Nebraska Football: NU ReView, Oregon 42, Nebraska 35

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A tight, seven-point loss to Oregon on the road, that’s the type of game everyone expected, right?

Not so much. Nebraska was humiliated in the first half, falling behind 42-14 and looking to all the world like it was on its way to another nationally-televised embarrassment. But Nebraska found something in the locker room, shutting the Ducks out in the second half and nearly pulling off a miraculous comeback.

The Good

Halftime Adjustments. Let’s just take a look at Nebraska’s defensive performances, broken down by halves.

  First Half Second Half
Total Yards 698 365
Passing Yards Allowed 558 222
Yards/Play Allowed 7.51 5.00
Points Allowed 68 10

Those numbers kinda speak for themselves. Defensive coordinator Bob Diaco might very well be making the greatest halftime adjustments in the history of organized football. It’s a problem, though, that he has to be (more on that later).

ONIONS! On the first drive of the second half, Nebraska faced a fourth-and-ten at the Oregon 40. Head coach Mike Riley went for it and Nebraska converted, leading to a touchdown and breathing a little life into the scarlet and cream.

On Nebraska’s next possession, Nebraska faced a fourth-and-five at the Oregon 39. Once again, Riley went for it and Nebraska converted. While that drive didn’t lead to points, it set a tone that allowed Nebraska to stay in the game and almost complete a miracle comeback.

Fine Margins. This one’s in the Good section more for Husker Fan looking for reasons to feel better about Nebraska’s loss. Quarterback Tanner Lee’s first interception was a fortunate bounce off a defender’s hand. Oregon’s third touchdown only happened when the ball went off one receivers hand and fluttered into the hands of another. At the end of the first half, another fourth down conversion – which could have kept Nebraska’s drive alive and avoid some of the points Oregon put up at the end of the half – was thwarted thanks to a false start by De’Mornay Pierson-El.

Yes, Oregon badly outplayed Nebraska in the first half, and earned every bit of its 42-14 lead. But, as we saw with how close Nebraska came to a comeback, those fine margins can make the difference between winning and losing.

The Bad

Needing Halftime Adjustments. Judas Priest, Nebraska’s first two first halves of the 2017 campaign have been ugly to watch. They’ve resulted in a down-to-the-wire win over a Sun Belt team and digging a hole too deep to dig out of against Oregon.

I can’t pretend to explain this Jeckyll-and-Hyde performance from the Blackshirts – and I’m not entirely convinced Diaco can as well. I suppose the silver lining is that the second half performances show Nebraska’s defensive potential. But I’m not sure how many first-half embarrassments Husker Fan can tolerate.

The Kid from Tulane. Talk of Tanner Lee’s departure to the NFL after his junior campaign have, shall we say, cooled after the Oregon game. Lee was 19-for-41 through the air for 252 yards, three touchdowns, but four interceptions. Now, two of those interceptions weren’t Lee’s fault, one being a pinball deflection and one from a blind-side hit that resulted in the ball fluttering into a defender’s hand.

But even with that bad luck, Lee struggled against the Ducks. He missed a number of makeable throws, particularly in the first half when Nebraska really needed its offense to keep up. There’s plenty of things to learn for Lee going forward, but this game won’t be one that goes in his scrapbook.

Big Red Cross. What might be the biggest concern coming out of Eugene are injuries to I-back Tre Bryant and safety Joshua Kalu. Bryant has been a revelation in the first two games of the season. I could give you some stats, but this tweet says it all.

Bryant has been struggling with his knee throughout camp, and an injury to that knee causing him to miss the rest of the game is a huge worry for Nebraska. Although Mikale Wilbon got the touchdown that brought Nebraska to within seven, there’s little doubt that NU’s offense wasn’t the same without Bryant.

But what could be a more impactful injury might well be to Joshua Kalu. A hamstring injury in the second quarter took Kalu out for the rest of the game. With Nebraska’s secondary already thin after injuries to Chris Jones and JoJo Doman, the Blackshirts can ill afford to lose Kalu for any length of time.

And the Goals Still Intact

Admit it, Husker Fan. You feel fairly OK after that game. At halftime, you had visions of Texas Tech running through your mind and were worried that this season was about to slip away.

That’s fair. The fact that there’s relief about Nebraska being respectable on a national stage is a barometer of the state of Nebraska’s program. Whether that’s acceptable in the long run is a fair question.

But it’s where Nebraska is now. And (cue the cliché) it still leaves the primary goals for the season open.

Nebraska’s next three games are against Northern Illinois, Rutgers, and Illinois. Presuming Nebraska holds serve, NU will be 4-1 on October 07 to welcome Wisconsin.

And that’s where the rubber will really hit the road. Diaco’s defensive charges will have five games under their belt to (hopefully) learn how to play in the first half, and the opportunity will be there for Nebraska to get a win over Wisconsin and set itself up for conference play.

Yes, that loss was disappointing – and extraordinarily weird. But there were enough green shoots there to keep hope alive when the Badgers come calling.

GBR, baby.

(image courtesy of letterboxd.com)

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Nebraska Football: NU ReView, Nebraska 43, Arkansas State 36

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“In fact, the very best advice it has to offer in these situation is to be found on the cover, where it says in those now notoriously large and famously friendly letters, ‘DON’T PANIC.’”

