If nothing else, it felt inevitable.
The kick sailed through, and nothing more than a meaningless second was left on the clock. Iowa would send Nebraska to a what-felt-like-forever bowl-free offseason, and for the second time in two years under Coach Scott Frost, Nebraska would have a lot more questions than answers. While everyone outside of the 402 area code were laughing hysterically at the way in which Nebraska did everything terrible at the end of the game, including failing to understand whether to accelerate on offense or kill time, the clock immediately started ticking off until the next time this team could hit the field.
It’s at this point in the story that we probably all need to at least acknowledge the giant elephant in the room in that, who the hell knows if we are going to get to that next time, but for the sake of the rest of this piece, let’s assume a few things. (1) There will eventually be a season for the 2020 cycle, (2) it will include the players and coaches currently on the roster, and (3) football will resemble what we have come to know as football, just without fans. The cancellations of non-conference football feels like something more dark is inevitable, but we’re going to continue to bury our heads in the sand until we’re forced to feel otherwise. Sound good? Awesome. Let’s get back to things.
If there is one thing to know about the Nebraska Cornhuskers going into the fall, it’s that this team has run out of excuses for not making positive steps forward. They return the entirety of their O-Line and might have replacements starting who are much better on the whole. They return a broken, but extremely talented QB in Adrian Martinez. They have a RB in Dedrick Mills who came on late last year and looks the part of an every-down back, even learning how to block. There are no fewer than four TEs who could make a leap this year, including a transfer from Rutgers in Travis Vokolek, who has a 6’ 6” 250 frame for Martinez to target in the red-zone. Add to that, a fairly stout DB room, decent D-Line, and Mr. Does-it-all in Wandale Robinson, and the talent is there. But it was there last year too... And there’s the crux of the problem.
On the offensive side of the ball...
One of the most important changes for Nebraska this year is actually not a player-specific one. Scott Frost has traded out former-OC Troy Walters for an old friend from his Oregon days, Matt Lubick. Lubick is playing the part of OC, while Greg Austin has added “Run-game coordinator” to his responsibilities. Why does any of this matter? Well, because quite frankly, there’s something broken in Lincoln.
Frost, known for his ability to call a good game, create and design interesting offenses, and for always having something up his sleeve just isn’t there yet. To be fair, moving on from a pro-style offense that saw a mass-transfer glut in the first two plus years this staff has been here is not exactly an ideal situation. But, you would also like to see those glimpses of unstoppable - not unlike that first half against Colorado - to be more than just, well, glimpses. Coach Lubick has had his fair share of success, but is not without his own potential red flags. He took all of 2019 off after a very unsuccessful campaign in Washington under Chris Petersen. Has he learned something? Well, we will see.
I already mentioned most of the interesting parts of the offense, but this really does seem to come down to three things:
(1) Does Adrian Martinez progress in 2020? His injury-riddled 2019 was nothing short of disappointing, and even Coach Frost was saying he might not have been prepared to come out and compete. He’ll be pushed to do just that by RS Freshman Luke McCaffrey who looked the part in very limited playing time. Martinez, if he starts, will need to show much better decision making this year. He has all of the physical talent in the world, but tried to force things on more than one occasion. Going back to the Iowa game, that was a master-class in feast or famine. He had moments of greatness, but his mistakes cost Nebraska the game.
(2) Who does he throw it to? I’m fairly confident that the line will be better in 2020, and Dedrick Mills feels like he’s primed for a Devine Ozigbo-type season. But, with JD Spielman choosing to transfer out, plus pretty much everyone else, we’re left with Wandale and... well, that’s just it. Nothing else proven. Frost and Company have moved Chris Hickman from TE to WR to bolster the room, and he seems to like to block, but we’re looking at a great incoming recruiting class to step up early and often. Look for Omar Manning to start game 1, and I think he looks the part of what Frost has been looking for as a go-to receiver.
