After the longest offseason of our lifetimes, the Huskers’ season-opener has almost arrived.
Media doesn’t get to see much of fall camp in a typical year, but because of the pandemic, that “not much” became “none at all.” Because of that, we’ve had to rely almost totally on interviews with coaches to learn about this team. We all had our preconceived notions of what Nebraska’s depth chart and rotation were going to look like heading into the fall, but the feedback hasn’t exactly matched up with what I thought would happen.
With that in mind, I’m having to reassess how I feel about every position on the team. There are some I still feel rock solid about, and there are others that aren’t as encouraging based on what we’ve heard. So let’s power rank them based on my level of confidence in each heading into the season. We’ll go in reverse order to maintain the suspense.
10) Outside Linebacker
Nebraska’s needed more production out of this position for a while now, and that remains the case heading into the 2020 season. I like JoJo Domann a lot, and I’m hoping him heading into the season healthy will allow him to really lock in and get off to a good start in terms of blending his natural playmaking with assignment-sound football. Beyond him, however, there are a lot of question marks.
I’m going to need to see it to believe it with Caleb Tannor. I’m not sure Garrett Nelson is ready to be a game-changer as a sophomore. I have no clue whatsoever what to expect from the junior college transfers, Pheldarius Payne and Niko Cooper. The coaches aren’t even totally sure yet where Nick Henrich can most help the team.
Nebraska needs a consistent season out of JoJo Domann and at least one of those other guys to emerge as consistent impact players, and neither one of those things are a given.
9) Wide Receiver
This summer, I thought the re-made wide receiver room would be one of the biggest reasons Nebraska made a leap forward offensively in 2020. Nebraska went with a rotation pretty much made up entirely of slot receivers to one with a variety of body types and skill sets, at least on paper.
But the reviews coming out of camp haven’t exactly been glowing, and while I’m all for a good walk-on story, it’s probably not a good sign when the most-mentioned receivers not named Wan’Dale Robinson are walk-ons. Omar Manning, Alante Brown and Zavier Betts were the biggest reasons for my wideout optimism, and I’m not sure that any of them are going to start or even see significant playing time at Ohio State.
If Nebraska’s starting Kade Warner and Levi Falck outside with Wyatt Liewer rotating in (perhaps the three guys brought up most often unprompted over the last month), the Huskers are probably going to struggle to move the ball through the air against the Buckeyes.
I still think this group has a chance to be really good down the line, but I’m a lot more worried now than I was a month ago.
8) Defensive Line
Nebraska does a ton of cross-training as it is so I’m not going to split up this position. The defensive line is the only position that lost all of its starters from last season, and now all three of those guys are on NFL rosters.
Nebraska has three guys in Ben Stille, Damion Daniels and Deontre Thomas who have played a lot of reps in a Husker jersey as well as a group of unproven guys with big upside like Keem Green and Ty Robinson. The Huskers have plenty of guys I like. I’m confident in Stille having a good season, but beyond that I just don’t know for sure that they’ll have three, four, five, six guys who are ready to hold their own in the Big Ten this season.
7) Inside Linebacker
As I wrote above, all three of Nebraska’s starting defensive linemen from last season are currently in the NFL. So why did the Huskers struggle so much to stop the run in 2019? Because the second level struggled mightily.
I touched on the outside linebackers already, and they were a big part of it. But the inside guys have to be better too. I’m high on Collin Miller, but he was part of that three-man rotation that didn’t quite get it done last season and he needs to be better this season. Will Honas was also part of that three-man rotation as well, and he needs to take significant strides to hold onto that starting spot next to Miller.
Luke Reimer has apparently made a meteoric rise up to No. 3 on the depth chart behind those two seniors, and while he’s far more athletic than a typical walk-on, I still raised an eyebrow when I heard he had leapfrogged everybody else. We haven’t really heard anything at all about JUC transfer Eteva Mauga-Clements who I expected to be part of the rotation and the coaches aren’t sure if Nick Henrich is even going to play inside.
I like the potential here, but I still have plenty of questions.
The old football adage says that if you have two quarterbacks, you have none. Well, Scott Frost has been adamant that Nebraska’s top two quarterbacks have been neck-and-neck all throughout camp.
