from the play were flying. Tempers were flaring and the two teams were on edge. Both coaches took risks that seemed otherwise unwarranted in an attempt to win the game.

I know, Husker Fan, that for some reason you’re not wanting to dive into the rivalry pool with Iowa. Well, Nebraska junior linebacker Mo Barry disagrees with you. So does this smart and particularly handsome analyst.

Guys, that’s what a rivalry game looks like. That’s what losing a rivalry game on a walk-off field goal feels like. Embrace it, Husker Fan.

THE BAD

Physicality. Iowa ended up running for 266 yards against Nebraska’s defense, and particularly in the first half looked like it could get six to eight yards at will. While Nebraska’s defense shored up some in the second half, throughout the game Iowa’s physical dominance was never far from the surface.

Don’t believe me? Ask Frost (as reported by the Omaha World-Herald):

“Iowa’s a bigger, stronger football team,” Frost said. “That’s right now. I never thought I’d see or hear that or say that about a Nebraska football team. That we can fix. We can get bigger, we can get stronger.”

Candid words from Nebraska’s head man, but that should also be read as a challenge to his own team as the offseason draws near.

Walkoff Woes. 2018 felt like a year where almost everything that could go wrong for Nebraska went wrong, particularly early in the season. Frost started the season talking about how things would get worse before they get better, and about a team hitting rock bottom and finding its way up.

And yet, Nebraska was the victim of two walk-off field goal losses. Flip those two razor-thin margins, and Nebraska – yes, this 2018 borderline-year-zero Nebraska – is 6-6 and going to a bowl game.

Sure, reaching bowl eligibility isn’t and shouldn’t be the benchmark of success for Nebraska (although this year might help an otherwise-rabid fanbase hold on to just a sliver of perspective about the game over the next few years). But it is a reflection of the work Frost and his staff have done to have this Nebraska team, with this level of changes that needed to be made, be that close to the postseason.

Missed Ya, JD. In a game of such fine margins, it’s hard not to wonder what Nebraska’s offense would have looked like with its most elusive playmaker, wide receiver JD Spielman. Walk-on receiver Kade Warner did an admirable job, with four receptions for 16 yards and the clutch two-point conversion reception to tie the game.

But Warner, many things that he is, ain’t Spielman. We’ll all be left wondering what that game would have looked like had it been Spielman on the field.

AND THE PERFECT ENDING

Nebraska’s contest against Iowa was in many ways the 2018 season in microcosm. It started dreadfully, with Iowa dominating Nebraska physically and pulling out to what seemed like an untouchable 15-point lead. Then, a combination of offensive wizardry and an improved defensive performance, Nebraska pulled itself back into the game. At the end though, Nebraska was left with no immediate payoff for its hard work, but with a strong belief that a firm foundation has been laid going forward.

Sure, a win over Nebraska’s rival to the east would have been a sweet way to cap off a sour season. But somehow this sendoff to 2018 seems to fit better. Now Nebraska will go into another long offseason knowing just how close it was – to a win over a rival, to a bowl game, to being the kind of team Frost envisioned – but that it isn’t there yet.

That feels like the kind of sour sendoff that will put a little extra fire into offseason work. Every Nebraska player coming back next year can feel like the difference between how 2018 turned out and a championship run might be an extra set of reps, an extra mile run, an extra hour of film each day.

It worked for Nebraska in 1994, when the team adopted an “Unfinished Business” motto after 1993’s disappointment. Obviously, the disappointment of 2018’s 4-8 campaign and 1993’s national title near-miss are two very different things.

But the motivational power of disappointment remains the same. So yeah, Husker Fan, that wasn’t a fun end to the season (particularly to those of us who experienced it in Hawkeye country).

However, if that disappointment ends up being the spark that lights the fire of a 2019 campaign, then it will all be worth it for you.

GBR, baby.

Nebraska Football: NU ReView, Nebraska 54, Illinois 35

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Nebraska’s alternate uniforms were a throwback to 1923, but the game in which the uniforms were worn was very much a creature of the 21st century, with Nebraska winning a shootout over Illinois, 54-35.

Nebraska’s offense was humming, notching 606 total yards, while the defense struggled some, surrendering 509 yards. But Nebraska was plus-three in turnover margin, which helped NU avoid any risk of an upset bid from the Illini.

So in reviewing Nebraska’s third win of the 2018 season …

THE GOOD

Divine Devine. Hey, remember when this dope looked at senior I-back Devine Ozigbo and just saw him and Mikale Wilbon as “returning with the most experience?”

