Can Mike Riley take the Huskers to the top of the Big Ten in Year 3?
Nebraska hosted what was officially the final college basketball game of the regular season Sunday, but the good folks of Lincoln needed no time to turn the page, as their beloved football team had started spring practice on Saturday.
Not that the gridiron is ever far from people’s minds in Nebraska.
Mike Riley enters Year 3 with the Cornhuskers at 15-11 overall, looking to take the next step in what is quickly becoming a much-improved West division in the Big Ten.
5 Storylines to Watch in Nebraska’s Spring Practice
1. The quarterback battle
The race to replace Tommy Armstrong Jr. is officially on, as Patrick O’Brien and Tanner Lee are duking it out for the right to become Nebraska’s starting QB after both sat last season. O’Brien, a redshirt freshman, is a former four-star prospect out of California who has all the right tools. Lee, meanwhile, is probably closer to a finished product after transferring from Tulane, where he started 19 games from 2014-15. Lee, who had to sit out last season, was actually granted an NCAA waiver for an extra year of eligibility, meaning he could be Nebraska's answer for two years if he goes on to win the job.
2. What does Bob Diaco bring to the table?
There are few personalities in college football like Diaco, the former UConn head coach whom Riley brought aboard to run his defense after parting ways with former coordinator Mark Banker. Diaco is a defensive wizard who gets the most out of his players, who are fiercely loyal to him. His 3-4 approach became the backbone of Notre Dame’s 2012 run to the national title game, finishing second nationally in scoring defense, and he has a familiar face from that year helping him along at Nebraska now in safeties coach Bob Elliott, his former Irish colleague. Ironically enough, Elliott also was one of Diaco's former coaches at Iowa when Diaco played linebacker there two decades ago.
3. How different will the rushing attack be?
Nebraska was just ninth in the Big Ten last season in rushing, at 169.2 yards per game. The Huskers say goodbye to leading rusher Terrell Newby (879 yards) but, more importantly, also lose Armstrong, who was their second-leading rusher. And both candidates to replace him are pass-first signal-callers, meaning the ground game production will have to come from elsewhere. Junior Devine Ozigbo (412 yards, 5 TDs) is the Huskers’ leading returning rusher.
4. New pass catchers
Breaking in a new QB is difficult enough, but nailing down the chemistry is even tougher when the cast of pass catchers is mostly new. Nebraska lost three of its top four receivers from 2016, with Stanley Morgan Jr. returning as the leader of the group after catching 33 passes as a sophomore last season for 453 yards and two touchdowns. Senior De’Mornay Pierson-El (20 catches, 254 yards in 2016) also is a stabilizing presence, although the unit will be short one potential playmaker for a bit as early enrollee Keyshawn Johnson Jr. — yes, the son of that Keyshawn Johnson — recovers from lingering symptoms after a December appendectomy.
5. How does the secondary competition shake out?
In addition to Elliott, the Huskers have another new voice in the secondary in cornerbacks coach Donte Williams, who came over from Arizona. While Nebraska returns all but Nate Gerry from last year's starting secondary, the depth here will make things interesting, especially with sophomore corner Lamar Jackson making a push for a starting spot after playing in every game last season. Jackson was the nation’s top safety prospect in 2016. Nebraska was tied for third in the Big Ten last season with 16 picks.
Pre-Spring Outlook for Nebraska in the Big Ten
Nebraska enters spring with several question marks, if only because the Huskers said goodbye to so many key figures at the skill positions. Still, this is head coach Mike Riley’s third year, meaning the roster should take on his personality more than the past two years’ units did. The addition of Bob Diaco is a fascinating one, as the defensive coordinator’s energy is contagious and he gets the absolute most out of his units. There is a lot to like about this team from a talent standpoint, and as Riley has said, the three-win improvement from 2015 to ‘16 shows how thin the margin for error is, as the Huskers protected the ball much better the second time around. Is Nebraska the Big Ten West front-runner? It’s probably a stretch to say that, but there’s no reason the Huskers can’t enter 2017 thinking they can win the division. Of course, several other West teams are thinking the same thing, and how quickly Nebraska grows up will determine how realistic its goals are.
— Written by Matt Fortuna, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and spent six seasons covering college football for ESPN.com. Fortuna’s work has been honored by the Football Writers Association of America (FWAA) and U.S. Basketball Writers Association (USBWA) seven times. Follow him on Twitter @Matt_Fortuna and like his Facebook page.