Nebraska Football: How the Cornhuskers Could Fail to Live Up to the Hype in 2019

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For the first time in forever (it seems), Nebraska is the toast of the national college football media preseason. No less a luminary than Phil Steele picked Nebraska as his no. 1 most improved team for 2019. Nebraska has been in the conversation as a dark-horse national title contender. Nebraska just missed being in the coaches’ preseason top 25 poll.

That’s a lot of positive vibes for a team that went a combined 8-16 in the last two years and hasn’t been to the postseason since getting clobbered by Tennessee in the 2016 (!) Music City Bowl. Of course, there’s plenty of reason for such optimism, between head coach Scott Frost’s experience turning UCF around and having legitimate Heisman Trophy candidate Adrian Martinez back at quarterback for his sophomore season.

But Husker Fan having all the feels in August doesn’t guarantee the long-awaited turnaround for Nebraska football is at hand. Even with all the reasons for optimism, there are ways that Nebraska’s 2019 season could fall apart. If it happens, these could be the culprit.

Center

One of the biggest questions about Nebraska’s roster in 2019, and certainly the biggest question on the offensive side of the ball, is who will play center. Cameron Jurgens, a redshirt freshman tight end converted to the position, seemed to have the pole position for the starting role given how highly Frost has praised him – comparing Jurgens’ potential to none other than Dave Rimington.

That’s about as high of praise as you can give for a center wearing the scarlet and cream, so clearly Frost likes what he sees in Jurgens’ potential. But injuries have sidelined Jurgens from participating in fall camp, and it is unclear if he would be ready to start the season.

That means Nebraska’s best case scenario is to play a redshirt freshman who has never played the center position before, coming in with little-to-no time in fall camp to get ready and to gel with the rest of the offensive line.

If Jurgens isn’t ready, or doesn’t get the nod, then Nebraska will likely turn to redshirt freshman Will Farniok or walkon freshman A.J. Forbes. Neither Farniok nor Forbes has played snaps at center, either, so no matter what Nebraska will be starting a freshman without experience at the most important position on the offensive line.

In Frost’s offense, with its focus on timing and precision, a clean center-quarterback exchange is crucial. The center is also usually responsible for making line calls to ensure coordination between the entire offensive line in their blocking scheme. That’s a big responsibility for a young player, whoever might step up and take on that role.

And a struggle for Nebraska at center could short-circuit much of the offensive progress made in year one of Frost’s arrival in Lincoln, which could result in a disappointing 2019 campaign.

Inside Linebacker

There is, rightly, significant concern about Nebraska’s depth at outside linebacker. Alex Davis, a talented senior who has yet to produce, and JoJo Doman, who has just returned to fall camp after injury, are the most reliable options Nebraska looks to be fielding at a position of need.

But inside linebacker might be even more concerning with regards to depth. Mohammed Barry is the anchor of the linebacker corps (and, indeed, the entire defense), and Collin Miller is hoped to build on a solid end to the 2018 season.

After that? Nebraska is hoping JUCO transfer Will Honas can return from injuries that robbed him of the majority of last year’s campaign, but we don’t know yet if he’s able to return to form. Freshman phenom Nick Henrich’s injury will certainly keep him out of the lineup for the start of the season, and at this point anything Nebraska gets from him in 2019 has to be viewed as a bonus.

Behind those four (and, really, those three), it’s a grab bag. Can Garrett Snodgrass make a leap and gain playing time? How about Jackson Hannah? Garrett Hustedt? Nebraska has a wealth of freshmen in the room, but there’s no clarity who – if any – would be able to successfully fill that role in the middle of the defense against B1G competition to give the starting three a break – or to replace them in case of injury.

Unlearning the Past

This point has less to do with one specific position group and more to do with the team as a whole. Nebraska is coming off two straight seasons of going 4-8. Nebraska has had one winning season in the last four. Nebraska has losing streaks to conference foes like Northwestern (two straight), Iowa (four straight), Ohio State (four straight) and Wisconsin (six straight). Nebraska hasn’t been in a conference title game since 2012, and that one didn’t really go well for the boys in scarlet and cream.

In other words, it’s been a long time – since the current players on Nebraska’s roster were in middle school, at best – since NU has tasted success in football. Of course, everyone is excited and optimistic about the future. All the players love the chemistry of the team and say they are in the best shape of their lives.

That may all be true, but we heard it all before the 2018 campaign, and the 2017 campaign, and the 2015 campaign too. Until Nebraska proves something on the field, it hasn’t accomplished a darn thing.

And that’s the danger, if Nebraska happens to hit a bump in the road this season. Say things go wrong and Nebraska gets knocked off by Colorado in Boulder. Say Ohio State finds its mojo and does to Nebraska in Lincoln what it did to Michigan last year. Say Nebraska has an unfathomable clunker and loses on the road to Illinois or at home to Indiana.

In other words, what happens if the reality of Nebraska’s 2019 campaign doesn’t quite match up with the lofty expectations? Is there a risk that the sounds of Nebraska’s football failures in this last decade start to echo in the players’ minds? Could the prospect of a promising season slipping away start to make the jerseys weigh a little heavier on the backs of the players, prompting a downward spiral?

This isn’t to say that this doomsday scenario will happen. Indeed, given the combination of Frost’s accumulated talent and track record of success, this scenario is pretty unlikely.

But it’s not impossible. And it’s one that Nebraska fans will have to be cognizant of when (not if) NU hits a couple of bumps in the road this season. A serving of patience from a fanbase that is understandably desperate for national relevance will go a long way to help avoid a challenge turn into a disaster.

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.