– Douglas Adams, The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy radio script (image from RogersMovieNation.com)

Nebraska survived its first game of the Mike Riley-Bob Diaco era with a 43-36 win over Arkansas State, salted away only when Red Wolves’ quarterback Justice Hansen’s pass was tipped away in the end zone as time expired. A win is a win, but the muted buzzing from the crowd exiting Memorial Stadium after the three hour and 52 minute (!) contest sounded much more like it would after a loss than a win. So in looking back at Nebraska’s 2017 lid-lifter …

The Good …

The kid delivered. Not that long ago, this dope was worried about Tanner Lee based on his statistics from Tulane and the fact that he hadn’t played college football in over a year. Well at least for one week, against Sun Belt opposition, Lee sure put those worries to rest. He was 19-for-32 for 238 yards, two touchdowns, and no interceptions.

The numbers are impressive enough, but the throws he made – and didn’t make, when appropriate – were what should get Nebraska fans excited. His first touchdown to Stanley Morgan should be framed and hung in a museum. And he showed enough mobility in the pocket to help out an offensive line that struggled in pass blocking at times.

Diaco’s adjustments. At halftime, Arkansas State had 245 yards of total offense and 26 points on the board. Outside of the last two drives (which were a combination of fatigue and shock after a successful onside kick), the Red Wolves had 74 yards and three points in the second half.

Yes, I know those last two drives count too, and that’s not to let the defense off the hook for a disturbing performance. But while there’s plenty to criticize and worry about, the Blackshirts are going to take an amazing amount of heat this week. Given the way the defense responded in the second half, though, there’s plenty of room for optimism as well.

Lightbourne’s bounceback. Keep in mind, this was supposed to be punter Caleb Lightbourne’s first game kicking a ball in anger. He was supposed to redshirt, watching and learning as senior Sam Foltz showed him how it was done.

We know how that story ended, and we know about Lightbourne’s struggles last year. But against Arkansas State, Lightbourne delivered with an average of 42.4 yards per kick and three placed inside the 20. Given the way Nebraska’s defense looked to be on skates for much of the first half, that kind of field position advantage was invaluable, and a not-insubstantial part in how the Blackshirts were able to find their feet later in the game.

The Bad …

The first half. Sure, it was great that Diaco was able to make those adjustments. But, Judas Priest, that first half wasn’t pretty. Arkansas State took a pretty basic concept – overload one side with more receivers than defenders, then throw to one of them on a screen – and just kept going and going as Nebraska demonstrated an inability to stop it.

The fact that Nebraska was able to successfully adjust to the Red Wolves’ attack is reassuring. The fact that it took an entire half to do so – against Sun Belt-level athletes – is less reassuring.

Clock malpractice. Sherman, set the WayBack Machine for October 05, 2015. Specifically, set it for 55 seconds left in the game between Nebraska and Illinois. Nebraska has a third down and seven on the Illinois 27, and a 13-7 lead over the Illini. A first down wins the game, to be sure. But anything that keeps the clock running will bleed so much time away to make a comeback almost impossible.

Of course, Tommy Armstrong throws an incomplete pass, Nebraska fails a fourth down conversion, and Illinois carves through NU’s secondary to score a game-winning touchdown with ten seconds left on the clock.

Now, let’s look at this year’s Arkansas State game. Nebraska starts a drive from its own 22 with 5:46 left in the contest. Two Tre Bryant runs get Nebraska to third and four. With a 43-29 lead, a first down likely puts the game out of reach for Arkansas State. But keeping the clock moving is just as important, particularly given how the Red Wolves had been able to march at will on the Blackshirts.

Instead, Lee throws an incomplete pass, giving Arkansas State enough time to score, get an onside kick, and bloody nearly score again to send the game into overtime – or allow the Red Wolves to win it with a two-point conversion.

Sure, it took a bunch of really unlikely things to happen for Arkansas State to be in a position to tie or win the game. But more adept clock management – an area Riley has consistently struggled with – would have never allowed the Red Wolves to be in that position in the first place.

My blood pressure. OK, guys, this is game one, and against a Sun Belt opponent. There’s Oregon, Wisconsin, Northwestern, Iowa, not to mention the big hitters like Ohio State and Penn State. I’m not a young man any more. Seriously, guys, I can’t do this for another eleven games. I’m not saying get beat, to be sure. But, seriously, just put those guys away when you get a chance, please?

And The Inevitable Overreaction.

Let me make myself clear, first of all. Things aren’t fine, as the dog sipping coffee in the burning café says. Getting taken to the wire by a Sun Belt team suggests there’s a problem. And given that the Red Wolves straight-up dropped a touchdown earlier in the game and had a deflected interception on the Nebraska 1 stop another drive, there’s a pretty good argument to be made that Arkansas State should have won the game – or, at the very least, that Nebraska was plenty lucky to have won.

But Nebraska did win. And after that fortunate win there’s going to be plenty of OMG NEBRASKA SUUUUUUUUUUUUCKZZZZ!!!!!11!!! hot-takery in response to the Arkansas State squeaker. Stories of an impending 4-8 implosion are being written on message boards as we speak, and much of the guarded optimism surrounding 2017 has likely dissipated.

And, sure, this game could end up being the canary in a coal mine if Nebraska collapses going forward. But there’s enough green shoots of hope from this game to make such a collapse unlikely. Lee looked straight-up amazing, making throws Nebraska fans haven’t seen in … well, a really long time. Bryant was given the entire game, and responded with 192 yards on 31 carries behind some solid run blocking. Until it tired – which, having to face 89 (!) plays, isn’t a shock – Nebraska’s second-half defensive performance bordered on impressive.

So, yeah, there’s plenty to worry about from Nebraska’s win over Arkansas State. But please, Husker Fan, hold off on mashing that panic button just yet.

