Nebraska Football – Pre-Spring Game Offensive Preview

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The problem – well, one of the problems – with missing a bowl game is how long you as a fan have to wait to see football. In an ordinary, bowl-game-including season, the longest wait for Nebraska football is from the Spring Game until kickoff of the new season.

But after Nebraska’s 4-8 campaign in 2017, the firing of Mike Riley, and the hiring of Scott Frost, the wait from the end of the 2017 season to the 2018 Spring Game will be even longer. So if it seems like that ugly loss to Iowa on Black Friday was a long time ago, well, it actually was.

Even with snow still on the ground in April, then, spring football is here, and it’s time to start getting ready for what life will be like under Frost. Let’s take a look at the offense first, to get somewhat of an idea of what to expect.

Quarterback – Three schollies and a lot of questions

There’s a whole bunch of unknowns for Nebraska coming into 2018. But one of the biggest unknowns is who will be Nebraska’s signal-caller to start the season.

Nebraska’s two returning scholarship quarterbacks are redshirt sophomore Patrick O’Brien and redshirt freshman Tristan Gebbia. O’Brien has the only returning experience, playing in three games including the entirety of Nebraska’s 54-21 loss to Minnesota. Both O’Brien and Gebbia were recruited to play former head coach Mike Riley’s pro-style system, quite different from Frost’s no-huddle, up-tempo attack.

That doesn’t mean O’Brien or Gebbia couldn’t run Frost’s offense, though. As O’Brien told the Lincoln Journal-Star:

“I’ve been paying attention,” O’Brien said of the Knights. “Their offense is really fast, and they’re a good team. It’s going to be exciting for us to run that here. I feel like I fit in it pretty good. I ran something pretty similar to it in high school, and I feel like it fits my skill set, so I’m just ready to go.”

Also competing for the position will be true freshman Adrian Martinez, a four-star dual-threat quarterback. Frost was not shy about his praise of Martinez, according to Land of 10.

“I’m excited about him. He has a lot of potential,” Frost said. “When I was evaluating quarterbacks a year ago around the country, he was my favorite one. His ability to run and throw and his maturity as a kid are going to serve him really well, and for the offense that we run, I didn’t think there was a better fit in the country. Once we took the Nebraska job, we got a hold of him right away and we’re thrilled to have him on campus.”

So yes, Husker fan, at some point in the near future you’ll have a Martinez slinging the ball around Memorial Stadium. Get ready for your flashbacks.

It’s tempting to thing that Martinez will get the nod when Nebraska tees it up against Akron in September. At Central Florida, Frost didn’t hesitate to play a freshman quarterback in McKenzie Milton. But don’t discount the experience and athleticism of both O’Brien and Gebbia.

It’s likely that Frost and co. will want Martinez to show up ready and win the job. But it’s very unlikely that a true freshman will be able to pull of that feat. Look for O’Brien or Gebbia to get the nod, at least to start the season.

I-Back – Questions about the guys coming back, and the guys showing up

Nebraska looked like it had a real answer at I-back with Tre Bryant. For two games, Bryant looked to be the go-to back Nebraska had been hoping for since Ameer Abdullah,  averaging 5.86 yards per carry and 149.5 yards per game.

But lingering injuries sidelined Bryant for the rest of the season, and he remains a question mark as to what he will be able to contribute in 2018. Devine Ozigbo and Mikale Wilbon will be the backs returning with the most experience. Sophomore Jaylin Bradley flashed some potential, as well, in the limited opportunity he got towards the end of the season. And with the demise of the fullback, it’s likely that Ben Miles will look for his ability to contribute as an I-back, if not on special teams – if he remains part of the program.

This year’s recruiting class, however, has put some new faces into the mix. Junior college transfer Greg Bell was a jewel of the class, and with two years of eligibility left it’s hard not to see Bell competing hard for playing time right away. And on signing day (well, old school signing day anyway), one of Nebraska’s big wins was four-star running back Maurice Washington.

What the I-back position will look like in Frost’s new offense is still an open question. And given the new and returning faces in the room, who will be filling the role next season is just as much of an open question.

Wide Receiver – Stan’s squad

One of the best pieces of news Frost got upon taking the job in Lincoln was learning that wide receiver Stanley Morgan Jr was returning for his senior season. Morgan’s offensive output last year – 61 catches, 987 yards, 10 touchdowns – was one of the bright spots in an otherwise dismal 2017 season. Indeed, while Morgan did break Johnny Rogers’ 1972 single-season receiving record, his chase for 1,000 receiving yards ended up being about the only compelling thing to watch for Nebraska fans as the season wore down.

Also returning is JD Spielman, who had a breakout freshman campaign with 55 receptions, 830 yards, and two touchdowns. Spielman’s game would seem to translate well to Frost’s speed-based offense, and his year of experience should set him up well to contribute next year.

Tyjon Lindsey, one of the prize recruits from last year’s class, also returns with a year of experience. Lindsey struggled to find his place in the offense last year, but he remains one of the players for whom a year of experience and a change in system might pay the biggest rewards.

Nebraska’s also got some returning question marks, including Jaevon McQuitty coming off of an injury, and Keyan Williams looking for an opportunity to make his contribution. There was also a swell of receiving talent arriving in this year’s recruiting class, including junior college transfers like the speedy Jaron Woodyard and big-bodied Mike Williams. Incoming freshmen Miles Jones, Dominick Watt, and Andre Hunt will also find themselves competing for playing time in 2018.

Tight End – Spoiled for choices

Nebraska has one returning tight end with any experience, sophomore Jack Stoll, who hauled in eight catches for 89 yards and two touchdowns in 2017.

So, there’s some holes to fill for Nebraska at the position. The tight end is another position that looks to undergo some big changes in Frost’s offense, and the advantage Frost has is that he’ll have some options to choose from.

Stoll, as the only returning contributor, likely has an advantage in competing for playing time. But he’ll be fighting with oft-injured Matt Snyder, as well as highly-recruited Austin Allen and Kurt Rafdal. And don’t be surprised if Nebraska native David Engelhaupt is in the mix this season as well.

This year’s recruiting class also brought in three big-bodied, move-style tight end weapons in Cameron Jurgens, Katerian Lagrone, and Justin McGriff. So while Nebraska doesn’t have a lot of experience coming back, at the very least it will have a lot of options from which to choose.

Offensive Line – The perennial question

Nebraska should feel comfortable with returning talent at guard, as Tanner Farmer, Jerald Foster, and Brendan Jaimes will all be back. At center, Michael Decker and Cole Conrad will likely be competing for the spot, but both have injury issues that will limit their participation in spring practice.

Tackle is by far the biggest question on Nebraska’s offensive line – and that’s a big position at which to have a question. Matt Farniok will get a shot to slide out to tackle, and it also is time for Broc Bando and Christian Gaylord to step up and make their mark.

Nebraska has some additional line depth – Chris Walker, Boe Wilson, Jalin Barnett, and Matt Sichtermann will all have their opportunities. Freshmen Will Farniok and Willie Canty will be coming to Lincoln, but it’s always a challenge for freshmen linemen to play.

(h/t to Sam McKewon of the Omaha World-Herald for his offensive line preview)

GBR, baby.

All stats courtesy of cfbstats.com unless otherwise stated.

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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)

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: 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