Nebraska opens its season on Saturday against an Arkansas State team that dropped its first four games of last season before reeling off seven wins in eight games to close the year. The Red Wolves return the nation's sack leader in defensive end Ja'Von Rolland-Jones and boast an offense with a number of skill players returning.
I caught up with the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette's Brooks Kubena to get some views from the other side of the field. It just happened that the first writer the Oklahoma grad contacted for this weekly segment happened to be a Texas grad. That was fun.
Editor's note: This conversation has been edited for length.
Brooks Kubena: "I see you’ve got the Oklahoma number, where are you from?"
Hail Varsity: I lived in Edmond with my family and then went to school at OU in Norman.
BK: "Oh okay. What year did you graduate?"
HV: Just this past May, actually. Yep, I’m a newbie.
BK: "Well congrats. I went to Texas, I graduated from there in ’15 so screw you man."
HV: Still want to do this then?
BK: "Let’s do it."
HV: Well, I guess the first question I’ve got for you is about Arkansas State’s star. Ja’Von Rolland Jones is the talk of the town here right now. How has he looked in camp so far?
BK: "They’ve kind of been very light with him in this camp. In the final scrimmage a couple weeks ago, he actually didn’t play at all. Wasn’t because he was hurt or anything, they just wanted to keep him fresh. They have high expectations for him and have said he’s looking good in practice.
"Obviously, he’s the guy they’re looking to to continue that tackle for loss lead they had last year. The thing about him is, if he has the same kind of year as last year with 13.5 sacks, he’ll tie Terrell Suggs for the career lead at 44. This week if he has two, he’ll get past Myles Garrett and then if he gets three he gets past Von Miller. So this guy is going to be ascending up that career sack list weekly."
HV: Is that defense just him or are there some other guys in that unit that have a chance to wreck some things for Nebraska this weekend?
BK: "It’s not just him. There’s a guy, Darreon Jackson, he’s a defensive back. They just picked him up from Coffeyville Community College in Kansas. They’ve talked a lot about him, [defensive coordinator Joe] Cauthen’s pretty high on him and his numbers are good from community college. He had 94 tackles and two pick-sixes. He’s a playmaker and he’s earned the starting job at free safety as a sophomore.
"This is a group that likes to attack and a lot of that can free up some big plays for the safety position and Darreon Jackson’s a guy I think, other than Rolland-Jones, makes a big impact."
HV: What’s going to be the matchup you’re going to be paying close attention to?
BK: "Definitely the line. And on both sides. This Arkansas State team, that’s the biggest question for them is the offensive line. They’ve got no guys returning from last year other than Troy Elliot who only started two games and that was in relief of another guy who was hurt. I know that there’s some changes on the Nebraska defense and they’re going to a 3-4 but if the offensive line doesn’t hold up, there’s going to be huge problems for Arkansas State.
"On the defensive side, if they can stop the run, that’s going to be the best way that they have a chance but if Nebraska’s just pounding them up the front and controlling the clock like they like to do, then it’s not going to be a fun game for Arkansas State.
"That’s where I think the game will be won."
HV: How does Justice Hansen look? Has he talked at all about how he’s going to be preparing for being inside Memorial Stadium?
BK: "Talking to Hansen in this offseason so far, he’s looking forward to this. The guy has never had consecutive offensive coordinators until this year. This is a consistent thing he’s talked about and he’s happy for that and he’s expecting to win every game.
"It’s a much different position than he was at last year because Chad Voytik was a Pitt transfer over the offseason. He thought he had the job and then Chad came in and they battled for it and Chad won the starting job and against those top Power Five teams, Voytik was the guy.
"So this is a new challenge for him and he’s looking forward to it. I remember him saying at Sun Belt Media Days that just being able to have consistency and confidence in him, he’s ready for this and from the scrimmages I’ve seen, he looks confident. He’s making the throws that they want him to make. They’re trying to make more deep shots this year and he’s accurate with that.
"We haven’t seen him against a team like this yet so there will still be a lot of questions for him. He seems to be prepared for it mentally. I guess we’ll see Saturday."
HV: Looking at the two sides, where do you see Nebraska having a clear-cut advantage? And then same question but what about with Arkansas State?
BK: "The clear advantage for Nebraska is even though they’re switching to the 3-4 and there are some questions about whether they can run it the way they want it to, that front seven is larger than anything Arkansas State has handled. I look at a guy like Freedom Akinmoladun who’s 280 [pounds], a tall and big d-end and he’s mobile. So that’s a pretty big, clear advantage for Nebraska, that size on the front. Even though there’s questions on how effective that can be, they’ll still be able to control it I think.
"For Arkansas State, it’s hard to say where a clear advantage would be. You can point to running back. There’s a lot more questions for Nebraska at running back. I think only 20 percent of the amount of rushing yards they had last year are coming back, they lost a lot of guys. For Arkansas State, they’ve got Warren Wand and [Johnston] White and [Armond] Weh-Weh and that gives them a good, steady run attack. If they’re effective and the line can block the way they need them to, that’s a clear advantage for them that Nebraska doesn’t have. They also have a lot more depth at wide receiver than I think Nebraska does.
"They know what they’ve got on offense and Nebraska doesn’t."
HV: Last thing I’m going to ask you is your prediction for the weekend?
BK: "I don’t want to pick a winner, but I saw that the line was today at 14.5 on CBS, and I saw in your email earlier that it opened up much more than that. I really think, if I was a betting man, I’d see that it’s a closer game than recently.
"You look at [head coach Blake] Anderson’s past, the team’s past games against Power Fives under Anderson and it’s not pretty. They get blown out in these games. This is a much more consistent team than they’ve had and I don’t think they’ve played a team that has as many questions as Nebraska has.
"If Nebraska has the questions on offense and they don’t figure it out and the 3-4 is not as effective as they want it to be, this will be close. If the defense for Arkansas State can’t stop the run and they can’t get off the field and Nebraska controls time of possession, this is going to be outside of that 16-point range that people are placing on this game.
"Recently on Monday, Blake Anderson’s wife, Wendy, went through surgery for breast cancer and it’s been something that the team has known about since the start of camp. The players are supportive, they’ve been around Wendy, she’s been at practices and the coaches are supportive and this is something that’s been a part of Blake’s life since April. I think that’ll add a little bit to how they go into this game. Whether that’s positive or negative, I think it leans more positive in their focus and what they want to do. I think that adds to it.
"Adding perspective to it, I think this is a closer game."
Derek is a newbie on the Hail Varsity staff covering Husker athletics. In college, he was best known as ‘that guy from Twitter.’ He has covered a Sugar Bowl, a tennis national championship and almost everything in between (except an NCAA men’s basketball tournament game… *tears*). In his spare time, he can be found arguing with literally anyone about sports.