Nebraska Football: Prediction for the Cornhuskers’ 2017 Season

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There’s nothing quite like leaving things late, but a season prediction on the morning of Nebraska’s first game still counts as getting your shot called. First, a caveat. With a new quarterback, a functionally new offense, an entirely new defensive scheme, and a new special teams coach, there’s only one honest answer about what to expect for this season.

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Unfortunately, that’s not enough content for a site like this. So let’s go through the exercise and look through Nebraska’s 2017 schedule game by game. In an effort to make this more than just guesswork, for a season prediction I break the games down into four categories:

Better Win: Given the disparity in talent, Nebraska should be expected to win all of the games in this category.

Should Win: Nebraska should be a favorite in this game, but the opponent is strong enough to win even without a total NU meltdown. Nebraska should win a majority of these games.

Might Win: Nebraska should be an underdog in this game, but close enough in talent to win without needing a miraculous performance. Nebraska should win a minority of these games.

Won’t Win: Nebraska is outclassed from a talent standpoint and would need the stars to align for a victory. Nebraska should not expect to win any of these games.

By breaking the games down into these categories, the idea is to take the guesswork out of predicting a final record. Of course, I’ll also give a Fearless Forecast guess of the result, meaning I get two bites at the apple in terms of a final record prognostication.

Arkansas State (Sep. 2)

The Red Wolves come into Lincoln with some talent, including a likely NFL draft pick on the defensive line in Ja’Von Rolland-Jones. Nebraska’s depth should ultimately win out, but with all of the new schemes NU is breaking in don’t be surprised to see this contest tight in the fourth quarter.

Better Win

Fearless Forecast: Nebraska 31, Arkansas State 17

at Oregon (Sep. 9)

The Ducks have a new coach in Willie Taggart, so Oregon will be in a full-on year-one scenario when Nebraska comes to Eugene. But Oregon should have at least equal, if not greater talent than Nebraska on the field. And while Nebraska did knock the Ducks off in Lincoln last year, the metrics (as well as Oregon’s bizarre aversion to extra points) suggest NU was pretty fortunate to get that win. A Nebraska win would be quite a springboard for 2017, but it looks an uphill climb.

Might Win

Fearless Forecast: Oregon 27, Nebraska 20

Northern Illinois (Sep. 16)

Another Group of Five school that has some degree of talent, but not to the level of Nebraska. With two games in the books, Nebraska’s transition should be a little more solid and ready to handle what the Huskies have to offer.

Better Win

Fearless Forecast: Nebraska 45, Northern Illinois 10

Rutgers (Sep. 23)

Although the Scarlet Knights gave Washington a scare for a half, eventually the Huskies were able to pull away in Piscataway. Second year head coach Chris Ash is laying the foundation for Rutgers to climb out of the B1G cellar, but there’s still a ways to go.

Better Win

Fearless Forecast: Nebraska 38, Rutgers 13

at Illinois (Sep. 29)

This has trap game written all over it. Nebraska goes to Champaign on a Friday night, to what is likely a half-empty stadium, playing a struggling Illini squad ahead of a brutal two-game stretch. Riley’s last trip to Illinois ended poorly, and last year Nebraska seemed to put an end to its head-scratching losses. But if there were ever a time for a shocker, this is it.

Better Win

Fearless Forecast: Nebraska 24, Illinois 9

Wisconsin (Oct. 7)

Here’s where the rubber hits the road for Nebraska. While Wisconsin has had Nebraska’s number since NU joined the B1G, keep in mind that the last two games between these squads have been coin-flips. With the game in Lincoln, and the transition well underway, look for Nebraska to finally get over a Wisconsin-sized hump.

Might Win

Fearless Forecast: Nebraska 24, Wisconsin 21

Ohio State (Oct. 14)

If Wisconsin is a measuring stick for where Nebraska stands in the B1G West, the Buckeyes will give Nebraska a good look at where it stacks up against the elite. Ohio State, along with Alabama, might be the most talented team in the country. A combination of the game being in Lincoln and a functioning offense should make things closer than last year (an admittedly low bar), but Nebraska is still quite a ways from competing head to head with Ohio State.

Won’t Win

Fearless Forecast: Ohio State 41, Nebraska 21

at Purdue (Oct. 28)

Nebraska returns to the house of horrors that inflicted the program’s worst loss since Iowa State in 2009. But a week’s rest after Wisconsin and Ohio State should help Nebraska focus and get its season back on track.

Better Win

Fearless Forecast: Nebraska 51, Purdue 13

Northwestern (Nov. 4)

The Purples have a history of hanging tough in Memorial Stadium, pulling off an upset two years ago and losing only on a Hail Mary two years before that. Nebraska should be on more stable footing this time around, though, and allow the talent differential between the to squads to show through.

Should Win

Fearless Forecast: Nebraska 37, Northwestern 17

at Minnesota (Nov. 11)

P.J. Fleck was quite a hire for Minnesota, but will be a huge culture shift from the program Jerry Kill built in his years up north. The Gophers look to be dangerous in the next few seasons, but it’s a big ask for them to be ready in year one to compete.

Should Win

Fearless Forecast: Nebraska 21, Minnesota 13

at Penn State (Nov. 18)

Ooh, I so want to be bold on this game. Penn State looked like world-beaters at the end of last season, with a legitimate argument to get into the College Football Playoff. But at the start of last year, the Nittany Lions were decidedly average, and much of their late-season success was down to YOLO balls from quarterback Trace McSorley. Still, the Lions have elite talent (including Saquon Barkley, the best tailback in the B1G), and the game is in Happy Valley. At best, Nebraska would have to be well ahead of schedule to pull off this upset.

