56 days. 56 days until the Sea of Red fills Memorial Stadium to capacity and welcome a new set of foes into its historic walls.
With under two months left until the sky is peppered scarlet red with balloons celebrating the Huskers’ first score of the season and the sound of “There Is No Place Like Nebraska” echoes throughout the stadium, the anticipation for a new season has become palpable.
But before the first whistles ring and footballs zip through the air, the Nebraska faithful will have to quench their thirst with reports from media and scour the interwebs for glimpses of what the Huskers will look like this fall.
Over recent weeks, there have been several publications outside of Husker nation writing pieces about what to expect from the Cornhuskers this season. We’ve seen everything from reports that solely use last fall’s depth chart for their analysis and others that rely purely on stats to predict Nebraska’s future.
The bottom line is that to an outsider, properly understanding this year’s Husker squad requires a little more in-depth research and reading between the lines to see they’ve stockpiled a lot of talent the last two seasons that is poised to make an impact in the 2017 season and the question marks may be much smaller than they seem.
Kicking things off, Husker fans should be excited to see two different position groups as strengths at the onset of the season. The first starts with Offensive line coach Mike Cavanaugh returning a strong nucleus of starters from last year’s squad in Nick Gates (left tackle), Jerald Foster (left guard), Tanner Farmer (right guard) and David Knevel (right tackle).
Jack-of-all-trades lineman Cole Conrad figures to fight for the center position along with sophomore Michael Decker and redshirt freshman John Raridon who have both shown flashes of potential. As the primary backup last year, Conrad filled in at almost every position along the line and cut his teeth against some of the best defenses in the Big Ten.
While that experience should bode well for Conrad as he fights for a starting role, Coach Cav has also cultivated quality depth along the offensive line by preserving redshirts on freshmen Boe Wilson, Bryan Brokop and Matt Farniok who will all factor into the depth chart this fall.
Looking across the field should cause concern for every quarterback the Huskers face this fall as Nebraska returns one of the most veteran secondaries in the Big Ten. With returning players accounting for 12 of the Huskers’ 16 interceptions in 2016, they look to replace safety Nate Gerry who looks to make an NFL roster this fall after being drafted by the Philadelphia Eagles.
On one side of the field, there is NFL talent in senior Chris Jones at cornerback and on the other side, you have the young but skilled Lamar Jackson who should settle into his own as a true sophomore with Eric Lee playing a pivotal role in nickel situations. After a strong spring, junior Aaron Williams seems to be holding firmly onto one of the starting safety roles while senior Joshua Kalu will continue battle junior Kieron Williams for the other starting spot.
Kalu has moved over from the cornerback position this spring as new defensive coordinator Bob Diaco and former secondary coach Bob Elliott both believe his future to be brighter at the safety position.
The senior Kalu holds the edge after spring ball, however, don’t count out Kieron Williams as someone who could noise during fall camp. Kieron led the Big Red in 2016 with five interceptions and was consistently in the right place at the right time all season long. Keep an eye on those two as they battle through camp alongside junior Antonio Reed who added much-needed depth last year.
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention sophomore Jojo Domann as a bright spot for the secondary’s future. Domann was a name to watch on special teams as a true freshman last fall and was pushing hard to take over one of the starting safety spots this past spring until a season-ending injury happened. Look for Domann to take a medical redshirt this year to preserve a year of eligibility and come back in 2018.
Calling the wide receiver corps into question might cause you to scratch your head, but the truth of the matter is that the Huskers lost a plethora of experience this offseason thanks to graduation.
Long time standouts Jordan Westerkamp, Brandon Reilly and Alonzo Moore were all standout athletes who are pursuing their dreams of playing in the NFL this season. That leaves senior De’Mornay Pierson-El, junior Stanley Morgan Jr and walk-on junior Bryan Reimers as the only returning players with significant experience.
To make up for that lack of experience, the Husker offense will lean on junior transfer Keyan Williams and elusive redshirt freshman JD Spielman for added depth. In addition to those two, look for true freshmen Jaevon McQuitty and Tyjon Lindsey to battle for playing time this fall.
Not to be outdone by those with scholarships, journeyman walk-ons Conor Young and Gabe Rahn both benefitted after another year under Keith Williams’ tutelage and could make splashes of their own this fall.
