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Nebraska Football: 2017 Cornhuskers Preview and Prediction

Mike Riley, Nebraska Football

Mike Riley, Nebraska Football

Nebraska improved its win total by three games in head coach Mike Riley’s second season, but the Cornhuskers stumbled towards the end, losing four of their final six contests. This season is shaping up to be somewhat of a transitional one with a new quarterback and defensive coordinator taking over and a total of 12 starters returning. Nebraska should be able to stay in the hunt in the Big Ten West Division, but winning it may be too much to expect with all of the turnover.

Previewing Nebraska Football’s Offense for 2017 

With the departure of Tommy Armstrong Jr., who started more games than any quarterback in Husker history, the offense will be different — more like what coach Mike Riley ran at Oregon State, with fewer designed quarterback runs. “We want a passer,” Riley says. “If that guy can run, too, that’s really good.” But passing is the priority. Tulane transfer Tanner Lee provides that, as does redshirt freshman Patrick O’Brien. Lee has starting experience, however, which gives him the advantage. Don’t expect 35 drop-back passes per game. Riley’s system is controlled passing.

Nebraska must run the ball better, which might be accomplished by committee, at least early on. The three returning running backs had fewer carries combined than last year’s starter, Terrell Newby. Devine Ozigbo got far and away the most of that group. Tre Bryant is the best blocker, which is an important consideration, while Mikale Wilbon might be the most elusive runner.

The receiving corps was depleted by graduation, but Stanley Morgan Jr. and De’Mornay Pierson-El are proven playmakers. Four of five offensive linemen who started the Music City Bowl return.

Previewing Nebraska Football’s Defense for 2017 

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Riley fired defensive coordinator Mark Banker, with whom he had worked for 20 years including 14 as coordinator, and replaced him with former Connecticut head coach Bob Diaco, who has replaced the 4-3 with a 3-4 base alignment. Cornerbacks coach Donte Williams and safeties coach Bob Elliott also are new.

Mick Stoltenberg is 20 to 25 pounds heavier than a year ago and has the strength to play nose tackle. Carlos Davis, another 300-pounder who saw significant playing time with four starts at tackle as a redshirt freshman, is alongside Stoltenberg.

Diaco is working with the linebackers, along with Trent Bray, and is counting on Dedrick Young II and Marcus Newby to provide leadership at a position with talented but inexperienced youngsters and players adjusting to new roles in the 3-4.

The Huskers are deepest on defense in the secondary, with Joshua Kalu, Aaron Williams and Kieron Williams leading the way. Kieron Williams, the top returning tackler and leading interceptor last season, has been pushed by talented young safeties. Standout cornerback Chris Jones suffered a knee injury over the offseason. His status is in doubt for the 2017 season.

Previewing Nebraska Football’s Specialists for 2017

Riley also fired special teams coordinator Bruce Read, with whom he had worked for 16 years, and now handles special teams by committee. Placekicker Drew Brown is a rather ordinary 17-of-24 from 40 to 49 yards in his career. Punter Caleb Lightbourn expected to redshirt as a freshman but stepped in following the death of Sam Foltz just before the start of fall camp in 2106. Lightbourn, who averaged 39.7 yards, needs to be more consistent.

Final Analysis 

The Huskers improved from 6–7 to 9–4 in Riley’s second season, although the improvement could be partially attributed to better breaks. Plus, the four losses came in the final six games. After battling Wisconsin to overtime, they lost at Ohio State 62–3, at Iowa 40–10 and to Tennessee in the Music City Bowl 38–24, allowing a combined 1,519 yards of offense in those games, leading to Banker’s firing. A year ago, Riley fired defensive line coach Hank Hughes. Despite his nice-guy personality, Riley has shown a hard edge in trying to get this team to where he wants it.

Nebraska's college football logo

Nebraska hasn’t won a conference championship since 1999 and has played in only one Big Ten Championship Game — a 70–31 loss to Wisconsin in 2012. With so many changes on offense, defense and special teams, the Huskers would seem to be long shots to play in a second this season.

National Ranking: 43

Big Ten West Prediction: 3