Won’t Win

Fearless Forecast: Penn State 45, Nebraska 31

Iowa (Nov. 24)

It was last year’s 40-10 (!) loss to Iowa that likely ended Mark Banker’s tenure as Nebraska’s defensive coordinator, so this year’s Heroes Game will be a good marker to see how far the Blackshirts have come. If Nebraska is able to present more of an offensive threat than a hobbled Tommy Armstrong did last year, look for Nebraska to get back on track in this rivalry.

Should Win

Fearless Forecast: Nebraska 27, Iowa 17

Season Summary

Under the category system, Nebraska has five Better Win games (meaning five wins), three Should Win games (meaning two wins), two Might Win games (meaning one win) and two Won’t Win games (meaning no wins). That comes out to a 9-3 campaign for Nebraska.

Looking at the Fearless Forecasts, Nebraska also comes out with a 9-3 season, losing to Oregon, Ohio State, and Penn State. A 7-2 B1G record might be enough for Nebraska to earn a trip to Indianapolis, unless Wisconsin can win out the rest of its conference slate.

Nebraska Football: What the Cornhuskers Must Do for a Successful Season

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Nebraska’s 2017 campaign is about to start in earnest, but we still have time to take a step back and consider what has to happen for the season to be a success. Obviously, wins and losses will define how Nebraska fans look back on the season. But it’s more helpful to think about specifically what needs to happen on the field for that success to arrive.

Head coach Mike Riley is entering year three of his tenure in Lincoln. After a disastrous – but unlucky – 6-7 season in 2015, he followed up with an improved – but lucky – 9-4 campaign last year.

Former head coach Bo Pelini was dismissed from his position after seven years, in part, for not being able to get over the four-loss hump. And while there’s little thought that Riley is on the hot seat now, it’s not at all inconceivable to think he is a year away from the hot seat if Riley’s Cornhuskers don’t show signs of progress in 2017.

So, what will those signs of progress be? Here’s three things to look for.

Tanner Lee lives up to his billing

I get it, there’s a lot about Nebraska we don’t know coming into this season. The entire defense is being revamped (more on that in a bit), and we haven’t even seen how it looks. The offensive line is entirely shuffled. Almost all of Nebraska’s offensive production from last year is gone. Chris Jones, Nebraska’s best defensive player (and arguably its best player overall) is lost to injury.

So I understand the desire for some stability. But it’s a recurring theme that amidst all of the uncertainly, the one thing most observers are not worried about for Nebraska is the level of quarterback play under transfer Tanner Lee. Check it out here, and here, and here.

That’s … kinda nuts. I know he was the offensive MVP of the scout team last year, I know he’s looked great in fall practice, and I know that he’s ruggedly handsome.

But he hasn’t played any real football in almost two years. And when he did, at Tulane, he had a career completion percentage of only 53.6 percent and a 1.095 touchdown-to-interception ratio, throwing 23 touchdowns and 21 interceptions.

Yes, it was with a Tulane team bereft of talent, and Lee played through an injury. Still, the only evidence we have of Lee taking snaps in anger shows him playing at a level nowhere near good enough for Nebraska to be successful on offense in 2017.

Hopefully for Nebraska fans, Lee is everything that he’s being billed as coming into this season. As a smart and particularly handsome analyst observed, an entire season can spiral downward if the quarterback play for a team isn’t good enough.

But to take Lee’s success as a given this year is crazy. The table is set for him, to be sure, but Nebraska fans should need to see him actually deliver before checking that particular box off.

The defensive transition is smooth

New defensive coordinator Bob Diaco is a fascinating character, full of high energy and sometimes-mystifying quotes. But he’s also bringing with him a 3-4 defensive structure he’s kept tightly under wraps, not even letting fans see a glimpse of it at this year’s Spring Game.

It was a gutsy call for Riley to fire former defensive coordinator Mark Banker after last season. But given Nebraska’s late-season collapse, particularly against Iowa, it was an understandable move made by a head coach who knows time is precious.

But that doesn’t make the task of transitioning from a 4-3 to a 3-4 (and from a one-gap to a two-gap system) any easier. Combine the challenge of learning an entirely new way of playing defense with the need to figure out how players recruited for the previous regime fit into the new system, and you have a recipe for defensive breakdowns.

No defense is perfect. But with a schedule that is more daunting this year than last, Nebraska can ill afford a rough transition on defense if it wants to succeed in 2017.

Beat Iowa

I know, I know, Iowa isn’t a rival to Nebraska. I’ve heard that over and over and over again. For a (ahem) seasoned observer of Nebraska football, those protestations sound hauntingly familiar to things Husker Fan has said about Nebraska’s neighbors to the west and the south.

There’s a longer think-piece about this coming (lucky you), but let’s take a look at where we find ourselves now. Iowa owns a two-game winning streak over Nebraska. Riley has never beaten Iowa. And last year’s 40-10 (!) curb-stomping in Iowa City is a large reason why Diaco and not Banker is directing the Blackshirts this year.

But think of it in a broader context. As maddening as the end of 2016 was, one demon Nebraska did excise was losing to teams with inferior talent. Wisconsin, Ohio State, and Tennessee all were at least equals in terms of the players on the field to Nebraska.

