Last season’s Nebraska football team had only one representative selected in the 2018 NFL Draft and he was quite the controversial figure. Quarterback Tanner Lee was selected in the sixth round by the Jacksonville Jaguars with the 203rd overall pick. Thanks to Jacksonville, Nebraska’s streak of 56 straight years with at least one alumnus sent to the NFL via the draft lives on, albeit it by a hair.
Nick Gates, Joshua Kalu, Chris Jones, Tyler Hoppes, Luke McNitt and De'Mornay Pierson-El also secured undrafted free agent deals, so now it's time to look one year into the future to five players that Big Red fans should watch that could keep the draft streak alive in 2019.
Stanley Morgan Jr., WR
Let’s get the easy one out of the way. Morgan was considering skipping town for The League early, and with good reason. The New Orleans native hauled in 61 receptions for 982 yards and 10 touchdowns, posting the best single season of any Nebraska wide receiver in school history.
No Husker has ever totaled 1,000 receiving yards in a single season, but that may become just as much of an expectation with Scott Frost’s offense installed as a 1,000-yard rusher has been with Big Red attacks of old.
Morgan’s return means that he is, in fact, the undisputed No. 1 target and a returning team leader. Frost was as excited about his decision to return for his senior year as anyone.
"My second conversation ever with Stanley had to be about my opinion of his future. That’s always easier when you know the kids well and they trust you. But I know how good a player Stanley is and I think I he made a good decision and we’re thrilled to have him back,” Frost said in a Jan. 30 interview with the Lincoln Journal Star.
Look for Morgan to be to Nebraska what newly-minted New Orleans Saint Tre'Quan Smith was to UCF during Frost’s tenure. Smith totaled 2,024 yards and 18 touchdowns in two seasons under the Nebraska football head man’s watch before leaving early and was selected with the 27th pick in the third round of this year’s draft.
If Morgan performs as well as he’s expected, not only should his numbers mirror Smith’s, his draft placement may as well, if not exceed it.
Jerald Foster, OL
Nebraska used to regularly feed offensive linemen to the NFL, but there's been a dip lately with the most recent gap being between Washington's selection of Spencer Long in 2014 and Baltimore's selection of Alex Lewis in 2016.
Foster could very well be the spark for another long run in that regard. Yes, he has plenty of experience, but Frost’s arrival is just as significant for him as it is any member of the offense.
He’ll be challenged to be a balanced lineman in both rushing and passing situations while hauling his ample (though more svelte than it was prior to the new staff’s arrival) frame downfield at a fevered pace. He may not be put through the rigors of such an up-tempo offense in the NFL, but his conditioning alone may give him a leg up.
If he inherits a fierce tenacity brought by new offensive line coach Greg Austin, combined with his measurables, he could break through next April. This also goes for fellow guard Tanner Farmer.
Freedom Akinmoladun, DL
A defensive prospect with ground to make up, Akinmoladun (above, right) has impressive measurables and he may very well be blessed by defensive coordinator Erik Chinander’s arrival.
The best Nebraska fans could usually hope for out of him in 2017 was quarterback hurries as he notched only one sack. Any pressure he may have gotten didn’t mean too much as the Big Red was getting lit up for 221 yards through the air per contest, good for 60th in the nation.
Hope springs eternal around Lincoln these days, though and Akinmoladun has embraced both his new role under Chinander and as a veteran on the team. In fact, Nebraska’s new defensive coordinator went out of his way to praise the Grandview, Missouri, native for his leadership during the offseason.
He does need a significant rebound season in 2018. That said, he has all of the tools to have the necessary breakout year to get a serious look from NFL scouts.
Mick Stoltenberg, DL
Perhaps the best bet outside of Stanley Morgan to get drafted, Stoltenberg has proven he’s a versatile lineman and it doesn’t hurt that he’s as big as a house. The 6-foot-5, 305-pounder spent last season learning the art of playing nose tackle in former defensive coordinator Bob Diaco’s 3-4 scheme and will continue that role under Erik Chinander. Prior to Diaco’s arrival, he lined up as a standard defensive tackle in Mark Banker’s 4-3 look.
While his size isn’t ideal for that of a prototypical nose guard (he’s a bit on the tall side), he is a mauler if nothing else. His knowledge of the 3-4 scheme can’t hurt, but it’s likely that scouts will be looking at him to play the part that he did under Banker as a more traditional defensive lineman.
Luke Gifford, LB
Consider Gifford the dark horse of this bunch. Whether or not he can be the first true Nebraska linebacker selected since Lavonte David was picked up by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 2012’s second round remains to be seen. We’re using “true linebacker” in the sense that Randy Gregory (a 2015 selection by the Dallas Cowboys) was seen as one in some eyes, but he spent his career largely as a pass rush specialist, so you be the judge.
As of this writing, Gifford’s likely an undrafted free agent. However, thanks to Chinander’s 3-4 scheme that digests like pudding versus Bob Diaco’s spoiled oysters, he may have an opportunity to show he can be far more efficient. That said, Gifford will have to put some highlights together in a hurry. He can do so by being a force on the outside for the Blackshirts and he’s shown that he’s not afraid of contact.
Frost is able to boast four draft picks from this year’s NFL draft class, including first-round pick Mike Hughes, who went to the Minnesota Vikings with the 30th overall pick. Compare that the total of two Cornhuskers who have been drafted in the past two years combined. With the work of Frost and his staff, perhaps that number easily doubles when we convene for next year’s selection process.