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Mailbag: Nebraska Storylines, Big Ten Storylines, and More

February 19, 2020

It’s Wednesday. And Wednesday means it’s mailbag time. Let’s get to it.

What offseason storylines are you most interested in following from both around the Big Ten and for Nebraska? (@InDaWilderness) 

Brandon Vogel: In the Nebraska category, I’ll be watching the secondary closely. The Huskers have returning starters at three spots, but I think there’s a lot of talent in that room and I’m interested to see who potentially makes a move. Defensive line would be next on the list. As for the Big Ten, Penn State is intriguing this year and the addition of Kirk Ciarrocca as offensive coordinator ups my interest. The Nittany Lions are going to be good, but the question is how good? Better than Ohio State? Kind of the only question that matters in the East. Northwestern is another team worth keeping an eye on. The Wildcats should be due for a rebound season. 

Greg Smith: For Nebraska, it’s all about the offensive line for me. Every starter returns yet the popular sentiment is that Bryce Benhart needs to and will make a push to start at right tackle. That would kick Matt Farniok inside but at which guard’s expense? Can Ethan Piper make a move this season? Will there be a wildcard player that rises up? Greg Austin has a lot of good pieces to mold into a formidable line. In the Big Ten, I’m curious about Minnesota. How do they deal with being the hunted now? Is the type of season they had last year sustainable? 

Erin Sorensen: Offensive line is always my hill to die on, so that’s going to be a big storyline for me as well. The success of the offensive line really plays a role in the success for the quarterbacks. They’re all cogs in the wheel of success, don’t forget that. But beyond Nebraska, I’ll be interested in watching how Minnesota builds on its success from 2019 and what Michigan State looks like with Dantonio gone. 

Mike Babcock: As with Erin, success begins with the offensive line. Every season. 

Jacob Padilla: It has to be the quarterback. I expect Adrian Martinez to be the starter again and with the losses on defense, Nebraska is going to need Martinez to be the guy most expected him to be last season if they’re going to have success this season against a tough schedule. As an offshoot of that, the pass-catching situation will be fun to track and will have a big impact on how Martinez plays. Guys like Omar Manning, Alante Brown, Zavier Betts and Travis Vokolek among others will add a lot of intrigue to a position that was ine of the biggest disappointments on the team in 2019. 

Derek Peterson: The offensive line is my answer to this question, it has been all winter, and it will continue to be the case even if Nebraska exits spring ball with a set-in-stone starting five (which won’t happen, but you get my point). In the interest of variety, though, since three others went that route, I’ll zag. The “defensive line + edge rushers” group will be fascinating; most people expect the secondary to be the strongest part of the defense, with there being more potential liabilities the closer to the line of scrimmage you go. I’m not entirely sure that will be the case. What does Ty Robinson bring to the table? What does Nebraska ask him to bring to the table? Who from the Keem Green/Damion Daniels/Deontre Thomas/Casey Rogers group takes that next step? More than one? What does Caleb Tannor do with his offseason? I’ve stated before I don’t know that it matters if you win every game by one point instead of 15 over a season, but these Huskers gotta walk before running at this point; stop the run, generate a pass rush, two basic things a defense has to well to be successful that Nebraska hasn’t done. As for the conference as a whole, I’m so excited about Greg Schiano at Rutgers, mostly because no one has any idea how it’s going to ultimately end up turning out but everyone is excited to find out.

Which players do you think you could switch from offense to defense and then defense to offense and they would be a starter or on the two-deep, at worst? (@Corn_Huskers) 

GS: Offense to defense I’ll take Cam Jurgens. I still think he could have been good as a 4-3 inside linebacker or defensive end. Defense to offense is tougher but how about Cam Taylor-Britt at quarterback? He played it in high school and we’ve seen him slinging the ball around at Friday Night Lights.  

ES: Cam Taylor-Britt is my guy as well. He’s already played both sides of the ball, and there’s a reason for that. You could toss him in as a wideout or running back and just let him go. He’s fast enough. 

JP: Another name I’d throw out there for the offense-to-defense switch is Ethan Pieper. The coaches decided to flip him from defensive line to offensive line after he got to campus, but I think he could have had a chance to play on either line.  

Based on the early point spread article from Brandon Vogel, which games have the most chance to swing for or against the Huskers. Also, which side of the ball is the most important to the chance of meeting the projected win total (7) based on the +/- spreads? 