Iowa, not so much. According to SB Nation’s five-year recruiting rankings – which is as good a tool as any to measure raw talent on the field – Nebraska is no. 22 nationally. Iowa is no. 40, the team with the lowest recruiting ranking of any squad NU lost to last year.

(In fairness, Wisconsin is no. 38, but the Badgers have a stronger history of over-performing their recruiting rankings than the Hawkeyes do).

Think about it this way. Let’s assume no more ridiculous losses to Purdue and that Nebraska can take care of business against teams like Northwestern and Minnesota. Nebraska ends the season at 8-4, but with two different scenarios.

The first scenario is with losses to Oregon, Wisconsin, Ohio State, and Penn State. Disappointing, to be sure, but in many ways it may be Nebraska’s most likely scenario for 2017.

The second scenario is with losses to Oregon, Ohio State, Penn State, but finally beating Wisconsin – and then losing to Iowa on Black Friday.

Of the two, which scenario would feel worse for you, Husker Fan? Which scenario might slide Riley closer to that hot seat in 2018?

You know the answer. So does Riley, which is why he fired his long-time friend after Nebraska’s day-after-Thanksgiving embarrassment last year.

Nebraska Football: A Theory on the Cornhuskers’ Collapse Last Season

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Sherman, set the WayBack Machine for October 29, 2016. Nebraska just missed exorcising its demons in Camp Randall with a thrilling 23-17 overtime loss to Wisconsin, but showed to the world that it could stand toe-to-toe and compete on a national stage. That near-miss loss meant that Nebraska was still 7-1 on the season, including an impressive (although, if you believe in win percentage as a metric, unlikely) victory over Oregon. It was encouraging enough for this dope to even end his ReView of the Wisconsin game with defiance, saying “bring on the Buckeyes.”

Yeah, that didn’t exactly work out for Nebraska. After Ohio State’s 62-3 evisceration of NU, the season took on water in a hurry. Nebraska pulled out a gritty 24-17 win over Minnesota, and a comfortable 28-7 victory over an outmanned Maryland, but those wins proved to be paper over the cracks.

On the day after Thanksgiving, Nebraska was dominated 40-10 by Iowa (!), surrendering 264 rushing yards (!!) and 404 total yards (!!!) to the Hawkeyes. Nebraska drew Tennessee in the Music City Bowl, and lost 38-24 to the Volunteers in a game that was nowhere near as close as the score might have indicated.

So Nebraska’s 2016 campaign ended at 9-4, a decided improvement over the 6-7 mark from a season prior. But in Nebraska’s three losses in its final five games last year, it was outscored 140-37, and outgained by total yards in those contests by more than a two-to-one margin, 1519 to 739.

What happened? How did a season that saw Nebraska at 7-0 and ranked no. 7 nationally end with such a resounding thud?

Obviously, a big part of it was that Nebraska’s quality of opposition improved dramatically towards the end of the season. Oregon looked like a great matchup on paper in 2016, but ended the season at 4-8 and a fired head coach. Ohio State, Tennessee, and (gritting teeth) Iowa were dramatically tougher opponents than Nebraska’s early-season victims, so it should not have been surprising that Nebraska had more difficulty at the end of 2016.

Additionally, Nebraska’s 7-0 mark coming into Wisconsin was clearly, in retrospect, inflated. Given the game flow, Nebraska was pretty fortunate to beat what turned out to be a very flawed (if talented) Oregon squad in Lincoln. Other than the Ducks, Nebraska’s best win in that 7-0 stretch was … Northwestern? Wyoming?

Those factors can explain some of what happened at the end of 2016. But it wasn’t just that Nebraska struggled at the end of last year. Let’s be honest. Nebraska collapsed at the end of 2016. Nebraska capitulated to the strongest teams at the end of its schedule. (And yes, that’s officially throwing shade at Minnesota.)

So what else explains the magnitude of Nebraska’s late-season collapse. There’s a whole bunch of factors, of course. And I will state from the outset that this is just rank speculation from a total outsider, observing from a distance. But I would venture an educated guess that there were two significant factors that contributed to last year’s swoon.

The first is the effect of injuries to quarterback Tommy Armstrong. Of course, his terrifying injury against Ohio State threw Ryker Fyfe into duty in Columbus. But Armstrong had been walking wounded for quite some time before his Ohio State scare, and a combination of injuries against Minnesota a week later knocked him out of the following game against Maryland.

Armstrong tried to soldier through his injuries against Iowa, and it showed. He ran six times for 13 yards and was 13-35 throwing for 125 against the Hawkeye defense. Armstrong was a shell of his former self on Black Friday, and everyone – including Iowa’s defense – could clearly see it.

Gamer that he is, Armstrong fought hard to get back on the field for the Music City Bowl, but his injuries simply wouldn’t allow it. Fyfe started against the Volunteers and was … well, he had eight rushes for minus-27 yards, and was 17-36 for 243 yards passing with two touchdowns.

It’s fair to say, then, that Armstrong’s injury was a significant factor in Nebraska’s late-season struggle. But it’s more than that. Fyfe was Nebraska’s best option as Armstrong’s backup. God bless the kid from Grand Island, he’s a good athlete, worked very hard, and did the best he possibly could in the situation in which he found himself.

But it was clear to any observer from the outset that Fyfe was never good enough for Nebraska to be competitive against a sturdy opponent. And, more importantly, it had to have been clear to the Nebraska squad that going into games against Iowa and (especially) Tennessee, having a quarterback as limited as Fyfe gave NU almost no chance to be competitive.

