Nebraska’s season ended with a thud last Friday, losing to Tennessee 38-24 in the Music City Bowl. The loss ended Nebraska’s 2016 season at 9-4, with four of Nebraska’s losses coming in the final six games of the season. This led to Husker fans searching for answers as to why Nebraska can’t take the next step toward the college football elite but the answer is the same as it always has been since 2000. The Huskers need more speed.
To break it down, let’s look at games where Nebraska had equal or higher levels of team speed than its opponents. There were nine games in which this was the case (Fresno State, Wyoming, Northwestern, Illinois, Indiana, Purdue, Minnesota, Maryland and Iowa.) In those nine games, Nebraska went 8-1. With the exception of Iowa, Nebraska’s defense tackled reasonably well, the receivers were able to get open and the Blackshirts were able to make plays and force turnovers.
In the four games where Nebraska had less team speed than its opponents (Oregon, Wisconsin, Ohio State and Tennessee), Nebraska won just one of those four contests and the same problems continued to crop up. Nebraska struggled to tackle in space, Nebraska’s receivers struggled to get open against man coverage and the Huskers couldn’t get home and sack the quarterback.
Now that we know what the problem facing Nebraska is, how does Mike Riley solve it? Let’s first look at the new redshirts that will be eligible for 2017. J.D. Spielman and Dicaprio Bootle both bring instant speed upgrades to their position groups. While neither are necessarily speed demons, both Collin Miller and Ben Stille represent upgrades in terms of athleticism over the departing Ross Dzuris. The only position where Nebraska loses speed from its departing group is at tight end, where neither Jack Stoll nor David Engelhaupt bring the pure speed and athleticism of the departing Cethan Carter.
However, the real area where Nebraska can take a massive step forward in the speed department is in recruiting. These final days will be vital to Nebraska taking the next step as a program. Nebraska currently holds 14 commits in its 2017 class, which got off to a strong start in terms of recruiting speed.
Let’s compare the current signees to the players that will be replaced, specifically at the two position groups that rely the on speed the most:
At linebacker, Nebraska is losing Josh Banderas and Michael Rose-Ivey to graduation. The three linebackers Nebraska has landed – Andrew Ward, Avery Roberts and Willie Hampton – are all upgrades, at least in terms of pure speed. The three commits – well, four if Trent Bray can land Isaac Slade-Matautia – give Nebraska a noticeable boost in speed at linebacker. Landing these three also gives Nebraska 10 linebackers that can compete for playing time next fall, which gives the Huskers the flexibility to move Quayshon Alexander, an oversized outside linebacker, down to defensive end. This would then improve Nebraska’s team speed at two different positions.
At wide receiver, Nebraska loses three seniors to graduation – Jordan Westerkamp, Brandon Reilly and Alonzo Moore. Nebraska still has a lot of work to do in order to replace them, as the Huskers currently only have two wide receiver commits in the 2017 class. Neither receiver commit would be considered a noticeable speed upgrade over the departed seniors though.
Jaevon McQuitty has solid speed but fits the Stanley Morgan Jr. mold of a possession receiver, as opposed to over-the-top burner. Keyshawn Johnson Jr. is a fundamentally sound receiver with great hands, but he does not possess breakaway speed.
Nebraska is looking to sign three more receivers in its class, with Joseph Lewis, Jamire Calvin and Gavin Holmes appearing to be Nebraska’s top targets. All three of those signees would represent a speed upgrade over Nebraska’s departed trio. Now the question is whether or not Nebraska can actually land them, which won’t be easy. The Huskers will have to beat out Notre Dame for Calvin and Oklahoma for Lewis and Holmes.
Nebraska proved that it is a pretty good team in 2017, winning all of its games at home and finishing the year with nine total victories. However, the Huskers were not a great team in 2017, and to get better, they simply have to get faster. The answer to the problem is simple, but time will tell if Riley and his staff can truly solve the issues that have plagued Nebraska since 2000.