Well, Ozigbo proved that dope wrong. He’s currently no. 25 nationally in rushing yards per game at 95.8. He’s been both the chain-mover and the homerun threat out of the backfield that Nebraska has been needing. He’s been a revelation and, as head coach Scott Frost said, looks very much like a Sunday kind of guy next year.

Nine-Tenths of the Law. One of the fears about Nebraska’s tempo spread attack is whether NU would be able to protect its struggling defense by possessing the ball. Early in the season, that was an active question when Nebraska was in position to win.

But in the last two games, Nebraska was able to execute clock-chewing drives. Against Ohio State, in the second quarter Nebraska had a 10-play, 64 yard drive taking 4:00, and an eight-play, 47 yard drive taking 3:54, both resulting in touchdowns. Against Illinois, in the third quarter Nebraska had a seventeen-play (!), 82 yard drive for a touchdown that took a full 7:48 (!!) off the clock – and included three fourth-down conversions.

Those time of possession numbers aren’t mind-boggling, but they are evidence that Nebraska’s offense does have the ability to keep its defense off the field for at least a little while, minimizing the stress being put on an already thin unit. Seeing this kind of complimentary football is both reassuring and encouraging going forward.

Special Teams. Against Bethune-Cookman, Nebraska returned a punt for a touchdown. This week, Nebraska blocked a punt. More importantly though, it looks like Nebraska has solved to a large degree its issue with kickoff return coverage. Against Illinois, Nebraska averaged 13.8 yards per return, and only 9.3 yards per return against Ohio State.

Against Troy? 25.5 yards per return.

THE BAD

Homecoming. Welcome home, AJ Bush. After a couple of stops, the Nebraska transfer started a game at quarterback in Memorial Stadium, but for Illinois. And he had himself a game, rushing for 187 (!) yards on 25 attempts with three (!!) touchdowns. He added in 126 yards through the air, but on an 11-for-25 day with two interceptions (although, in fairness, his receivers didn’t exactly help him out).

For Nebraska fans with a sentimental streak, it was the best of both worlds. A former Husker got to have his day in the sun and put up some numbers, while Nebraska was still able to notch a win. That, of course, is easier to say after the game as opposed to when Bush was running wild and answering Nebraska score-for-score.

Walking Wounded. Both receiver JD Spielman and I-back Maurice Washington appeared to suffer injuries against Illinois. Washington has struggled with staying on the field all year, which is not a huge surprise for a true freshman with a slight frame. But losing both – and losing Spielman, in particular – against a stout Michigan State defense would be a huge challenge for Nebraska.

AND THE NEW NORMAL

Blackshirts. Tradition of Toughness. Throw the Bones. In the nineties, much of Nebraska’s identity was defined by defensive prowess. If you play word-association with “Nebraska football,” one of the first images you’ll get is a gleeful Nebraska defender crossing his arms and screaming after a sack.

That’s not where Nebraska is now. Nebraska is currently no. nationally in scoring defense, no. 90 nationally in rushing defense, and no. 101 nationally in passing defense.

Sure, some of that is a transition year, and likely has to do with a talent deficit on the defensive side of the ball. But some of it is structural, too.

Take a look at the national rankings of UCF’s defensive performance last year, when the Knights went 13-0 (and won the national championship, amirite?)

Total defense 91
Rushing defense 59
Passing defense 49

That’s better than Nebraska’s rankings this year, of course. But it’s not elite. At best it’s middle-of-the-pack good. And that’s in a year where UCF went undefeated.

Ultimately, a football team reflects the nature of its coach. Under a defensive-minded coach like Bo Pelini, Nebraska would take its cues from its defense, and Nebraska’s 10-3 upset of Oklahoma should be looked at as a model for how Pelini’s teams would win.

Frost is, schematically, the opposite of Pelini. He’s an offensive mind who wants to outscore you – and is perfectly content to let you score a few points in the process. UCF’s 62-55 overtime win over Memphis in the American Athletic Conference title game might have been an extreme version of it, but it still fits into the template of how Frost’s teams win games.

This isn’t to say that Nebraska fans shouldn’t expect – shouldn’t demand – better defensive play. Overall, Nebraska’s defense has not been good enough and needs to be better both this year and going forward. But expectations need to be calibrated for the Blackshirts.

If defensive coordinator Erik Chinander can get his unit into the top-50 nationally defensively, in combination with what Frost’s offense, that should be enough for Nebraska to win a lot of games. But it’s going to look different from what winning Nebraska teams have looked in the recent past.

In other words, Husker Fan, get used to seeing a lot of points on the scoreboard – for both teams. My guess is that as long as Nebraska has more of those points most of the time, though, y’all should be fine.

GBR, baby.