Outside of perhaps a goaltender in hockey, there is no position in sports more important than the quarterback in football. If there was one fatal flaw in former head coach Bo Pelini’s time in Lincoln (well, apart from the obvious), it was Pelini’s inability to get his signal-caller right.

Between Armstrong and Taylor Martinez, Pelini’s quarterbacks were dynamic and dual-threat, but ultimately limited due to their inability to pass effectively and avoid turnovers put a ceiling on how effective Nebraska’s offense could be. But maybe even more damning of an indictment might be how poor the depth at quarterback has been in Lincoln.

And that lack of depth ultimately undid Nebraska last season. A loss to Ohio State in Columbus was, in retrospect, not a surprising result. And asking Fyfe to come in for an injured Armstrong, with Nebraska already down 21 points, would have made anything other than a blowout surprising.

So really we’re down to two big losses – Iowa (!) and Tennessee – that defined Nebraska’s 2016 season. Why did Nebraska capitulate so badly in those games?

Let’s take as a given that both teams are very good, and worthy winners. But it’s hard not to see Nebraska’s collapse, in part, as a subconscious response by a team knowing that their quarterback gave them no chance to be successful on that day.

Against Iowa, Armstrong gamely tried to play, but it was clear from the start that his injury was going to rob him of his effective rushing of the ball. And without that threat of a run, Armstrong simply was not good enough as a quarterback to be effective.

Against Tennessee, Nebraska was asking Fyfe to go up against an SEC defense (including a future NFL first-round draft pick in defensive end Derek Barnett). Fyfe, as he always did, but up his best effort. But his best effort ended up being a sub-50 percent completion rate. Remarkably, Nebraska remained within a couple of scores throughout the game, but the outcome was never in doubt.

And it’s hard not to think that part of the reason Nebraska couldn’t hold up against Tennessee was because, at some level, the team knew that they couldn’t be successful with Fyfe under center.

Now, my caveats again. I wasn’t in that locker room, and I don’t know anyone that was. But I’ve been an observer of the game for a long time, and I know what my expectations were going into the Music City Bowl. I know what my expectations were against Iowa once it was clear that Armstrong couldn’t run. And if I knew that, it’s hard to imagine that the team didn’t at some level think that too.

And keep in mind, this was a team that had expended a lot of emotional energy that year. The sudden death of punter Sam Foltz just before the season started shocked and saddened the team, and the fan base overall. Throughout the year, the team remembered Foltz before each game, and accepted the support of opposing teams who wanted to sympathize in Foltz’s death as well.

Which, of course, was exactly the right thing to do. It was inspiring to see those young men rally around each other in their grief and memory of a remarkable student athlete taken too soon. I defy you not to tear up when you watch the “missing man” delay of game penalty tribute Nebraska took against Fresno State to honor Foltz’ loss.

But that kind of emotional energy, week after week during a hard campaign, had to take a toll on a group of young men. Add it that toll the disappointment of an overtime loss against Wisconsin, and then the unspoken futility of sub-optimal quarterback play, and you have a recipe for a collapse.

Is that what happened? I don’t know. Is it a plausible explanation, at least as a contributing factor, to how Nebraska could surrender 40 points to Iowa and 521 total yards to Tennessee at the end of a particularly grueling 2016 campaign?

I think it could have been. And if that’s the case, it provides a reason to be hopeful for a 2017 season that is otherwise chock full of questions.

Nebraska Football: Four Takeaways from the End of Spring Practice

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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.

Nebraska Football: Five Things To Watch For at the Red-White Spring Game

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On Saturday, Nebraska will have its fifteenth and final spring practice play the annual Red-White Spring Game before a crowd likely to be north of 80,000 in Memorial Stadium. As year three of Mike Riley’s tenure as Nebraska’s head coach begins, fans will be wondering what to expect after last year’s record was an improvement over the prior season, but saw some ugly losses to Ohio State, Tennessee, and (shudder) Iowa.

So what should a smart fan (and a DXP reader, but of course that’s redundant) be looking for from Saturday’s glorified final practice? Well …

Can The Quarterbacks Complete Passes?

I know, that sounds mean. But here’s Nebraska’s completion percentage from 2009-2016:

2009 57.7
2010 57.8
2011 56.0
2012 62.0
2013 57.7
2014 52.9
2015 55.9
2016 50.3

The last three years, of course, were with Tommy Armstrong as starting quarterback. And those numbers are simply not good enough for Nebraska to expect success on the field.

This year, with Armstrong’s departure, the quarterback battle looks to be between redshirt junior transfer Tanner Lee and redshirt freshman Patrick O’Brien. Lee played two years at Tulane, and many fans hope his experience will help him win the job and lead Nebraska’s offense out of the doldrums.

His career stats? A 53.6 completion percentage and a 23/21 TD/INT ratio. Sure, that was at Tulane, not Nebraska. But still, those aren’t numbers that inspire confidence.

With the threat of a quarterback run game now gone, Nebraska will need significantly more efficient play from the passing game to be effective on offense. Whether the starter is Lee or O’Brien, we will at least get a glimpse of what to expect from them on Saturday.

Can The Offensive Line Hold Up?

Nebraska’s passing game was a mess last year, and much of that comes from the signal-callers and their limitations throwing the ball. But part of the problem has been an offensive line that has struggled to perform at a high level. Injuries were a part of the problem last season, of course. But it’s rare to finish a season without some attrition on the offensive line from injury.

Going into Saturday, we do not yet have a good grasp on who will be starting up front on offense. We also don’t know exactly how the Red and White squads will be divided, so it may very well be that a full first-team offensive line won’t be on the field at the same time on Saturday.