There’s no shortage of skill at the wideout position, but Coach Williams will have his work cut out for him when it comes to creating depth and getting guys to play at a high level as quickly as possible.
A new name to keep a close eye on this fall is the aforementioned Tyjon Lindsey. Widely regarded as one of the elite recruits from the 2017 recruiting class, he is an absolutely electric athlete who has lightning in his shoes. I’m told he boasts some of the best — if not THE best — acceleration among all wide receivers that have graced a Nebraska football roster in a long time.
While question marks abound, the Huskers have a number of talented guys who can play football at a high level. Junior Mick Stoltenberg and sophomore Carlos Davis anchor things on the defensive line along with junior Freedom Akinmoladun, sophomore Daishon Neal and redshirt freshman Khalil Davis all providing valuable depth as the line transitions into a three-man front.
At linebacker, coach Trent Bray will lean on seniors Chris Weber and Marcus Newby to hold things down next to junior Dedrick Young and rising sophomore Alex Davis. Behind them are several youngsters chomping at the bit to steal a starting spot away.
By all accounts, true freshman Avery Roberts had a terrific spring and Mohamed Barry has shown flashes of great potential during practices and scrimmages. Not to be left out, Tyrin Ferguson and Luke Gifford will both help elevate the unit and provide crucial depth through one of the tougher Big Ten schedules the Huskers will face over the next few years.
Nebraska fans should feel terrific about the future of the defensive line along with the linebacker position since there are several players who have redshirted or came in from the 2017 class that are poised to make noise over the next few years. Keep an eye on true freshman nose tackle Damion Daniels, speedy linebacker Willie Hampton and redshirt freshman Quayshon Alexander over the next two years.
It’s not often that a special teams player is mentioned as a key figure for a football team’s success. However, over the last decade, the Huskers have fielded several top notch specialists. From Alex Henery to Sam Foltz and legends like Josh Brown.
Drew Brown is an impressive 141-for-143 on career PAT’s and made 85 percent of his field goals during Nebraska’s 2016 campaign. Brown has continually improved year after year, so look for that trend to continue as “starting quarterback” Zack Darlington will hold for him again this year.
This will be the first time since taking over the reins that head coach Mike Riley and offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf will have a starting quarterback on the roster that is truly capable of running their offensive system, not to mention a backup quarterback and freshman who both ooze raw talent.
Not only do the coaches have a growing legend in junior transfer Tanner Lee who has yet to take a snap in a game, but the dogfighting redshirt freshman Patrick O’Brien backs him up and true freshman Tristan Gebbia made quite the splash in the spring game after enrolling early. When was the last time the future of the quarterback position looked so bright?
Scholarship quarterbacks aren’t the only guys Riley has training in the cupboard though. This spring the staff brought in dual-threat quarterback walk-on Andrew Bunch from Scottsdale Community College who will three years of eligibility after putting in a season of work in the Arizona Community College Athletic Conference.
While at SCC, Bunch threw for 1,331 yards and 13 touchdowns in nine games as a freshman while completing 55.7% percent of his passes. Prior to that, Andrew was a three-year starter in Tennessee, who threw for 7,700 yards and 79 touchdowns while racking up 1,140 yards and 21 touchdowns on the ground.
The success of the 2017 season is predicated on how well Nebraska’s coaches can quickly shore up the aforementioned “unknown” positions and if they can find a way to widen the margin of victory in games that were close over Riley’s first two years.
For the offense to thrive, Nebraska will need to find a running back to compliment the skills of newly-appointed starter Tanner Lee along with having an inexperienced wide receiver corps step up to the plate. How long it takes for the offense to gel and get running on all cylinders behind a strong offensive line will set the tone for the entire season.
On defense, the Blackshirts will need to prove to the rest of the Big Ten that they’ve improved thanks to the addition of defensive coordinator Bob Diaco. His 3-4 defense will get ample opportunity as Nebraska will go up against powerful run games from the likes of Wisconsin, Ohio State, Penn State and Iowa. The defense has the athletes to make it happen but must prove that they can make everything fit together.
The Huskers are set to trend upward this year, so look for the Big Red to notch nine or ten wins during the regular season. If they’re able to close out the first five games of 2017 in comfortable fashion instead of relying on late heroics, Nebraska will be set up for a run at capturing their first Big Ten West title under Riley.