After quite possibly the strangest offseason ever, Nebraska can begin fall camp on Friday. Just because the Huskers and other programs around the country have reached this particular mile-marker doesn’t mean there won’t still be stoppages on the road ahead, but there will no doubt be an electricity in NU’s locker room Friday morning as guys are getting ready to take the field.
They’ve made it one step closer to being able to start their season. That’s what everyone in Nebraska’s locker room wants. Head coach Scott Frost has said his team wants to play. Many of them told the world on Thursday just how much. While other programs are struggling to keep college kids from being college kids, by and large Nebraska’s group has done what’s been asked of it to ensure they continue having something to wake up incredibly early for each morning.
Football is around the corner. Nebraska knows who it’ll be playing, where it’ll be playing at, and what day it’ll be playing on. There’s still the potential for disruptions to the schedule in the weeks ahead, but expect Nebraska to focus on the things it can control and take things day by day.
Let’s take a look at storylines to watch for, names to know, numbers to keep in mind, and a few other odds and ends.
Storylines to Watch
>> Nebraska needs better line play. It was 81st in stuff rate, 89th in line yards and 112th in passing downs sack rate a season ago on offense. It was 66th in sack rate defensively, tied for 72nd in tackles for loss and 102nd in yards per run allowed. It wasn’t consistent enough at opening up running lanes on the ground and wasn’t sure enough protecting the quarterback on passing downs, and it once again couldn’t stop the run on the other side of the ball.
The quarterback battle, whoever close it actually is, and the receiver rotation and some of the other stuff we’ve spend time talking about this offseason—the shinier stuff—all feels secondary. Line play will take Nebraska to bowl eligibility (if that’s what we’re deeming a successful season) and potentially beyond.
On offense, the attention will be squarely on the right side of the line. How is Matt Farniok doing making the slide inside from tackle to guard and is Bryce Benhart holding down the fort well enough at right tackle?
The guys left of those two will be interesting, too, mind you, as Nebraska will want to see center Cameron Jurgens continue to progress (and keep his snaps clean throughout camp) and will choose from a host of options for left guard. Trent Hixson is there, Boe Wilson is there, Broc Bando is there, Nouredin Nouili has his eligibility waiver in hand so he’ll be there as well.
On the other side, defensive line coach Tony Tuioti, by most accounts, will have a rotation that could span as many as eight guys. Who grabs the key spots? There are lots of enticing options but few provide any kind of certainty right now.
Perhaps lining Ben Stille, a veteran defensive end, up across from Benhart can help Nebraska gauge where the freshman tackle is at. NU doesn’t need to do much in the name of evaluation with Stille, he’s a leader and a proven player.
The other guys will all have something to prove, though.
Deontre Thomas, now a fourth-year junior, has been around NU for awhile. It might be a make-or-break year in terms of solidifying playing time. Tate Wildeman and Casey Rogers are two third-year sophomores who were part of Frost’s first signing class. Defensive tackle Damion Daniels needs to show his coaches some sustainability. Keem Green, another junior, needs to make up for lost time after a disappointing first year on campus. Because behind those guys Nebraska has Jordon Riley, Mosai Newsom, and Ty Robinson, a junior and two redshirt freshmen respectively who are all teeming with talent and represent potential difference-making players. Pheldarius Payne feels like a wild card. Nash Hutmacher could crack the rotation.
Competition will be fast and furious here. That also stands to help the offensive line.
>> Special teams analyst Jonathan Rutledge will be able to work with his group on the field once fall camp begins. The new assistant, by way of Auburn, wouldn’t normally be able to handle any on-field instruction with players during practice, but these aren’t normal times. One of the changes the NCAA has adopted to help mitigate lost spring practice has been to allow analysts more access. Rutledge can get hands-on.
Nebraska could use that in a major way.
Rutledge was brought in to fix a dumpster fire of a unit. His track record suggests the ability to do so, but Nebraska might represent the lowest starting point he’s inherited. The Huskers finished 2019 ranked 124th out of 130 FBS programs in Bill Connelly’s SP+ metric. It’s a laundry list of things when it comes to reasons why: field position was never any good as NU was average returning punts and mediocre returning kicks, six different kickers were used and it wasn’t until Game No. 11 that NU found any kind of reliability, the punt coverage team was caught napping on multiple occasions, etc.
