The Huskers lost three seniors at wide receiver, three seniors at tight end, a senior at quarterback and a senior at running back from last year's squad, meaning Nebraska has new faces starting at pretty much every one of the skill positions.
The most proven player Nebraska has coming back is junior wide receiver Stanley Morgan Jr. who was second on the team with 33 catches and 453 yards last season. Morgan has showed some incredible flashes during his first two years that has inspired belief in him rising to the level of being the team's No. 1 receiver.
However, as talented as Morgan is, Nebraska needs him to make a significant step forward in terms of consistency. Though he was second on the team in receptions, he actually led the team with 66 targets, giving him a 50 percent catch rate. For comparison's sake, Jordan Westerkamp caught 64 percent of the balls thrown his way, Morgan has caught more than three passes in a game just three times in two seasons.
Taking a look at Morgan's game logs from 2016, his season can be split into three segments. Through the first five games, he was solid yet unspectacular with 13 catches for 135 yards, good for 10.4 yards per catch. He stepped it up over the next four games – with Westerkamp missing the first two of them – and recorded 12 catches for 250 yards (19.2 yards per catch) and a touchdown. He drifted into the background over the last four games with seven catches for 68 yards (9.7 per) and another score.
To get a better feel for Morgan's strengths and weaknesses, I watched every one of his targets during his four most prouctive games – Indiana, Purdue, Wisconsin and Ohio State.
Against the Hoosiers, Morgan caught three passes on seven targets for a career-high 93 yards and a touchdown.
To be fair, not all 33 of Morgan's targets that didn't end up in a catch were on him. Quite often, Morgan managed to get himself at least somewhat open only for the pass from Tommy Armstorng Jr. to be off-target and uncatchable. But on the other side, Morgan also struggled to get himself open down the field as there was a defender right there stride for stride with him on deeper routes.
Morgan's first catch went for 12 yards on a simple sit-down route where Morgan positioned himself between two defenders in a zone, caught the ball and turned up field. His second catch was on a crossing route where the defense simply didn't pick him up. It went for 9 yards.
His third catch was one of his best plays of the season, and I broke it down below.
That's Morgan lined up at the bottom of the screen, just inside the numbers. On the snap, he's going to take off up the sideline.
Armstrong rolls out of the pocket and buys Morgan more time to get deep, then lets it rip. Morgan's defender is still with him, but Morgan read where the ball was going and cut inside to run under it for the catch.
Morgan has three defenders around him as he catches the ball, but with a quick cut he makes them look foolish.
The defenders crash into each other and Morgan is off to the races.
Easy 72-yard score.
Morgan isn't a burner, but he's great at adjusting to balls in the air and is terrific with the ball in his hands, and he showed all of that on this play.
Against the Boilermakers, Morgan caught two of his four targets for 43 yards. The two passes that he didn't catch were on wild throws from Armstrong, so he did manage to haul in both of his catchable passes.
Morgan's first catch was on one of his better plays, a comeback route. Morgan isn't overly fast, but he is precise in his route-running and gets out of his breaks in a hurry which is how he gets open. On this play, he lined up on the hash marks and took off straight down field.
Morgan runs about 12 yards down field, then cuts back for the ball, which he catches about 10 yards past the line of scrimmage. After the catch, he turns inside looking to get up field.
The defensive back makes contact about 3 yards short of the line to gain, but Morgan isn't ready to go down yet.
Morgan takes the defender for a ride, carrying him past the sticks before a few others rally to the ball and drag him down.
On second and 14, Morgan picks up 15 yards and a first down through sheer will-power. He rarely goes down on first contact and that makes him a nightmare for opposing secondaries after the catch.
Morgan's second catch was another example of him adjusting to an off-target pass. He lines up as the single receiver on the shrot side of the field and gives his man an inside-out move before streaking up the sideline.
Morgan actually does beat his man and has a little bit of separation down the field.
However, Armstrong's pass is underthrown and Morgan has to come back for it. He slows down, gets in "box-out position" and prepares to make a play on the ball.
Morgan elevates, fully extends and snatches the ball out of the air while the corner is still earthbound.
After the catch, Morgan falls forward and picks up a handful more yards to make it a 28-yard gain.
Morgan caught a career-high five passes on seven targets for 58 yards in Madison.
Morgan's first catch was a failed wide receiver screen that went for 2 yards. His second was slightly more impressive. On second and 6, Morgan ran a hook route to the sticks, made the first defender miss and picked up 2 more yards for a gain of 9 and a first down.
Morgan's third catch is the first one I'll break down here. On second and long, Morgan runs a post route.
Armstrong hits him, and as the defender moves forward to tackle him Morgan spins back to the outside to avoid him.
