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: 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