According to the 2018 Big Ten Prospectus, an annual handout produced by the conference for the purposes of previewing the season ahead, Nebraska has 14 returning starters on offense and defense in 2018. (I'm not including special-teams starters in any of these counts.) These numbers are provided by the school's themselves, and thus subject to their own sort of accounting, so take them with a grain of salt. Purdue, for example, lists 13 returning starters on offense. Nebraska's count, however, feels right to me for whatever that's worth.
Returning starters is just the most basic way to quickly grasp how experienced a team should be in the season ahead. Nebraska's total is about average. It's in four-way tie for sixth-place in the Big Ten, and this is where most teams around the country will fall. Given that the Huskers had a coaching change, however, you have to consider the option of a youth movement that could scramble those numbers to some degree.
From Bill Connelly's preview of UCF for SB Nation:
You will almost never see an offense improve like UCF’s did. Frost engineered a drastic youth movement in 2016, handing his first offense over to a freshman quarterback (McKenzie Milton), freshman running backs (Jawon Hamilton and Adrian Killins Jr.), and a receiving corps full of sophomores (Tre’Quan Smith, Jordan Akins, Cam Stewart) and a freshman (Dredrick Snelson). Hell, half the starts on the line went to underclassmen.
Predictably, the Knights were inconsistent. They averaged nearly 29 points per game because of tempo and quite a few weak opposing defenses, but they ranked only 117th in Off. S&P+.
In 2017, they ranked second.
That got me thinking about what a similar shift to youth would look like at Nebraska. You could even consider it likely on offense.
All of Nebraska's quarterbacks will be taking their first snap in a college football game whenever they make their debuts this fall. You can stamp the quarterback position 'YOUTH'.
Running back and wide receiver are both interesting. Even though he's a junior eligibility-wise, I'd count junior-college transfer Greg Bell as part of any youth movement in Year 1 (as I would with all of the JUCO transfers) and he looked like he'll get plenty of touches based on the spring game. If true freshman Maurice Washington comes in and ends up getting a bunch of snaps in 2018, you'll have a good indication that the investment in the future is officially on as Nebraska has three returning upperclassmen (assuming Tre Bryant is ready to go) in the backfield. Fellow true freshman Miles Jones seems likely to play, too, given how much his name has been uttered by the coaches this offseason, and sort of bridges the gap between running backs and receiver.
The Huskers are already pretty young at wide receiver, minus the headliner. Stanley Morgan Jr. is, of course, playing, but JD Spielman and Tyjon Lindsey are both sophomores. If that's Nebraska's rough top three, it's quite possible that the next line on the depth chart could be filled by redshirt freshman Jaevon McQuitty plus new additions to the roster like Jones, Mike Williams, Jaron Woodyard, Justin McGriff or Katerian Legrone. If Nebraska's staff wants to get young at wide receiver in 2018, it can do it pretty easily. Tight end almost seems young by default as well.
Offensive line is the one group on offense where a youth movement probably isn't imminent. Nebraska has experienced options up front and, with only two true freshmen in the 2018 class, any breakthroughs on the line would come from underclassmen already in the program. For that reason alone the "drastic" youth movement this staff employed at UCF would probably be less drastic at Nebraska, but the Huskers certainly could lean young at the skill positions. In fact, I sort of expect them to do that.
Defense, with eight starters returning, is a different story. The core group on the defensive line has upperclassmen headliners with players already in the program behind them. Could Casey Rogers or Tate Wildeman, both listed at defensive end, crack the rotation? Maybe, but they would have to be really impressive right away.
Linebacker is similarly stocked. Will Honas is going to play, but he might be one of the only new additions in the rotation right away at inside linebacker. "Youth" at outside linebacker largely depends on the eligibility of Breon Dixon and the ability of true freshman Caleb Tannor. Beyond that, most of Nebraska's options on the outside have played some football for the Huskers before or at least been in the program.
The secondary is the one area on defense where Nebraska can go young if it wants to. Aaron Williams is the quarterback of that group, but Deontai Williams suited up for the Red in the spring game and will get some snaps. Cam Jones and CJ Smith have great opportunities to play as true freshmen somewhere. The Huskers' presumed leaders at cornerback are returning players, but I don't know that they have such a hold on those spots that a newcomer couldn't come in and force the issue.
It's an interesting blend for Nebraska overall, as a "youth movement" seems, in some ways, preferable for this staff. It wants to emphasize playmaking more than it wants to minimize mistakes at this early stage in hopes of creating a mindset.
That's sort of the default setting for young players, they're risk-takers more than risk-adverse early on.
The Grab Bag
- Want to get to know Mario Verduzco quickly? Erin Sorensen of Land of 10 put him through the Proust Questionnaire.
- Further aiding any forthcoming youth movement: A few of Nebraska's incoming freshmen are planning to show up early for summer workouts.
- Alabama is No. 1 again in ESPN's post-spring top 25.
- ICYMI: Greg Smith offers some recruiting impressions from the evaluation period, and Jacob Padilla continues his review of the 2017-18 Nebraska basketball season with a look at the centers.
Today's Song of Today