Friday was weird. A 25th birthday spent coughing up a lung from the living room couch while the family was in another state throwing a wedding shower. When they tell you it’s all downhill after your 21st, believe them.
Don’t boo-hoo though, because Year No. 25 should be an exciting one. I know I wrote this early and often in the run up to last season and got burned, but there is a great deal of intrigue ahead for Nebraska football in 2020.
Here are 25 things I’m looking forward to.
What was Frost’s takeaway from 2019? Offensively speaking, what did head coach Scott Frost learn the most from in 2019? What was his offense’s biggest area of weakness. I would imagine the gears have been turning since Nov. 30 trying to diagnose what went wrong. The fires were widespread. Does he feel a systemic tweak is needed? Personnel change? Keep on keeping on? The Huskers ended the regular season 42nd in offensive S&P, so the sky isn’t falling, and it’s an ever-so-tiny step forward from 2018 (45th). So how does NU make a bigger jump?
What is the goal? It was stated clearly and plainly in 2019: make it to Indianapolis. We know now how far off the Huskers were from that being realistic. Most rational observers outside the program will say Nebraska still isn’t ready to make the Big Ten title game its target, so what is the end goal for 2020?
Another harbinger: Returning production suggested Minnesota would be the team that came out of the muddied middle of the Big Ten West to challenge for the crown in 2019, not Nebraska, and people scoffed. Then it actually happened. Nebraska will be a darling when it comes to returning production this offseason in the same way Minnesota was last, with 88% of its offensive production coming back as things currently stand.
How is he going to remind everyone? I’ve said it many times. I’m still firmly in Adrian Martinez’s corner. The talent that helps someone earn a Freshman All-America nod doesn’t go away overnight. Martinez needs to work on his coverage-reading and decision-making, yes, but the young man’s struggles in 2019 had as much to do with factors outside his control as those within it. He’ll be a junior. He’ll be motivated. I’m most anxious to see how he bounces back.
The touch ball: That being said, there is one pass I want to see Martinez hit: the intermediate-to-deep over-the-shoulder ball. Not slinging it and letting his guy run under it, not side-arming it, not hitting the shallow cross or the bubble. I want to see Martinez drop a ball in-between some defenders. If he can start hitting that throw at a high percentage, watch out.
Who wins RT? Matt Farniok raised a few eyebrows late last season when he admitted he’d be open to a move into the interior of the offensive line. He’s started every game he’s been available to for Scott Frost in their two years together at right tackle, but such an acknowledgment means Farniok can hear the freight train that is Bryce Benhart’s supporters coming up on his heels fast. Many around the program believe Farniok is better-suited as a guard, and a 6-foot-9 Benhart was brought to Lincoln to be one of the pillars of a championship offense. Is he ready to start that journey after one year with strength coach Zach Duval?
A potentially-terrific trio of WRs: Omar Manning stretching defenses vertically, JD Spielman working the intermediate and short zones of the field, Wan’Dale Robinson doing whatever the hell it is the Huskers ask him to do, sounds like a plan coming together, doesn’t it? Manning has to make the adjustment from JUCO to major D1 football smoothly and develop a chemistry with quarterback Adrian Martinez, and Robinson has to prove an ability to stay healthy is one of his many skills, but the pieces are there.
The leadership void on D: Mohamed Barry and Darrion Daniels are both invaluable locker room presences. The pair of senior defensive captains snuffed out more than a few issues last season with their presence. Who exactly is replacing those two in terms of their off-the-field impact?
Corner or safety? Is Cam Taylor-Britt, a soon-to-be junior, best served as a cornerback or as a safety? Nebraska played him in both spots in 2019. It likes him better as a corner, and it’s going to have a need at corner with Lamar Jackson gone, but sophomore-to-be Braxton Clark is also walking around the building and Nebraska really likes him.
Now or never for Ben: I’ve been waiting on defensive end Ben Stille to break out for two seasons now. Coming into his senior year, it’s now or never. Stille won’t have the Davis brothers in front of him fighting for reps; he’s the vet in the room now and Nebraska’s safest bet at a legitimate fear-inducing kind of pass-rusher in 2020. Ty Robinson might not be ready for that yet and Stille is a full-grown brute. What’s his last dance going to look like?
The run defense: Nebraska has been hemorrhaging rushing yards as a defense for years and years and years. There was improvement early in 2019, it seemed, and then total collapse, and winning in the Big Ten (especially the West) means stopping the run. A big part of fixing that will have to be generating some negative plays on the ground early on in the chains. The Huskers have ranked 75th, 117th, and 130th in the last three seasons in stuff rate. Fix that.