Coming out of the 2018 season, this position would have been very high on these power rankings. But quarterback play was one of the things that held Nebraska back the most in 2019 (though that wasn’t all on the quarterbacks themselves), and now Martinez has retained his starting role after a fierce competition in camp.
I still think Martinez has a chance to be a really good player, but I’m no longer convinced that’s a given after what we saw last year, and if he continues to struggle, would McCaffrey be able to jumpstart the offense in his place? After all, Martinez beat him out in camp.
5) Running Back
People are all in on Dedrick Mills, and it does seem like the coaches are more invested in him this season than they were last year, but I still need to see it before I believe he’s the second coming of Devine Ozigbo. His production was all over the place last year (his bad games outnumbered his good ones), and even in that season finale against Iowa when Nebraska really fed him the ball over and over again he wasn’t able to clear 4.0 yards per carry. It seems like Mills is a lot more confident and comfortable with Nebraska’s offense now than he was midseason last year and hopefully that will lead to more consistent play, but I still need to see it.
Behind Mills you have nothing but unknowns as the back-ups are all freshmen, but Ryan Held naming Ronald Tompkins the No. 2 back is both a great story and very encouraging because he’s probably the most talented player in Held’s room at full health. Beyond those two, I think the Huskers should be able to get enough out of Rahmir Johnson, Sevion Morrison and Marvin Scott III to have a good running back rotation.
4) Tight End
I’ve liked what Nebraska has had in the tight end room the last couple of years, and now you add Travis Vokolek to that mix. Sean Beckton has continued to fine-tune both the route-running and blocking technique of those guys and that coupled with their size leads me to believe this should be a position of strength for the Huskers in 2020. Now the quarterbacks just need to get them the ball.
I decided to split the secondary up rather than looking at the defensive backs as one group, so the safeties slide down a bit even though I’m high on the position’s potential.
The coaches thought Deontai Williams was poised to be one of their best players last year before he went down for the season in the first game. Now he’s back, and I think he has the chance to be one of the biggest playmakers on the defense. He has a knack for creating turnovers as well as delivering the big hit over the middle.
Marquel Dismuke played most of last season through a neck injury. I can’t imagine trying to tackle people over and over again with a bad neck. So for that, he gets a bit of grace. However, Nebraska needs him to be a bit more consistent this season.
Beyond the two seniors, however, there isn’t much depth. Beyond redshirt freshmen Myles Farmer (who has gotten plenty of praise throughout the offseason) and Noa Pola-Gates, Nebraska doesn’t have any healthy, eligible scholarship safeties.
Strong at the top, but short on depth. Hopefully the coaches won’t need to move one of the corners to safety again.
2) Offensive Line
Offensive coordinator Matt Lubick said he thinks the line will be the strength of the offense and one of the strengths of the team, so who am I to disagree? I like going all in on Bryce Benhart at tackle while sliding Matt Farniok inside to right guard, and I think Cameron Jurgens will be significantly better as a sophomore. Brenden Jaimes is arguably the best player on the team. Finally, I think Nebraska has enough guys competing for that left guard job that whoever wins the battle will provide better play than the Huskers got from that spot last year. I think the back-ups are pretty decent with some good upside as well, making this position deeper than we’ve seen in a long time.
If the offensive line is the best position group on the offense, the Huskers will have a chance to be pretty good this year.
For the second straight year, Nebraska should have a salty pair of outside corners. Dicaprio Bootle is finally a senior and is ready to give NFL evaluators something to look at and with Lamar Jackson moving on and with Deontai Williams’ return, Cam Taylor-Britt will be able to play where the coaches think he belongs — at corner. Like Williams, Taylor-Britt is a turnover waiting to happen and I’m excited to see what kind of coverage skills he has on the outside.
Losing Braxton Clark for the season is a tough blow, but the Huskers still have some good depth at corner. Quinton Newsome played quite a bit as a true freshman and will hopefully be back at full strength by the time Nebraska needs him. The Huskers also added the top-rated junior college cornerback in the country in Nadab Joseph. Going a bit deeper, Nebraska has a pair of true freshmen in Tamon Lynum and Ronald Delancy III, and Lynum enrolled early to get a head start.
So there you have it, that’s how I feel about each position as the Huskers head up to Columbus. What do your confidence rankings look like? Let me know in the comments or on Twitter.