JD Spielman is poised to have a record-breaking season as the Huskers' primary target
The amount of faith being put into Scott Frost and his football team this year has a number of Nebraska fans nervous. “It’s too much too soon,” some say. “Can the Huskers truly rebound in such impressive form after two 4-8 seasons?” others ask. It’s time for all the optimists out there, the fans who never say die about the biggest of the Big Red’s dreams to prepare themselves for a few grand, yet attainable, goals for Nebraska’s 2019 season:
1. JD Spielman breaks Stanley Morgan Jr.’s receiving yardage record
Nebraska’s No. 10 was the second-most productive receiver on the team last year with 818 yards and one more touchdown catch than Morgan with eight. However, he only played in 10 games versus his eventual 1,000-yard counterpart’s 12 due to injury. If we credit Spielman with his average production through all possible games last season, he would’ve ended up with 982 yards.
The Huskers are looking for a big-bodied, physical target willing to battle for every ball as Morgan did and Nebraska fans are urging each other to temper expectations of true freshman Wan’Dale Robinson being the next Rondale Moore. In the meantime, Spielman’s slippery nature and scoring proficiency point to him being one of Adrian Martinez’s favorite targets - if not the top guy.
It's also important to note Morgan had only four more catches than Spielman in 2018. Watch not only for last year’s runner-up in the yardage race break the 1,000-yard barrier, but shatter Morgan’s mark in the Huskers’ record books with his predecessor loving every minute of it.
2. Darrion Daniels earns second-team All-Big Ten recognition or better
Daniels didn’t get much game time in during his upperclassman years at Oklahoma State. The defensive tackle would see snaps in only 13 games as a junior and senior as he was nursing injury during the latter season. During that time, his stats were less than ideal with only 33 tackles, 1.5 sacks, and two pass breakups. Sometimes all one needs is a change of scenery to excel, but Daniels’ move from Stillwater to Lincoln is significant. The Big 12 isn’t devoid of defensive tackle talent, but making a move from the pass-happy league to a rough and tumble Big Ten is just what the doctor ordered for the end of his college career.
He’ll now be tasked with bear-hugging running backs more frequently and mauling offensive linemen trying to make him budge - good luck with that considering Daniels checks in at 6-foot-3, 320 pounds. While nose tackles don’t traditionally rack up the sexiest of stat lines, he has the ability to swap with Khalil or Carlos Davis at defensive end, not to mention play the role of a standard 4-3 tackle. A bullish season would be enough for him to push the likes of Northwestern’s Joe Gaziano or Michigan State’s Raequan Williams out of the way for higher-than-expected postseason honors.
3. The Huskers beat both Wisconsin and Iowa
Considering Nebraska must face both the Badgers and Hawkeyes every year, the best they can ask for is to have home-field advantage in both games. This season not only offers this but also the opportunity to fine tune any loose mental screws between those two contests. A road game against Maryland is sandwiched by the annual divisional tilts this season.
The Huskers last beat Wisconsin in 2012 and are currently on a six-game skid against Paul Chryst’s squad. The Big Red hasn’t beaten Iowa in Lincoln since their first year as a member of the Big Ten. However, it’s not only having a friendly crowd that bodes well for Frost in 2019 during these two battles.
Wisconsin loses several key defenders including three of four linebackers that have spent the past two seasons starring in opponents’ night terrors. They also lose their most experienced defensive back in D’Cota Dixon. While the Badgers’ offense looks potent and should be bruisers for the foreseeable future, Nebraska can win a shootout here. Four-star quarterback prospect Graham Mertz may bounce Jack Coan to take over for Alex Hornibrook, but even Martinez made critical mistakes as a true freshman.
Iowa still has Nate Stanley but loses two of their most dynamic receivers in tight ends T.J. Hockenson and Noah Fant. They also have an effective bunch of running backs, but the Blackshirt front now has near prototypical 3-4 size and strength. Hawkeye defensive ends A.J. Epenesa and Chauncey Golston will provide Brendan Jaimes and Matt Farniok one of their most difficult days. That said, physics plays to the strengths of Nebraska’s skill players as the amount of speed Frost’s offense commands can have Iowa’s defenders twisting and turning to get their mass moving in another direction.
4. Scott Frost beats Ryan Day twice... almost
A few dominoes have to fall here, but it’s not as unlikely as it may seem at first. First, Nebraska beats Ohio State during their trip to Lincoln, winning arguably their most difficult game on the schedule. Second, Ohio State wins the East division despite momentum seemingly shifting to Michigan. Third, review step one.
The Buckeyes are still loaded with talent but don’t face anyone with a similar amount until they go up against the Huskers. They also only play one road game before their trip to Lincoln (at Indiana). By contrast, Nebraska plays two away games during this stretch in Colorado with the same excellent quarterback-receiver combo that they took on last year and a now AJ Bush-less Illinois. To add even more fuel to the fire, bboth of these teams could easily be undefeated when they meet.
The Big Red does have to respect the stretch of their schedule after meeting up with Ohio State. But they can throw the kitchen sink at the Buckeyes without ripping out the copper piping as well. A score similar to last year’s 36-31 outcome in Columbus wouldn’t be a surprise nor would Nebraska playing an extremely clean game to preserve a victory.
Michigan hasn’t beaten Ohio State since 2011 and hasn’t won games consecutively in the series since 1999-2000. While Jim Harbaugh seemingly should prove to be the Michigan Man he was touted to be upon his hiring any minute now, he also has the benefit of players like Shea Patterson and Donovan Peoples-Jones on offense. That’s not including four of five returning starters up front.
Despite perceived talent dependencies going back a ways now, the Wolverines just seem to find a way to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory for whatever reason(s). To make this year’s potential win truly enjoyable for either team, former Michigan defensive coach Greg Mattison is now wearing the devilish scarlet and gray of their team who will not be named. History tells us the Buckeyes get the last laugh. Again.
As Husker fans know all too well from facing Oklahoma multiple times a year during the days of the Big Eight, beating the same team twice in one season proves incredibly difficult. Despite both teams gelling by the Big Ten Championship Game, the Buckeyes’ co-defensive coordinators should be able to make enough tweaks to prevent the near-unthinkable occurrence of Day being handed another loss by Frost. Do feel free to take the over on the point total, though.
5. Nebraska wins their bowl game
Beating Ohio State, Wisconsin and Iowa means that if the Huskers don’t already have a double-digit win total, they’ll likely be staring that possibility in the face if they can topple a bowl opponent. Remember not that long ago when a ragtag group from Orlando not only talked trash about an SEC team not being able to match their speed but backed their claims up? The Citrus Bowl or the Outback Bowl may provide us to see that yet again, only with a more Midwestern flair.
The Huskers haven’t actually been to a bowl game since the 2016 Music City Bowl. They sleepwalked through an uninspired 38-24 loss to Tennessee. While that squad may have been ready to call it a season, Frost will only put 22 athletes on the field ready to run through a wall for the cause and will be rewarded for their efforts.