Available Space on the Various Husker Bandwagons Entering 2020
Photo Credit: John S. Peterson

Available Space on the Various Husker Bandwagons Entering 2020

December 28, 2019

I was driving down Highway 2 with the fiancée the other day and accused her of being a front-running Chicago Cubs fan. How we got onto the topic of baseball or the long-tortured Chicago Cubs franchise or front-running or bandwagons is of little significance, but here I was, calling a Chicago native a Cubs bandwagoner.

As you can imagine, it did not go well for me.

I was, to be fair, just trying to be a pain in the behind and poke fun at a St. Louis Cardinals shirt stuffed away in some random corner of our home, but even the implication that she had hopped on the Cubs’ bandwagon after a World Series win was frankly grounds for me to get a solid throat-punching, as I was pleasantly informed.

The point being, don’t jump on the train after it has left the station. Don’t join the bandwagon once it has started to pick up steam. Those people aren’t well-liked. And don’t accuse someone who has suffered through the pains of building of jumping in once the times get good. (Ask Greg Smith how he feels about all those “I’ve been a Laker fan since Kareem” fans now who don’t know who Sasha Vujacic is.)

In that spirit, let’s talk about bandwagons. The year is coming to an end, and space is filling up fast on a handful of Nebraska player-specific vehicles. Call it an oddly-packaged, early way to document a handful of guys who are tentative additions to the “Most Intriguing Huskers” list this summer.

Let’s gauge available seats as we turn the calendar to 2020.

A few got off, so there’s some space available, but it’s standing room only at this point: safety Deontai Williams

Nebraska should seek a medical hardship for the hard-hitting safety, and, if approved, he’d have the 2020 season and then the 2021 season after it. Shoulder surgery cost the Florida recruit from Frost’s initial 2018 class all but one half of the 2019 season, and we’ll have to watch closely during the upcoming spring portion to see which Deontai Williams is coming back.

The one that left had the potential to be one of Nebraska’s very best on defense. In a limited role his first season—essentially the fourth safety in a three-man rotation—Williams made the most of a small number of snaps. He had two forced fumbles, two interceptions, two pass break-ups, a fumble recovery and a tackle for loss. Williams was one of the more efficient defenders in the conference.

Nebraska patched together his vacated safety spot in 2019 and that brought flashes of brilliance but prolonged stretches of frustration. Eric Lee Jr. had a pick-six in the opener against South Alabama but then didn’t make another game-changing kind of play the rest of the season. Dicaprio Bootle learned it in the Huskers last few games but with Lamar Jackson having graduated now the soon-to-be senior Bootle is the best cover corner Nebraska has by far, so spending anymore time with him at safety would seem a little counterintuitive. Eli Sullivan struggled with consistency.

Williams and Marquel Dismuke form a tandem at safety Nebraska is very excited about, and justifiably so.

I wrote before the season even began to buy Williams stock, but it in bulk and buy it soon. Excitement over the young guys is fine, but as long as he’s healthy, that safety spot opposite Dismuke belongs to Williams.

The comfy seats are free, so you can settle in for the long haul: cornerback Braxton Clark

First two guys are Travis Fisher guys. Imagine that. This was, after all, the Year of Fish. Clark is another guy the Huskers are really high on; high enough, in fact, that the aforementioned Bootle was asked to play safety in-game on the fly because him there and Clark in his spot was the best play of the hand.

Now that Jackson’s spot is up for grabs, Clark seems like the most likely candidate. If Cam Taylor-Britt continues to fill that jack-of-all-trades role spending some time at nickel and a little at safety and a little at corner, the Huskers need the 6-foot-4, 210-pound Orlando product to slide right into Jackson’s position.

Clark is physical, he’s got good instincts in space, and he’s got seemingly all the same physical tools that made Jackson such an exciting prospect when he first landed in Lincoln. The difference between the two: Clark gets Fisher for all five of his years. Fisher turned Jackson into a second-team All-Big Ten guy in two years; imagine what he could have done with Jackson in four?

Clark will be the case study in that regard. Quinton Newsome is perhaps another threat to grab Jackson’s spot, but, at least in looking at the way they’ve managed this so far, he might be the Bootle replacement a year from now. Clark is about to be in his third year in the program.

The one you didn’t know existed a year ago, and now you’re looking at the leg room and thinking, “This could be pretty nice”: tight end Austin Allen

Raise your hand if, heading into this season, you had “Austin Allen becomes outwardly verbal locker room leader, a weekly media presence, and forces the staff’s hand with two tight end sets because he’s gotten so much better” checked on your expect-to-see card before the season.