(3) What about the line? The O-Line was terrible at times, and decent at times. Every starter is coming back, but don’t expect that group to stay the same. Brenden Jaimes, Matt Farniok, and Cam Jurgens have cemented their places, but I would not be surprised to see RS Freshmen Bryce Benhart, Brant Banks, or Jimmy Fritzsche, make a push for at least some snaps, and there’s the highest rated OL in a long time, Turner Corcoran, coming in and ready. They need to give Martinez time to throw to whoever it is he is throwing to. The talent is there and now they need to show up.
If those three things get cleared up, this offense will be great in 2020. If not? Well, things are dicey for Nebraska because defensively, who knows what to expect. Which... let’s go there.
On the defensive side of the ball
The strength of this defense is the secondary, and that’s where to start. In 2019, it’s hard to believe, but Nebraska was not-terrible against the pass. Anchored by returning starters Dicaprio Bootle, Deontai Williams, and Cam Taylor-Britt, this grouping has the most talent of any positional group in Lincoln. Look for big jumps by Braxton Clark, Myles Farmer, and Noa Pola-Gates to really protect the back-end of the defensive struggle. And they’ll need to because the front seven haven’t exactly lit the world on fire the past two years.
Nebraska was awful against the run in 2019, and what was supposed to be a major strength - the D-Line - was easily pushed around. I realize that there was NFL talent across that line, but I don’t think this was a good defense for any of the Davis Twins. So, where does that leave us? Nebraska needs production from RS Freshman Ty Robinson at DE, and I think he has the potential to give it. Deontre Thomas and Ben Stille will need to make some big jumps to put pressure on opposing Offensive Lines from the end position. I like Damion Daniels in the middle, but as I type this, none of this strikes fear into an opposition.
As for the LB corp, well... JoJo Doman could be a star in the making at OLB, but he’s a converted Safety. Will Honas was probably the best ILB we had at the end of the year. And, there’s some talent in the wings with RS Freshman Nick Henrich coming off an injury and redshirting. What I’m trying to say is I don’t really know what’s going to happen at this position group and not having a lot of practice this spring isn’t helping things.
All that said, what should we expect? Probably a small jump that could turn much worse for Nebraska if the offense doesn’t get them off the field or score points.
On the question of special teams...
Nebraska was dismal here last year. With converted kickers, punting all over the place, and coverage kind of terrible, Nebraska was anything but special on special teams. So, what did they go and do? They hired a new Special Teams Coordinator/Analyst, Jonathan Rutledge from Auburn, and then went out and got like 100 competitors for every role. At Kicker there are some interesting transfers like Connor Culp from LSU or Chase Contreraz from Iowa Western CC. Both would be better than our 60% success rate last year - with multiple games lost because Nebraska couldn’t kick FGs.
At this point, I’m just naming a lot of random non-proven guys. I think this area will be better simply because last year was awful. Some of it was luck. Some of it was talent. And, truthfully, a lot of it was coaching. Let’s just assume it can’t be much worse than last year.
What to expect going forward...
Nebraska was not very good last year. And yet, they were 5-7 and a few plays away from 7-5. The talent level continues to improve and while everybody who watched that Nebraska-Iowa game understands that there are so many problems just under-the-surface, that team pushed the better team to the brink. The short of this entire conversation is that if there is a season, Nebraska could be pretty much anything. Scott Frost has completely flipped his roster from the beginning, but is that enough? We will see.
There are no more excuses as I said at the beginning. With COVID-19 running amok, who the hell knows what the actual bar should be, but I would like to see the Huskers getting above .500. The schedule isn’t pretty, especially if we’re looking at a 10 game conference schedule and that’s it. It will - at minimum - be a very interesting year.
Read More: Nebraska Week 2020
Monday: Cocktail Party Preview | Potluck #1: Scott Frost and the Mediocre Pizza Buffet of Nebraska Football
Tuesday: A Frat House, A Carpet, and a Sticky Mess | Potluck #2: Adrian Martinez and the Offense of All Sizzle, No Steak?
Wednesday: Nebraska Leads on Name-Image-Likeness | Potluck #3: Does Brad Chinander actually know what “Blackshirts” means?
Thursday: TBD | Record Predictions
Friday: Hate Fridays