BV: I mentioned Northwestern as my top pick in that story, but there are some other likely candidates. Cincinnati has some wiggle room based on the first three weeks of games. Even if those lines move some, Nebraska is probably still a favorite in both. The one that might be the most likely to actually flip, underdog to favorite, is Iowa. Right now, SP+ would make the Hawkeyes a 1-point favorite at home. I could see the Huskers as a slight favorite by the time that game actually rolls around. Iowa has a lot to replace and, like Nebraska, a pretty tough schedule. Might be a case of which team is healthier at that point.

Make me a believer, convince me to drink the Kool-Aid. How can/will Nebraska (given three losing seasons and a difficult schedule) get to a bowl game and/or end the season ranked? (@Sal_Vasta3) 

ES: How can Nebraska get to six wins? Well, don’t squander away the first half of the 2020 schedule. It’s not an easy start to the season, but it’s easier than the end. Let’s say Nebraska beats all three non-conference opponents (which I think is possible). That’s three right there. Then you just need wins over three out of these four: Purdue, Northwestern, Illinois and Rutgers. That would then get you to six before facing Ohio State, Penn State, Iowa, Wisconsin and Minnesota. The back half of Nebraska’s schedule is rough, but there are six wins on this schedule. Seems like most fans have settled on 7-5, for what it’s worth. As for being ranked? I’m not going to worry about that one right now. I just can't. 

MB: If the Huskers end the season ranked, I’ll be surprised. As for a bowl, I thought they’d be in one last season. I don’t necessarily think six wins is drinking Kool-Aid. Six wins (and a bowl) should be the minimal expectation for this season, however that’s accomplished. 

JP: Erin laid out the path to getting to bowl eligibility, so I’ll focus on what they need to do to travel that path. First of all, Nebraska needs a massive bounce-back season from Adrian Martinez. If he can even get back to his freshman season level of play with a higher touchdown rate it would go a long way towards getting Nebraska back on track. To help him do that, Nebraska needs at least two wide receivers from the group of returners and newcomers to emerge as legitimate threats to keep defenses honest and allow JD Spielman and Wan’Dale Robinson to do what they do best. Finally on the offensive side, Nebraska needs incremental progress from the offensive line, whether that be by returning starters taking leaps or by others winning the jobs from those returning starters. Defensively, with the strong secondary and at least some experience on the defensive line, if the linebackers can hold their own I think Nebraska will have a chance to get enough stops to win games so long as the offense improves like it needs to. 

DP: I really don’t like the “drink the Kool-Aid” phrase that has become a staple of the offseason vernacular around here. Projecting 7-5 isn’t “hype,” I hope most people agree with that. Because 7-5 is all I’m willing to wager at this point. So, to answer your question: don’t. Don’t go overboard. Nebraska can get to a bowl game this season, and should given the talent returning on the offensive side of the ball, the improved depth, and another year of Adrian Martinez in Mario Verduzco’s lab. That’s to say nothing of what I think that 7-5 will look like because I think it could look pretty good/fun/entertaining for Husker Nation. But ending the year ranked, exceding seven wins, knocking off some of the teams required to get there, that would require some magic I’m not going to predict in February. 

Rumor rumblings have some NU fans worried. What’s the percent range that both Manning and Betts qualify academically and join the team this summer? (@Sal_Vasta3) 

GS: I’m not aware of any new rumors concerning Manning and Betts’ academic status. Nothing has changed meaning they both have work to do. Nebraska has a good track record of providing the tools they can to help get guys in. Given how important both players are there is going to be more focus on this. I think it’s a 70% chance both make it. 

ES: I can’t speak to Manning, but I’ve had a chance to talk to Betts after his signing day ceremony and his high school football coach. Neither have given any reason to believe anything has changed in his academic status since he got things on track. 

Last time Nick Saban went to Iowa for someone, he got them. Now he’s back for two this time around. This is potentially a special class we could put together. Can we secure the commitments of all of our top targets inside the 500-mile radius before the season starts? (@Cody_TipToes) 

BV: Given the high profile (and high-profile offers to match) of some of those top targets, landing all of them seems unlikely. Even getting half would probably be a win. Anything more than that is a helluva job. 