Okay, all you Aurora people—and Jacob—can put your hands down. I’m speaking directly to everyone else: what a wonderfully fun surprise.

Tight ends coach Sean Beckton said during fall camp that Allen had closed the gap on even the starter, Jack Stoll. He’d separated from Kurt Rafdal and taken advantage of the sit-out year Rutgers transfer Travis Vokolek was having to go through.

Nebraska likes Vokolek, at 6-foot-6, and it really likes Chris Hickman, also at 6-foot-6, but the 6-8 Allen, who’s about to be a junior, may have just earned a leg up on the both of them. The numbers in 2019 are modest, but that was the case across the board, as he had just seven catches for 83 yards, but there’s something to be said for the fact Allen was the one out there breaking down losses immediately after the fact as the season wrapped up.

If his blocking gets a little more consistent, and his chemistry with quarterback Adrian Martinez gets a little more solid, Nebraska could lean more on two-tight end sets in 2020 and have a real advantage. That, of course, depends on what happens this spring and summer. Beckton’s room might be one of the most fascinating to watch because there are legitimately four guys who could make a run at the starting spot.

And even though Nebraska’s search for bigger receivers yielded the 6-foot-4 Omar Manning and 6-foot-3 Zavier Betts, Allen is freaking LeBron James-sized and has been in the program longer. This is one of those situations where the car may never reach full speed, but if it does, you want to be in it. There are plenty of seats left.

The one you’ve already been patiently waiting on: outside linebacker Caleb Tannor

Plucked from Georgia in that first recruiting class, Nebraska has closely followed a plan for the soon-to-be junior Caleb Tannor. He has played in all 24 games to begin his Nebraska career, but is averaging just a little over a tackle a game during. He’s got four tackles for loss, 3.5 sacks and a pass break-up to his name in two years.

Not exactly the kind of production you’d hope to see from a guy given the keys at the outside linebacker spot in Erik Chinander’s 3-4 scheme, but also not cause for alarm just yet. Tannor’s physical transformation in two years is astounding, and the plan all along was to groom him. He wasn’t a ready-made pass-rusher Nebraska could just plug and play.

But now there are guys nipping at his heels. Nebraska has prioritized linebacker heavily over these last few recruiting cycles and this class saw guys like Blaise Gunnerson, Jimari Butler and Niko Cooper added to a 2019 group of Garrett Nelson and Jamin Graham.

Nelson, who we’ll get to in a moment, is going to pushing for snaps sooner rather than later, and I like Gunnerson as much as anyone, but some of the underclassmen still need physical development. Tannor is going into Year 3 of work, prep, and Saturday battles. Depending on how this offseason goes, the light could either come on in a big way or he stays just another guy at that spot.

Three of the names so far are 2018 additions. Big summers ahead for those guys as this team transitions into becoming theirs. Don’t jump off the bandwagon yet, as Tannor seems like the safest bet for an impactful pass-rusher at outside ‘backer in 2020.

The driver’s seat is open: Garrett Nelson, Bryce Benhart, Ronald Thompkins and Rahmir Johnson

Nelson played too much to redshirt; the defensive staff just couldn’t keep that kind of energy and dedication sitting on the sideline. Benhart needed and probably still needs time in the Zach Duval School of Wardaddy. Ronald Thompkins is recovering from injury. And the staff likes Rahmir Johnson enough that it wants five years with him instead of just four.

Specifically with the running backs, Ryan Held is going to stack talent on talent on talent every recruiting cycle, and it might turn into a situation where if a guy redshirts his first year in that room, he slips to the background of the public’s conscious. I don’t think that should be the case with either of Thompkins or Johnson.

Benhart forms the other side of the foundational offensive line Nebraska hopes to build around Turner Corcoran and Cameron Jurgens. Matt Farniok—2019’s starting right tackle, captain, and soon-to-be senior—has already publicly stated he’s fine kicking inside to guard if that’s what’s best for the team, which seemed like as clear an acknowledgment as we’ll get that Benhart is soon to be the guy at right tackle.

And then Nelson. I could write 5,000 words on the Scottsbluff native.

Outside linebacker, running back, offensive line. All three where jobs could be up for grabs throughout the entirety of the offseason. You’re getting in on the ground level with these guys, and you’re not yet at risk of losing a spot if you sit and think about it, but when it comes to explosive potential, isn’t it always better to be on board early?

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