But we will get at least some look at how this year’s version of the Pipeline will look come September.

Can The Running Game Get Established?

Yes, it’s fair to say that this question will hinge in large part on the answer to the last question about the offensive line. But it’s also fair to say that Nebraska has a whole bunch of I-Backs to pick from, none of whom have yet to show the ability to take over a game. For the three primary returning backs, here’s their yards per carry from 2016.

Mikale Wilbon 5.93 (15 carries)
Devine Ozigbo 4.25 (97 carries)
Tre Bryant 4.00 (43 carries)

Last year, Nebraska had the no. 73 ranked rushing attack nationally – and that was with Armstrong’s running ability factored in as a part of the offense. This year’s offense will likely not feature a quarterback run game, but will (hopefully, for Nebraska’s sake) have a more efficient passing attack. On Saturday, we will get at least a glimpse of how that effects Nebraska’s ability to run the ball.

Will The New 3-4 Defensive Scheme Take Time To Learn?

62-3. 40-10. 38-24.

Those were the scores of Nebraska’s last three losses (to Ohio State, (shudder) Iowa, and Tennessee), and were a significant factor in why Bob Diaco and not Mark Banker is Nebraska’s defensive coordinator in 2017.  But it’s not like Nebraska was dreadful on defense overall last year. NU was no. 30 nationally in total defense, and no. 33 in scoring defense.

So, on the good side, that means Diaco has a good platform on which to build. But, on the concerning side, it also means that a substantial shift in defensive scheme (from 4-3 to 3-4) runs the risk of upsetting the proverbial apple cart.

Diaco said (according to Rich Kaipust of the Omaha World-Herald) that the Spring Game will be more of a “dress rehearsal” than an audition, and that “[i]f you’re interested in filming the spring game to figure out what we’re going to do on defense, you’re going to waste a lot of film and footage.”

OK, sure, a smart reader like you might expect that Diaco wouldn’t come out with a quote like “hey, Nebraska opponents, make sure to check out the Spring Game because we’re totally going to show you all our sneaky trick defensive plays.” So of course what will be on the field this Saturday will be a pretty sanitized version of the Blackshirts compared to this September.

(And, at the risk of being snarky, it would be helpful to let Diaco know that most recording is now done digitally instead of using something like this. Although, in fairness, the latter is far cooler.)

Can Nebraska Generate Pressure on the Quarterback?

While we should be able to learn something about Nebraska’s new-look Blackshirts on Saturday, it is fair to say that we might know less about Nebraska’s ability to pressure the quarterback in 2017. Even if the offensive line is a question mark (see supra), it is unlikely that Nebraska will be calling any elaborate blitzing or pressure schemes.

Still, one of the advantages of a 3-4 front is to permit even four-man pressure from multiple locations, potentially causing confusion to opposing offenses (as discussed by Kaipust of the Omaha World-Herald). And Nebraska could use the help on that front, checking in at no. 65 nationally in sacks and no. 85 in tackles for loss last year.

So even without the blitzes or other extra schemes, getting a look at how a 3-4 front attacks an opposing offense should give fans at least a taste of what’s to come in 2017.

All stats courtesy of cfbstats.com.

Nebraska Football: Husker Fan, Chill Out About The ESPN FPI Prediction

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This week, ESPN released its Football Power Index (FPI), an analytical tool that simulates thousands of college football matchups to predict future outcomes. The FPI results for the 2017 season are out and they are … not optimistic for Nebraska.

The FPI thinks that Nebraska will win somewhere between 5.5 and 6.5 games in 2017, making it no. 58 in the nation. In looking at the schedule next year, that’s a lower rating than Ohio State (no. 1), Penn State (no. 8), Oregon (no. 21), Northwestern (no. 29), Iowa (no. 39), and Minnesota (no. 55).

Reactions on Husker message boards were, of course, calm, measured, and grammatically accurate. Basically, they broke down into archetypes.

Grizzled Old-School Husker Fan: Bah, what do those eggheads know about a game played on the field!

Snarky Hipster Husker Fan: Gee, can’t wait to watch that exciting half-a-loss Nebraska gets this year.

Angry Message Board Husker Fan: ESPN HAS ALWAYS HATED USSSSS!!!!!!11!!!!1!!

Husker Fan Pining For Previous Coach: It’s all because we fired Bo.

Husker Fan Pining For Previous Coach, Five Years Ago: It’s all because we fired Callahan.

Husker Fan Pining For Previous Coach, Ten Years Ago: It’s all because we fired Solich.

But the FPI results shouldn’t be a surprise. Here’s how ESPN describes the methodology for the FPI rankings.

The model comprises four major components: the last four seasons of performance on offense, defense and special teams, with the most recent season counting most; information on offensive and defensive returning starters, with special consideration given to a team returning its starting quarterback or gaining a transfer quarterback with experience; a four-year average recruiting ranking of four systems (ESPN, Scouts, Rivals and Phil Steele); and head coaching tenure. These four components interact and are assigned different weights depending on the team to produce preseason FPI.

Combining all of the factors above produces a predicted value on offense, defense and special teams, which represents the number of points that each unit would be expected to contribute to the team’s scoring margin if it were to face an average FBS team on a neutral field.

Bill Connelly from SB Nation (and the robot from the incredibly entertaining Podcast Ain’t Played Nobody) released his 2017 S&P+ preseason ratings, which consider recruiting, returning production, and recent history. That formula has Nebraska at no. 42 nationally, behind Ohio State (no. 2), Penn State (no. 8), Wisconsin (no. 11), Oregon (no. 23), and Northwestern (no. 37).