GS: Just playing the odds, it will be hard to get them all. The caveat in your question of before the season starts is interesting. Thomas Fidone, TJ Bollers, Avante Dickerson, Brody Brecht, Keagan Johnson and Seth Malcom have all told me they at least lean towards making a decision before their senior year starts. We are going to know a big piece of the 2021 class puzzle before the game against Purdue kicks off. Side note, be more concerned about Notre Dame than Alabama for Fidone. 

Who’s holding kicks next year? (@TheBryceIsRight) 

MB: I’d have McCaffrey hold if he’s not already in the game, add the potential for a surprise play.  But that doesn’t really answer your question. 

DP: Special Teams thing No. 3568 for Jonathan Rutledge to figure out when boots hit the ground.

Is the Cincinnati game the most overlooked on next year’s schedule? (@GBRrecruiting) 

DP: Yeah. But I could say that about six of the first seven games on the schedule. South Dakota State will be tough because it always is. Central Michigan will be tougher than expected. Illinois will be tougher than expected.  As long as players view the first seven weeks of the season as “We have to get bowl eligible in this window” rather than “We should get bowl eligible in this window,” they’ve got a shot. 

BV: No. I think people have a general enough sense that Luke Fickell is building a nice program there. And the Bearcats will be good again in 2020. As good as 2019? I think they might be due for a small regression. But overlooked for me are games against teams that are really easy to write off right now. Northwestern is one. Rutgers could be another. Yeah, yeah, I know how bad the Scarlet Knights have been recently, and I’m not saying Schiano is going to get them back to eight-win seasons but I do think he’ll make Rutgers competitive again. Maybe not by the time Nebraska comes there this season, but that game could have a little bit of an at-Illinois vibe and the Huskers were in for a fight in Champaign last season (against an Illini team that ended up being way better than anyone thought in the offseason). 

ES: Brandon just made everything I said above about getting to six wins in the first half of the season feel more impossible now. Overlook no one! (But seriously, do not overlook a single team.) 

MB: Despite the respect for Fickell, I think lots of folks still see “Cincinnati” and expect a scheduled win. I see folks looking at the schedule and seeing seven wins before the “tough” part begins. I also don’t think there will be six wins before the Ohio State game. 

What will be the identity of the Husker baseball team this season? (@Corn_Huskers) 

MB: Aggressive offensively, though—except for a couple of times—they didn’t run in the Baylor series. It’s too early to know how the pitching will be, and getting Hallmark back is important. We’ll find out more about him Wednesday afternoon. I think they’ve got some pop in the lineup. Palensky hit a couple of balls to the fence in addition to the grand slam. Biggest question after the first weekend is the pitching. Of course, with an 11-run first inning, Stroh was probably just trying to through strikes. Gomes struggled. And Povich started fast, then was hurt by three unearned runs. 

I’m gonna ask again, over/under 0.5 wins for Nebrasketball the rest of this season. (@Sal_Vasta3) 

MB: Well, I said over at 1.5 not long ago, so my insight isn’t so great, but I’ll say over. I think the Huskers will avoid a frigid streak against someone, and it probably needs to be Northwestern when the Wildcats come here. 

JP: If they can't beat Northwestern at Pinnacle Bank Arena, I’ll give up on this team finding a way to win this season. Unless and until that happens, I’ll stick with the over. 

Thoughts on Johnathan Rutledge being tabbed as Special Teams Analyst? (@Go_Big_Red) 

MB: Wait and see, no expectations either way. 

DP: He has a lot of work to do, but a pretty good résumé when it comes to turning around the fortunes of that third phase of the game. That he’s a senior analyst and not a full-fledged assistant coach/coordinator type means there’s going to need to be a collaborative effort from lots of folks on staff to help him turn things around. Given the complete liability that unit has been in Scott Frost’s first two seasons, everyone should be committed to that collaborative effort, though. Like Mike said, we’ll see.

So does the 2020-21 updated coaching staff mean that we are looking for pretty much all of our off-the-field staff? No Ron Brown, Kenny Wilhite, grad assistants, quality controls, or analysts? (@Go_Big_Red) 

GS: No, it just appears to me that they changed who they list on the website. Or someone goofed. There hasn’t been much change with off-field staff to my knowledge. 

ES: For whatever it’s worth, Nebraska did just go through a website redesign recently. Inadvertent changes could simply be a result of that. 

MB: Just check the overall staff directory on the Huskers.com site. You’ll find Brown, Wilhite, and so forth still there. 

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