Nebraska has slipped from the ranks of college football's elite, but the program's long-term outlook has changed significantly thanks to Scott Frost's return to Lincoln. While optimism is running high for Frost's debut, the Cornhuskers are loaded with question marks. In addition to the transition in scheme, Nebraska's offense could turn to a true freshman (Adrian Martinez) at quarterback. Frost does have talented playmakers to utilize, most notably receiver Stanley Morgan and running back Tre Bryant, but others must step up. There are also major issues on a defense that allowed 436.2 yards and 36.4 points per game in 2017. The schedule is another challenge. Nebraska plays three out of the projected top four from the Big Ten East and has road games at Iowa and Northwestern. Six wins would be a successful debut for Frost.
Previewing Nebraska Football's Offense for 2018
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After the first spring practice, as reporters gathered and television cameras were set up, Scott Frost said: "Come on, pick it up, let's go, faster, faster, faster ..."
The new Cornhuskers -- Frost is old-school and prefers that to "Huskers" -- coach was having fun, while underscoring a theme that will carry into the season on both sides of the ball. His team, reshaped by new strength and conditioning coach Zach Duval, will play (and practice) with tempo.
A young and inexperienced quarterback, likely redshirt freshman Tristan Gebbia or true freshman Adrian Martinez, will direct the spread offense, behind a restructured, more aggressive line built around guards Jerald Foster and Tanner Farmer and tackle Brenden Jaimes, who has moved from the right to the left side.
Most notable on offense are receivers Stanley Morgan Jr. and JD Spielman. Morgan caught 61 passes for a school-record 986 yards and 10 touchdowns last season. Spielman will line up at times in the Duck-R position, a combination running back-receiver.
Nebraska had only 10 rushes of 20 or more yards last season. That should change.
Previewing Nebraska Football's Defense for 2018
Fifth-year seniors are playing under a third defensive coordinator, though the Cornhuskers will still line up in a 3-4 base. Coordinator Erik Chinander's "no fear of failure, let it loose" approach is in marked contrast to last season's bend-but-don't-break system, when Nebraska ranked at or near last in the Big Ten statistically in all defensive categories. Chinander places an emphasis on forcing turnovers, and his teams at UCF did just that -- the Knights ranked second nationally with 32 takeaways last season and had 58 in 26 games during his two years in Orlando.
Nose tackle Mick Stoltenberg, a two-year starter, learned to deal with constant double-teams and is better suited for Chinander's system. Ben Stille has added 20 pounds of muscle and moved to end from outside linebacker, where he led the team with 3.5 sacks.
Dedrick Young, a three-year starter, has been reliable but not flashy at inside linebacker, where junior college transfer Will Honas will provide immediate help. A healthy Luke Gifford is a good fit at outside linebacker in the new system. The secondary played soft last season, according to defensive backs coach Travis Fisher, but no longer.
Previewing Nebraska Football's Specialists for 2018
Punter Caleb Lightbourn returns, as does Spielman, the kickoff returner. But placekicker Drew Brown, a four-year starter and team leader, is a significant loss. Lightbourn averaged 42.1 yards per punt, an improvement from his freshman season. But punt returns have been a continuing concern; the Huskers ranked 86th nationally.
Nebraska has been largely absent from the national discussion since 2001, and the Cornhuskers haven't won a conference championship since 1999. Without overstating things, Frost and staff were miracle workers at UCF, taking a program from 0-12 the season before they arrived to 13-0, including a Peach Bowl victory against Auburn, last year, their second in Orlando.
Whether they can work such magic in two seasons again is uncertain. Nebraska had better than 4-8 talent a year ago, and much of it returns. New systems are in place all the way around, causing growing pains, and the schedule is daunting. But the Cornhuskers will be up-tempo, aggressive, physical -- and competitive.