Earlier in the week, Derek Peterson ran through some of the spots in the lineup that Scott Frost and his staff are going to have to make decisions about without the aid of a full set of spring practices.
He highlighted left guard, wide receiver and defensive line, and those are all good projections. As I read through his column, though, it got me thinking: which positions do the coaches not have to worry about? How many of the starting spots on offense and defense can they feel truly confident in based on everything we’ve seen?
Unfortunately, coming off a 5-7 season with a lot of pieces in flux, I didn’t come up with many answers. Here’s what I think are Nebraska’s most stable positions.
The first name that came to mind is Brenden Jaimes at left tackle. For a position group that returns all five starters, there are a lot of question marks with the offensive line. Cam Jurgens is the center and he certainly made major strides down the stretch of 2019, but he’s still got a long way to go. The coaches are confident in Matt Farniok, but he’s still moving to a new position. Nebraska will likely start a redshirt freshman at right tackle and as Peterson spelled out, Nebraska has a few different options at left guard.
There’s no question about who the left tackle is, though. Jaimes is heading into his fourth year as a starter at Nebraska and is starting to do more than lead by example. He’s playing to elevate his NFL draft stock, and he’s motivated by creating a legacy and leaving the offensive line in a good place when his time in Lincoln is done. Greg Austin told reporters that he couldn’t have asked for better tackle play than what Jaimes gave him down the stretch of 2019, particularly in pass protection, and Nebraska will need him to pick up where he left off as Adrian Martinez looks to get back on track following a disappointing sophomore season.
Nebraska needs Dedrick Mills to be its workhorse with all of the youth behind him, but considering the coaches had a hard time committing to him in 2019 despite lacking a viable alternative, I’m not sure he qualifies. I like the talent at tight end, but it’s not a given who will lead that group in targets.
That leaves wide receiver, which might be as big a wildcard position as Nebraska has. Though he only has 10 games under his belt, Wan’Dale Robinson is probably the most proven skill player returning, and I think JD Spielman’s departure further solidifies the picture for him. Nebraska doesn’t want to run Robinson between the tackles nearly as much as it had to in 2019, and if the Huskers can get enough production on the ground from Mills and the freshman backs, I think that allows Robinson to maximize his ability as a slot receiver who flexes in and out of the backfield to take advantage of the situation. That’s the role the coaches envisioned for him while recruiting Robinson, and I think that’s the role he’ll be able to play as a sophomore and moving forward.
After running through the whole projected lineup on offense, Jaimes and Robinson were the only two names I could come up with that I feel really good about. What about the defense?
The first name that came to mind is the cover subject for the 2020 Hail Varsity Football Yearbook: Dicaprio Bootle. There’s enough talent, depth and versatility in the Nebraska secondary that the coaches could ultimately decide to go a number of ways in terms of the starting lineup. Heck, Bootle spent the last four games of 2019 starting at safety.
However, Bootle has shown throughout his career that he is a really good cover corner, and Erik Chinander said in the spring that he’d love to be able to leave Bootle at corner. With Lamar Jackson gone, Nebraska is going to need Bootle to step up and guard No. 1 receivers week in and week out, and I think he’s up to the challenge.
Cam Taylor-Britt and Deontai Williams are two of the biggest playmakers on the defense from all accounts, but I think we still have too much to learn about Taylor-Britt as a full-time outside corner and Williams as a starting safety.
I don’t see a single member of the linebacking corps that would qualify for this exercise as they all have some significant questions to answer (Can the inside linebackers avoid being abused in coverage? Can JoJo Domann be consistent and reliable? Can Caleb Tannor lock down a starting spot?).
Finally, we have the defensive line. It’s hard to feel totally confident about anybody in that group considering Tony Tuioti has to replace all three of his starters, but there is at least one guy in that room that I think he really believes in. Ben Stille was more of a fourth starter than a back-up last year and he looks like the unquestioned leader heading into 2020.
The Ashland-Greenwood product has 14 career starts and 33 career games under his belt and he has been disruptive whenever he’s been on the field. Nebraska needs Stille to replace Khalil Davis’ production, and I think he’s fully capable of doing that. On top of that, Stille seems like a strong bet for one of he captain roles in 2020.
Brenden Jaimes, Wan’Dale Robinson, Dicaprio Bootle and Ben Stille. I think that quartet is the foundation of this team. How far Nebraska goes will depend on how many others (Adrian Martinez? Omar Manning? Deontai Williams? Cam Taylor-Britt?) can work their way onto this list.
Jacob is in his third year with Hail Varsity covering Husker athletics. He has also written extensively for SB Nation’s Bright Side of the Sun and The Creightonian. His love of basketball can best be described as an obsession and if you need to find him, he’s probably in a gym somewhere watching, coaching or playing hoops.