It’s hard to find many positives when looking at Nebraska football from the surface this season.
The defense has been poor, allowing at least 30 points in six of 10 games, and the offense has been inconsistent, showing signs of life here and there.
Beneath all the negative talk surrounding the program, most of which is directed at the coaching staff, there is at least one positive: the amount of youth on both sides of the ball.
Don’t get me wrong, this is not an excuse for how the season is turning out, rather it’s a ray of light during a dark time for the program.
Regardless of who is the head coach next season, as it stands now, the Huskers will return a majority of their playmakers on both offense and defense. In some specific categories, more than they have in the prior three seasons after Bo Pelini was fired and Mike Riley was brought in.
Bottom line, the youth will be experienced.
So, let’s take a glimpse at the future, starting with the offense.
One year after losing pretty much all of its passing statistics—with only Zack Darlington returning, who took a few snaps against Tennessee in the bowl game—Nebraska’s offense will return 100 percent of its passing stats in 2018.
Junior quarterback Tanner Lee didn’t quite live up to the preseason hype of being a first-round draft pick—at least not in this year’s draft. With that, Lee and redshirt freshman Patrick O’Brien, will likely return next season.
It’s a similar story when it comes to the run game.
The Huskers will return over 95 percent of their rushing statistics from this season, including attempts, yards and successful carries. Senior fullback Luke McNitt and senior wide receiver De’Morney Pierson-El are the only players with carries Nebraska will lose. The two have combined for just 42 yards on 10 attempts.
At this point, the various percentages of returning rushing statistics for the 2018 rank highest among the years dating back to Riley’s hiring in 2015.
As for receiving, the percentages aren’t the highest, but they are still a healthy amount.
The Huskers will return approximately 60 to 70 percent of their 2017 receiving statistics next season, including 71 percent of the total targets. In comparison, following the 2015 season, Nebraska returned nearly 90 percent of its receiving statistics.
The two key departures in receiving statistics for next season are seniors Tyler Hoppes and Pierson-El, who combined account for just over a quarter of the team’s total targets.
Overall, whatever chemistry Lee has built with his various weapons this season should carry over into the next. (Use the arrows to click through statistical categories below.)
Now, let’s look at the returning statistics for the defense.
With only a few departures in the secondary and a couple among the linebackers, the Blackshirts will return a sizeable portion of the defensive statistics, including everything recorded by the defensive line.
The departures in the secondary include seniors Joshua Kalu, Chris Jones and Kieron Williams. Combined, the three have made just 11 starts this season with injuries plaguing Kalu and Jones.
Despite those injuries, Kalu and Jones are responsible for just over 20 percent of the team’s interceptions and pass breakups in 2017.
The secondary will however return its top two tacklers in junior safeties Aaron Williams and Antonio Reed. These two are also responsible for a third of the defense’s interceptions.
Nebraska will lose two of its top-three tacklers from this season in linebackers Chris Weber, who has 82 tackles, and Marcus Newby, who has 43.
Even with these losses, the defense will still bring back nearly three-quarters of its total tackles, tackles for loss and forced fumbles recorded in 2017. With everyone on the defensive line coming back, the defense will also return over 90 percent of the team’s sacks and quarterback hurries from this season.
Many of these returning defensive statistics are either the highest or second highest percentages in the past four years.
Assuming all of the non-senior playmakers return next season, only seven of the 26 defensive playmakers will be seniors. Eleven will be juniors and eight will be sophomores.
The offense will be young as well with six of the 13 returning playmakers being seniors. Only two will be juniors and five will be sophomores.
The offensive line will return a lot of its players as well. Of the nine offensive linemen to play at least one snap this season—Boe Wilson’s snap at fullback against Minnesota does not count—David Knevel is the only senior. He played in the season opener before getting hurt.
Four of the eight returning linemen will be seniors, one will be a junior and the other three will be sophomores.
If there’s one thing Riley deserves credit for, it’s his recruiting. The national rankings aren’t much different than Pelini’s, but the average star ratings are higher.
He’s been able to bring in the talent, but his staff just hasn’t been able to produce and showcase that on the field.
It seems more likely than not that at the end of this season, newly hired athletic director Bill Moos will fire Riley and bring in someone else. Whoever that may be, the new leader of Nebraska football will have plenty of experienced players to work with moving forward.