With the early signing period in the books and no bowl game to look forward to (well, no bowl for the Huskers anyway; Brandon Vogel will be covering the Peach Bowl for Hail Varsity), it’s time to start looking back on the 2017 season. First up is an overview of the offense, which managed just 25.8 points per game this year.
What Nebraska Needed to Do
Heading into the season, it looked like things were finally coming together for Mike Riley on offense. After two years of Tommy Armstrong Jr. running the show, Riley and Danny Langsdorf had their guy at quarterback in Tanner Lee, a pro-style passer with NFL hype.
That being said, there were still plenty of questions surrounding the offense after the Huskers lost most of their production at the wide receiver, tight end and running back positions. Could Lee live up to the hype after a year on the scout team? Would he get enough help from an unproven group of pass-catchers and ball-carriers? Could the offensive line, mostly intact from the previous year, both provide Lee with enough protection and open up some holes in the running game?
What Nebraska Did
Things did not exactly go according to plan.
Lee was up and down. He certainly looked like the guy we all heard about for stretches of the season, putting up big numbers in some of the games, making next-level throws and even leading a game-winning touchdown drive. However, he also threw a few pick-sixes and struggled mightily to complete passes to his own teammates.
As for the receivers, Stanley Morgan Jr. broke the school receiving yards record, J.D. Spielman broke a handful of freshman receiving records from of the slot, De’Mornay Pierson-El had the best receiving season of his career and Tyler Hoppes emerged as a legitimate receiver at tight end, breaking the single season school receptions record for the position. However, the depth became sorely compromised with injuries to Jaevon McQuitty, Keyan Williams and a couple others and drops plagued the team at inopportune times, especially early in the season.
At running back, Tre Bryant emerged as a star in the first two weeks and then we never saw him again after a mysterious knee injury. Devine Ozigbo led the team in yards, Mikale Wilbon led it in touchdowns and Jaylin Bradley showed some flashes in limited touches, but none of the group was able to grab the starting job and run with it (sorry).
That leads us to the offensive line, which was the biggest problem for this team even beyond the free touchdowns for opposing teams. Part of Lee’s interception problem was constant pressure, especially early in the season. He got roughed up quite a bit and it made it tough to get any kind of downfield passing game with consistency. It was even worse in the running game, where the Huskers averaged a brutal 3.51 yards per carry as a team. Despite plenty of experience in Nick Gates, Jerald Foster, David Knevel, Tanner Farmer and Cole Conrad, Nebraska simply couldn’t get a push in the trenches.
What It Means Going Forward
Scott Frost’s offensive system is going to be dramatically different than Mike Riley’s, and as such there will be a transition period for sure as players settle into their roles and learn the playbook. That being said, the potential for big seasons from the returning skill position players is through the roof.
Stanley Morgan Jr., J.D. Spielman and even sophomore-to-be Tyjon Lindsey all could put up big numbers under Frost if they return, and the new staff has worked hard to bring in bodies to compete for playing time at wide receiver, tight end and running back though both the high school and junior college ranks.
Frost is going to have to figure out who his quarterback is going to be. Does Tanner Lee return and beat out his competitors despite not seeming to be a great fit for the offense? Or does he move on, whether by declaring for the NFL Draft or exploring the transfer market? With a year on the scout team and in the weight room under his belt, can Tristan Gebbia win the job? What about Patrick O’Brien? Does Adrian Martinez make an immediate push? Whichever decision Frost makes, his track record with Mckenzie Milton’s success at Central Florida certainly inspires confidence that he will make it work.
However, none of the above matters if the offensive line plays as poorly as it did last year. Unlike all the other positions, an influx of new talent isn’t likely going to make a difference. The Huskers have a pretty full complement of linemen (minus another tackle or two), and they’ve got a lot of experience. Michael Decker and Brendan Jaimes emerged as legitimate starters at center and right tackle, respectively, but the other three spots need an upgrade in production. Can offensive line coach Greg Austin and strength coach Zach Duval unlock the talent on this roster? That will be the key in how quickly Frost and his staff will be able to turn the Huskers around.
Jacob is in his third year with Hail Varsity covering Husker athletics. He has also written extensively for SB Nation’s Bright Side of the Sun and The Creightonian. His love of basketball can best be described as an obsession and if you need to find him, he’s probably in a gym somewhere watching, coaching or playing hoops.