Is it Dedrick’s backfield? Can they please feed senior-to-be running back Dedrick Mills?
Which 2019 wideout steps forward? Jamie Nance early-enrolled. Darien Chase played the most. Demariyon Houston didn’t see the field. It’s natural for the newly-signed recruiting class to be the talk of the town in December, January and February, but outside of Manning, a guy like Nance or Chase being that other receiver to step into a role seems more likely than one of the true freshmen.
Is the Blackshirt alternate here to stay? Scott Frost likes alternates. He does. Sue him. If he wanted to change things dramatically and felt he could get away with it, I’d wager he would. He’s from the Phil Knight school of team branding after all. So is the 2019 Blackshirt alternate, at the very least as a concept, here to stay? Is something else coming?
Who wants to play special teams? The Husker special teams was 123rd in SP+ in 2019. It ranked 80th in 2018. Things were a mess in the third phase of the game last season in every way possible and that needs to change. Nebraska’s kicker seems to be up in the air, but maybe more importantly it needs players who are going to do their jobs on kickoff and punt coverage. With Jovan Dewitt in North Carolina, that unit will be coordinated by someone new in 2020. What will that mean?
Is a photo of the finger wag/blown kiss on a bulletin board somewhere? Should be.
The tri-state area record? We can’t say right now, in January, whether the Huskers are ready to compete with Ohio State and Michigan and Penn State, but that probably wouldn’t much matter anyway. A bowl game for Nebraska, and how nice it is, will be determined by the record against Wisconsin, Iowa and Minnesota. Big Red went 0-for-3 last season and haven’t been better than 1-for-3 a single year since the conference realignment happened in 2014.
Finishing: Nebraska spent three straight years, from 2013-2015, in the top-30 when it came to red zone touchdown percentage. In the four seasons since it hasn’t cracked the top-60. Last season the Huskers got touchdowns on 53% of their red zone trips (100th). Will someone like Manning help that?
Time for the SEAL? Damian Jackson has been on the Husker roster for three years now learning the game of football. A physical specimen, is there anything in the tank he can give the Husker defense or special teams? What a story if so.
Center of attention: (Will I ever not be able to make that pun?) Frost thinks sophomore-to-be Cameron Jurgens is a mini Dave Rimington. If the snaps that kept pulling up in 2019 keep down in 2020, Nebraska might have a player capable of challenging for the trophy bearing Rimington’s name once again. Jurgens’ blocking ability and instincts as a young center are already something to behold.
Two guard spots, lots of options: Let’s just say Benhart does win the starting right tackle job. Hypothetical for a second: the Huskers then have, for two guard spots, Matt Farniok (senior who has been a starter), Boe Wilson (senior who has been a starter), Trent Hixson (has been a starter), Ethan Piper, Will Farniok, Broc Bando and then a slew of redshirt freshmen and true freshmen. Greg Austin’s offensive line will once again be fascinating.
TE1 up for grabs: I like Jack Stoll. I think his job is up for grabs this offseason. Nebraska very much likes 6-foot-6 Rutgers transfer Travis Vokolek. Nebraska very much likes 6-foot-6 redshirt freshman Chris Hickman. Then there’s junior and super, duper tall Austin Allen, who has forcefully thrown his name into consideration for the top job with his development in the last year-plus. Nebraska needs more from its tight ends.
Is Walk-On U back up and running? Maybe the progress started to show itself last season. Walk-ons like Luke Reimer and Joseph Johnson and Eli Sullivan carved out roles for themselves on defense. Kade Warner became kinda valuable on offense. Nebraska added Isaac Gifford and Ty Hahn to both sides, respectively, this last cycle. Maybe.
Barry’s inside linebacker spot: Senior-to-be Collin Miller is not in danger of losing his starting spot. Senior-to-be Will Honas is not a lock to have the other, Barry’s old spot. Nick Henrich, Colorado State transfer Zach Schlager and freshman Keyshawn Greene all might have some fight in them.
Which guy is this year’s plug-and-play freshman? In 2018, it was Adrian Martinez, a no-brainer. In 2019, it was Wan’Dale Robinson, another no-brainer. This season, though, it’s not that simple. Which first-year player can be the kind of instant-impact player? He might be on defense…
Derek is a newbie on the Hail Varsity staff covering Husker athletics. In college, he was best known as ‘that guy from Twitter.’ He has covered a Sugar Bowl, a tennis national championship and almost everything in between (except an NCAA men’s basketball tournament game… *tears*). In his spare time, he can be found arguing with literally anyone about sports.