Photo Credit: Eric Francis

Nebraska Football Storylines Left to Watch in 2023

January 01, 2023

This is truly a year of new beginnings for Nebraska football. A new head coach in Matt Rhule, a new coaching staff that’s still incomplete and a new hope for better fortunes.

But all that’s new or notable isn’t confined to who’s on the field. There are a multitude of curiosities and questions left unanswered.

Here’s a list of 10 storylines to keep an eye on in 2023.

1. Who completes the staff?

Matt Rhule started assembling his Nebraska coaching staff almost immediately. Several coaches joined his staff in his initial days of employment. But the hires slowed with the recruiting period, leaving gaps in some positions.

Rhule teased during his Early National Signing Day comments that the staff would come together before the next recruiting period. Reports on Friday indicated legendary Texas high school coach Bob Wager will join Rhule’s staff as the tight ends coach and assistant special teams coordinator.

With more backroom staffing decisions left to be made, that leaves wide receivers and linebackers without their respective position coach.

2. Go Big Project phase 1

The new athletics facility just to the northeast of Memorial Stadium is set to open this summer. Athletic director Trev Alberts shared his satisfaction with the project throughout the year.

The $165 million project that spans 315,000 square feet along the north stadium includes not only a state-of-the-art football performance center but athletics facilities to benefit all student-athletes.

That will complete the first phase of the project. The latest Nebraska athletics endeavor requires an additional $20 million before a second phase begins.

3. Memorial Stadium’s anniversary

Nebraska is celebrating 100 years of Memorial Stadium this season in various ways. First, Alberts recently announced a one-time cost reduction in season tickets. Alberts told Greg Sharpe on an episode of Sports Nightly the decision was made to ease the cost burden on fans.

In all likelihood, Nebraska’s throwback jersey this season will honor the stadium’s centennial anniversary. Memorial Stadium has hosted 100 years of games but was dedicated in 1923, hence the university’s acknowledgement of the date.

Alberts said there are more events in the works and the celebration should last throughout the season. Nebraska hosts Northern Illinois in its home opener on September 16. As of now, sellout streak remains in tact.

4. Will the defense look better?

The Huskers’ defense improved under interim coordinator Bill Busch but still finished No. 100 in total defense. Rekindling past defensive glory is high on the priority list for Matt Rhule and his staff.

New defensive coordinator Tony White brings a 3-3-5 to Lincoln. But the defense won’t kook like that all the time. There’s an overwhelming likelihood White’s Nebraska defense involves multiple personnel, multiple looks and an emphasis on swarm tackling.

Who takes part in that is more unknown. The defense just lost four key components and the roster still isn’t set in stone.

5. A search for offensive consistency

Nebraska’s offense moved inconsistently last season in the only year of offensive coordinator Mark Whipple’s system. It didn’t help that starting quarterback Casey Thompson missed 10 quarters with injury issues and there was a noticeable gap between him and the rest of the quarterback room.

Enter new offensive coordinator Marcus Satterfield. He rejoins Rhule’s staff after spending the last two as offensive coordinator at South Carolina. Satterfield pined for a consistent running game through frustrating points this season before big wins over Tennessee and Clemson.

Rhule has already said he doesn’t believe a team can win a game without winning the line of scrimmage. He and Satterfield share a desire to run the ball. But they also like a quarterback who can find speedy receivers in space. What that looks like, exactly, is still unknown.

6. Who steps up?

A handful of seniors exhausted their eligibility in 2022. Wide receiver Trey Palmer and edge rushers Ochaun Mathis and Garrett Nelson declared for the NFL Draft. Defensive lineman Colton Feist just retired from football. Promising freshman linebacker Ernest Hausmann just transferred to Michigan.

So who will grow into their new roles for the Huskers? Casey Thompson, as well as new arrival Jeff Sims, and the remaining quarterback group will compete for playing time throughout spring and fall camp. Anthony Grant returns, as well as Ajay Allen from collarbone surgery. Marcus Washington is also likely to return in a receiver group with emerging speed.

On defense, Ty Robinson might be the most valuable returner up front. New speedsters join an experienced secondary. The biggest issue is likely in the front seven, where Jimari Butler has emerged a favorite for playing time. Defensive line coach Terrance Knighton said during signing day coverage that incoming freshman Princewill Umanmielen might see the field.

7. Who gets drafted and where?

Trey Palmer spent one season in Lincoln. When Casey Thompson left the Illinois game with injury, Palmer was effectively sidelined as well. And yet, he still holds Nebraska single-game and single-season yardage records. NFL teams, at some point, will be attracted to his speed, even if they’d wish he was more sure-handed.

Tight ends Travis Vokolek and Chancellor Brewington are also in the draft, having exhausted collegiate eligibility. They could move up draft boards with a good Pro Day and showing at the combine.

The same could be said for edge rushers Ochaun Mathis and Garrett Nelson. Mathis didn’t have the breakout season in Lincoln that most anticipated. Nelson led the 2022 Huskers but could assure his position in the lead up to the draft.

8. What of the Big Ten?

This is the last year of the Big Ten as we know it. In 2024, UCLA and USC will join the conference and throw familiarity into flux.

It’s still uncertain if the Big Ten will opt to more pod-based scheduling formats with a few guaranteed conference opponents and a rotating group of remaining conference foes. That’s the likely solution but the Big Ten has been mum on details.

We’ll all likely figure out what the future holds in October or November when the conference announces its 2024 schedules. In the meantime, keep your frequent flier miles handy.

9. The Raiola coup?

If Nebraska fans rallied with excitement during Matt Rhule’s introductory press conference, they absolutely lost all cool when Chandler, Arizona, junior quarterback Dylan Raiola announced he decommitted from Ohio State.

The son of Hall of Famer Dominic Raiola and current offensive line coach Donovan Raiola, Dylan is a 5-star-plus recruit in the 2024 class and largely considered the top recruit in the country.

Dominic told media outlets that Dylan’s recruitment is starting back at ground zero with the decision. Nothing is off the table. That leaves Nebraska in the running to secure its biggest recruit in program history.

10. How big of a turnaround is it?

Matt Rhule is a turnaround artist. He took Temple to consistent heights and navigated Baylor back to prominence amid an uneasy situation. So what does this 2023 season look like?

Nebraska’s 2023 roster seems more impressive than the 2013 Temple one that went 2-10 and the 2017 Baylor roster that went 1-11 in Rhule’s first seasons. But, at both schools, it took a lackluster season for the wheels to turn towards success.

Those who’ve worked with Rhule before recently told Hail Varsity he could turn it around quick. The high school coach of one recruit pointed to what Lincoln Riley did at USC, taking a 4-8 team from the year before to a few plays within a College Football Playoff appearance.

A lot can still change between today and then. There are over 325 days that could impact how next season ends. This is Day One into the great unknown.

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