The departure of wideout JD Spielman this offseason hurts here, too. NU needs a new punt return man now. It’ll be interesting to see if Wan’Dale Robinson double dips on kickoff and punt return units; NU needs to keep him as healthy as possible to carry a larger offensive burden and it has other options it could try in the return game.
Rutledge will have a host of new kickers to try and settle on. Iowa Western’s Chase Contreraz, LSU’s Connor Culp, Broken Arrow’s (OK) Tyler Crawford. Contreraz was the odds-on favorite to win the job, then Culp announced he was grad-transferring from LSU to spend his last year in Lincoln. He brings starting experience, though it was a few years ago as he was beaten out for the job twice. Crawford is a dark horse; don’t discount his leg strength. At the least, he might handle kickoffs.
Punter is a different story. NU has Will Przystup in the fold already, he’s got Big Ten punting experience. It does not yet have its lone scholarship punter, though, in Daniel Cerni. The Australian international still has not made it to Lincoln, and there’s uncertainty surrounding when he’ll be able to join the team. Even once he makes it to campus, he’ll need to go through the proper medical procedures before taking to the practice field.
There are more exciting areas to watch, but special teams can win games for teams. Nebraska’s coaching staff believes this. The third phase of the game can also lose games for teams. And Nebraska’s coaching staff knows this. Rutledge getting to work directly with the unit is a big win for NU.
>> Returning to the NU offense is a combined 66 receptions by wide receivers. Wan’Dale Robinson has 40 of those after one season, Kade Warner has 25, and Chris Hickman has 1. That’s it.
NU has experience in its tight end room—Jack Stoll and Travis Vokolek may very well form one of the better duos at the position in the league—but that’s sorely lacking in the wideout group.
Not normally that big a factor, as it’s easier for a wideout to join a team and make an impact right away compared to, say, a lineman, but after the offseason NU has had, chemistry is at a premium. Whoever is throwing to this remade crop of wideouts will be doing so with a fledgling relationship. Adrian Martinez and Luke McCaffrey, they don’t know how Omar Manning likes to come out of his breaks. They don’t know where Zavier Betts wants the ball. The timing needs to be formed. The trust needs to be formed.
More than anything, that’ll be key for the passing game. NU has a host of players most everyone is excited about in one way or another. If Chris Hickman beats out one of the newcomers for a spot, people will still have some level of anticipation over what he can accomplish. If it’s Alante Brown getting early season burn, same deal. The most important thing will just be finding a collection of receivers the quarterback has trust in. Martinez needed more time in the pocket last season, but he also didn’t look 100% confident in who he was throwing to if the numbers on the back of the jersey weren’t 10 or 1.
If NU can come out of camp with four or five guys it feels rock solid about, and we don’t enter the season having that same “we need a third guy to step up” conversation we’ve had each of the last two years, things should be in good shape.
Names to Know
>> DB Nadab Joseph, sophomore, 6-foot-2, 190 pounds: The third-ranked junior college player and the top defensive back from the 2020 cycle, Joseph is extra firepower for a defensive backfield that didn’t actually need any. Not that DB coach Travis Fisher is one to rest on his laurels. Joseph arrived at Nebraska this Monday in order to get enrolled and begin his quarantine. The expected starters in the secondary were three seniors—Dicaprio Bootle at corner, Deontai Williams and Marquel Dismuke at safety—and a junior in Cam Taylor-Britt, but Joseph is the kind of lengthy athlete who might have a say in that before all is said and done. He’s the second late-arriving JUCO product Nebraska has taken in as many years, Keem Green coming last year, so it’ll be interesting to see where his conditioning is at on Day 1.