So the computers hate Nebraska in 2017. Why?

Well, first of all, the Nebraska that takes the field in 2017 will bear almost no resemblance to the 2016 squad (which may either relieve you or terrify you, based on your perception of last year’s team).

Quarterback Tommy Armstrong, the undoubted engine of whatever offense Nebraska could produce last year? Gone, replaced either by a Tulane transfer with a career completion percentage of 53.6 percent and a 23/21 TD/INT ratio, or a redshirt freshman who has never taken a snap in a college game.

Wait, there’s more. Nebraska’s leading rusher? Gone. Leading receiver? Gone. Third leading receiver? Gone. Fourth leading receiver? Gone. Any tight end on the roster with a career catch? Gone.

Remember, analytics in general and the FPI in particular look at returning production to “decide” how good a team will be going forward. Nebraska, outside of receiver Stanley Morgan, has basically no returning production. So it shouldn’t be a surprise that the analytics don’t think much of Nebraska’s chances in 2017.

So take another look at Connelly’s S&P+ preseason rankings. They rank Nebraska no. 22 nationally in recruiting, no. 32 nationally in a five-year average (thank you, 2015), but no. 72 nationally in returning production. That explains, almost entirely, how Nebraska ends up in the mid-forties overall.

Does that mean Nebraska can’t be successful in 2017? Of course not. But it highlights the danger that could burst Husker Fans’ bubble of optimism – that we really don’t know what to expect from the guys wearing the scarlet and cream next year. Tanner Lee might tear things up next year and make Nebraska’s new passing attack thrive. But we don’t know, and we won’t know until the season plays out.

And the analytics are giving us a preview of what the national pundits will likely do as the season gets closer – show that Nebraska has lost the benefit of the doubt. Remember, Nebraska hasn’t won a conference title since 1999. Nebraska hasn’t been competitive in a conference title game since 2009, and needed a once-in-a-generation player like Ndamukong Suh to get that close.

If and when Nebraska gets back to the point where it can legitimately compete for conference titles, the national spotlight and the benefit of the doubt will be back, rest assured. Nebraska is still a legacy name, like Alabama was when it labored under the tutelage of Mike DuBose, Dennis Franchione, and Mike Shula before some guy named Saban showed up in Tuscaloosa.

But Nebraska ain’t Alabama, at least not yet. And until Nebraska can show it won’t wilt under the spotlight, don’t expect the national college football audience – or the analytics – to give Nebraska the benefit of the doubt.

Nebraska Football: Three Things We Learned from the Cornhuskers’ Pre-Spring Defensive Depth Chart

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The best laid schemes o’ Mice an’ Men,

Gang aft agley,

An’ lea’e us nought but grief an’ pain,

For promis’d joy!

– To A Mouse, Robert Burns

A certain smart and particularly handsome analyst had a great idea. Do a preview of Nebraska’s depth charts before spring practice started, as a great way to lead into a discussion about how the roster could be composed. The depth chart projection, then, would be a convenient vehicle to analyze where the roster might be weak, or how changes on both sides of the ball could alter how players get used.

Then head coach Mike Riley, in his opening press conference of spring practice, had to go and mess everything up by announcing the entire defensive depth chart. You can see it here, thanks to Hail Varsity.

Now, in fairness, this isn’t exactly a depth chart in the sense of knowing who are the starters and who will be backups. But it does group the defensive roster into positions for new defensive coordinator Bob Diaco’s 3-4 scheme.

So now that the cat’s out of the bag, and our plans for the next couple of articles at the DXP are ruined, let’s at least take a look at Riley’s version of the Sorting Hat and see what stands out.

Field-side inside linebacker could be a problem

For the most part, Nebraska looks to have decent depth at most positions. But at field-side ILB, the roster looks a little thin. Dedrick Young should have the inside track to start, given the amount of time he played last year (even though his performance fell off towards the end of the season). But after Young, it’s two untested players. Mohammed Barry saw some work on special teams last year but precious little on defense, and redshirt freshman Greg Simmons is an unknown quantity.

Should something happen to Young – either through injury or poor play – then the field-side ILB spot for Nebraska becomes one of the biggest question marks on the defensive unit next season.

Whither the 2015 class?

Of Nebraska’s 2015 recruiting class, two of the top four recruits were defensive backs. Eric Lee was the highest rated recruit of that class (according to 247 Sports) at cornerback, and Avery Anderson was the fourth-highest rated player who moved between cornerback and safety.

So it’s a little jarring to see the pre-spring depth chart to list neither Lee nor Anderson. There’s spots on the depth chart for untested kids like JoJo Doman, Dicaprio Bootle, Tony Butler, and Marquel Dismuke. But no mention of the stars from Nebraska’s 2015 class.

That could mean the two of them are destined to be considered busts. Or, it could mean that Nebraska has an untapped vein of talent waiting in the wings of the secondary.

The names are going to take getting used to

Two inside linebackers? A “strong-side” and “field-side” outside linebacker? Defensive “ends” that have functionally the same role as defensive tackles Nebraska fans have grown up watching?

Yes, switching from a 4-3 to a 3-4 will be a big adjustment for Nebraska’s players and coaches, both in terms of players on the field and recruiting for the future. But it’s also going to be a big adjustment for fans watching Nebraska’s defense starting in 2017.  The new names – and new roles – for the front seven of the Blackshirts will take some practice.

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