No. 19 tries to chase the receiver down, but Morgan gives him a nasty stiff arm and keeps on running.
The third tackle attempt is finally successful, but not until Morgan got inside the 25-yard line, putting the Huskers in a great position to tie the game or take the lead late in the fourth.
Morgan broke two tackles – one with great footwork and anticpation and the other with brute force – and picked up 25 yards.
Morgan ran another post route and picked up 9 yards. On the following play, Morgan again showed his run-after-the-catch skills.
On second and short, Morgan lined up to the short side of the field. He's going to use the same in-and-out move to get up the sideline that we saw on the touchdown catch against Purdue above.
This time, however, he pulls up short and sits down, and Armstrong hits him. He avoids the first would-be tackler with a quick move inside after the catch.
Then he breaks another tackle with a spin move.
A third tackler immediately hits him and takes him down, but even so he still moved the sticks and got Nebraska near midfield.
The play went for 13 yards. Nebraska went to the sophomore on back-to-back plays during a potential game-winning drive, and Morgan delivered.
We all know how Morgan's last target went (ugh, so close).
This game only makes the list here because of a freak play, to be honest. Morgan struggled much more in this game than he thrived. He caught two of his eight targets for 30 yards and also grabbed a pass that deflected off Westerkamp's hands and into his, and he took it 26 yards as the defense scrambled.
Morgan's second target was a 50-50 ball he couldn't come down with. On third and 6, Morgan lines up wide (off the screen here). Offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf sent Morgan streaking up the sideline.
As we've already established, Morgan doesn't have blazing speed, and here the Ohio State corner is right there with him stride for stride.
Armstrong actually makes a pretty darn good throw here, but because there isn't much separation the defender manages to rise up and contest the catch. He's credited with a pass break-up here in the play-by-play, but the ball still makes it to Morgan's hands…
And goes right through them. Granted, it wasn't an easy catch, but it's one an all-conference caliber receiver comes down with.
Morgan's next target looks just like the previous one – another deep shot where Morgan fails to create much separation. This time, the pass is overthrown.
The third target is on an intermediate route. The pass is slightly off-target, but Morgan at least manages to get his fingertips on it, but he doesn't pull it down.
The fourth target came on third and 3. Morgan runs a hesitation route, almost a double-move, and got past his man. Morgan created enough space but just straight up dropped the ball over his shoulder.
The last play I'll break down here is Morgan's fifth target. On second and 4, Morgan is lined up at the bottom of the screen.
He works his way down field well past the sticks, then comes back for the ball, catching it as two defenders close in to bring him down.
However, Morgan jukes first one and then the other, breaking two tackles.
However, the Buckeyes rally to the ball as a couple more defenders enter the picture just a couple yards later. However, Morgan still won't go down, avoiding tackle attempts by both of them.
Almost the rest of the Ohio State defense has entered the picture at this point and the Buckeyes finally get Morgan to the ground, though he fell forward and picked up a little bit more yardage in the process.
Morgan showed just how tough to tackle he is on this play. He only picked up 13 yards, but broke about four tackles to do so.
Morgan's sixth target is his final reception, an 18-yard gain on a simple post route. Morgan was not open on either of his last two targets. The first one was a dropped interception by the defense and the last one was another deep shot with the defender right on Morgan's hip, though the ball was way overthrown.
Tying it All Together
With seniors Brandon Reilly, Alonzo Moore and Westerkamp out there drawing targets, Morgan was just a cog in the machine, part of an experienced receiver corps. With those other three moving on, Nebraska needs him to step forward out of the shadows and emerge as a consistent go-to receiver.
“Just sitting behind those guys, B-Reilly and all those guys, Westy and Zo, it just helped me learn everything they did well and everything they did badly and I just tried to put it into me this year,” Morgan said.
To ascend to No. 1 receiver status, Morgan knows exactly where he needs to improve the most:
“Just 50-50 balls, catching everything, even the ones downfield, long downfield, catching everything,” Morgan said.
Wide receivers coach Keith Williams agrees with Morgan's assessment of his weaknesses in terms of failing to win enough 50-50 balls.
"He's been doing great in that area," Williams said. "I challenged him to improve in that area and he's accepted the challenge. He's been showing that he's taken that serious this camp."
Morgan's run-after-the catch skills and ability to get open on short to intermediate routes should make him a perfect fit in Nebraska's offense with an increased emphasis on the quick passing game thanks to new quarterback Tanner Lee. His improvement in coming down with contested catches should make him more dynamic down the field as well, even without elite speed.
"Stan can do it all," Williams said. "He's had a great camp. He's turned the corner as far as his development as a player and as a young man. The sky's the limit. We'll just see how the chips fall, but he can help us any way that he's asked to."
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.