>> LB Luke Reimer, sophomore, 6-foot-1, 220 pounds: There are precious few spots remaining on the Reimer bandwagon. They will go quickly once camp begins. Rarely do you hear coaches talk about walk-on players the way linebacker coach Barrett Ruud talks about Reimer. “I think he can be a big-time player in this conference,” Ruud said this summer.
>> DL Jordon Riley, junior, 6-foot-6, 290 pounds: Another junior college player from the 2020 cycle, but Riley has been in Lincoln since the spring. He’s a huge option on the defensive line and drew rave reviews from his teammates after the opening days of spring ball.
>> OL Nouredin Nouili, sophomore, 6-foot-4, 285 pounds: A transfer from Colorado State, Nouili announced Wednesday he’d been granted a waiver by the NCAA to play right away this season for Nebraska. Nouili is a player who started immediately for the Rams as a true freshman on the line. He’s a talented player and not a traditional kind of walk-on. Now that he’s eligible to play, he might be able to make some noise at that left guard spot. Line coach Greg Austin said recently to not sleep on Nouili. It’ll be interesting to see what he can get done in camp.
Numbers to Keep in Mind
10:9 — Husker quarterback Adrian Martinez tossed nine interceptions a season ago, saw his touchdowns drop from his freshman campaign, and his completion percentage dip below 60%. He also lost another four fumbles. NU needs Martinez to be more efficient with the football in 2020, and he’ll need to prove that’s possible during camp.
5.21 — Dedrick Mills is one of the bright stars in the league heading into 2020. His 5.21 yards per carry average last season was the second-best from a lead tailback at NU since Ameer Abdullah, only behind Devine Ozigbo’s breakout 2018 campaign. Remember, Mills followed a similar trajectory as Ozigbo. He didn’t begin the year the starter, but ended the year with a bang. Mills is the unquestioned guy in the backfield for NU this season. Expect him to produce.
41 — With 21 takeaways last year, Nebraska finished its second straight season with at least 20 turnovers forced. It represented the first time NU has gone back-to-back years with at least 20 takeaways since the 2009-2010 seasons. And those were the first two years under defensive coordinator Erik Chinander. If the offense picks things up and teams are suddenly under more pressure to score, Nebraska’s secondary becomes very dangerous.
>> Time to see what a positive culture means for NU. Nebraska’s coaching staff has longed for the right kind of locker room vibes since landing in Lincoln, and it seems the finally have the right blend this season. What kind of tangible benefits will culture bring? Does that help attention to detail on the practice field day in and day out? Does it help with Nebraska’s ability to close out tough situations? We’ll probably have to wait to see once the games begin, but culture doesn’t appear to be an excuse anymore.
>> Omar Manning has been billed as a Sunday guy since Nebraska was officially able to mention him by name. How quickly can he live up to that? The sooner the better for NU, but that’s a pretty high bar to get to right away.
>> Nebraska didn’t have a spring period to see Luke McCaffrey contend with Adrian Martinez for the starting job. I wonder how long the quarterback competition lasts during fall camp because of that.
If McCaffrey can take Martinez to the wire, Nebraska is better for it at quarterback. Competition breeds greatness and whatnot. But if McCaffrey were to do that and still lose the competition, sure NU has a more than capable backup, but it also would have an incredibly talented football player sitting on the bench. Frost said in the spring if it became clear McCaffrey wasn’t going to supplant Martinez as the starter, then they’d discuss other roles for him at that point in time. Does that discussion happen sooner now? Has it already happened? Or does NU use the week before the season to work up a package for McCaffrey and then build on that accordingly as the year progresses?
McCaffrey will get his shot at the starting gig, make no mistake. He’s a talented quarterback, a talented runner, and he’s put in way too much work learning the playbook to not get a fair shake. But he’s also too talented a football player in general to not be on the field in some capacity if he’s not named the starting quarterback.
>> There likely won’t be the kind of typical access to the team during fall camp. The pandemic makes cameras on sidelines and reporters waiting in post-practice lobbies problematic. Nebraska has spent the offseason controlling its own narrative.
>> In terms of actual numbers to know, here are all the numbers for the Husker newcomers.
— Nebraska Football (@HuskerFBNation) August 5, 2020
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.