There was plenty of despair during the Nebraska Cornhuskers’ 2019 campaign. But much like the 2018 season, there were some players that stood out despite the final record and made the most of their opportunities. Today, we acknowledge the Huskers that offer hope for the future and gave Big Red fans their brief but memorable moments of the past year.
Offensive MVP: Wan'Dale Robinson, WR
There was a point during the season when Maurice Washington — a 2018 sensation not unlike Adrian Martinez — was rendered largely ineffective. Then, he was removed from the team altogether. With the necessity for someone to spell running back Dedrick Mills and provide electricity, the former Kentucky Mr. Football took center stage.
Robinson finished the season with a combined 340 yards of total offense and five touchdowns. In addition, he also contributed on kick returns when Nebraska actually decided to embrace those opportunities (more on that later). Robinson would eventually be unable to contribute due to injury and clearly gave everything he could for the Nebraska offensive effort.
Defensive MVP: JoJo Domann, LB
While officially listed as an outside linebacker, Domann played the role of a hybrid linebacker/safety on several occasions. He accumulated 52 tackles (38 solo), nine tackles for a loss, 2.5 sacks, and forced two fumbles. This doesn’t truly go into how he affected offense’s game plans, though. Whenever he was on the field, he was clearly one of the Blackshirts’ best and was treated as such by opposing offensive coordinators.
Best Freshman: Wan'Dale Robinson, WR
Robinson’s accomplishments have already been noted, but he wasn’t the only first-year player in the running for this honor. A tip of the cap goes to quarterback Luke McCaffrey who stepped in alongside Noah Vedral when Adrian Martinez couldn’t go. McCaffrey also provided excellent assistance as a wide receiver.
Still, Robinson’s contributions put him at the top of the totem pole for this particular award. These two may yet battle it out for accolades as soon as 2020.
Best Play of the Season: Lane McCallum’s 24-yard field goal to beat Northwestern
Now a fixture of Nebraska football trivia, McCallum became more than just another name in the Huskers’ game of musical chairs at the kicker position. With Nebraska badly needing a win and looking to avenge last season’s overtime heartbreaker against the Wildcats, the safety-turned-emergency kicker's accurate (albeit admittedly ugly) boot made him king of all Lincoln for at least a day.
Best Performance by a Player: Dedrick Mills vs. Wisconsin
One of the season’s pleasant surprises, Mills did eventually find his FBS legs once again after a stint at junior college following his departure from Georgia Tech. His 2019 magnum opus came during Nebraska’s 37-21 defeat at the hands of the Badgers.
For years, Wisconsin running backs have sliced through Blackshirt defenses like hot knives through butter. While Jonathan Taylor did have a typical 204-yard, two-touchdown day, Mills actually eclipsed the 100-yard mark before him. Finishing the day with 188 yards and a touchdown himself, he actually claimed a better yards per carry average than the beastly Badger back (11.1 to 8.2).
Best Game (Team Performance): Routing Maryland on the road
Nebraska’s performance against the Terrapins was no doubt inspired by what they managed to accomplish versus Wisconsin. The Huskers did lose to the Badgers, but they didn’t go quietly into that good night. With something to prove and bowl eligibility being a very real possibility at the time, they had to notch a win in College Park, and they did so with gusto.
If you watch the 54-7 game, you’ll see Terrapins actually stop engaging Nebraska as the game goes on. They quite literally quit. A 226-yard passing and 94-yard rushing effort by Adrian Martinez helped pad the Big Red’s 531 total offensive yards. JD Spielman logged his fourth 100-yard receiving day, and the defense tallied a season-high six sacks.
Defining Moment: Losing 34-31 in overtime to Colorado
In 2018, it was a 34-31 overtime loss to Northwestern that finally helped push the Huskers over the edge after an 0-6 start. They’d finish the remainder of the year 4-2 and looked to have plenty of momentum heading into the offseason.
This year, after leading Colorado 17-0 at halftime, Nebraska surrendered 31 second-half points and lost yet again by a field goal in the extra stanza. This game cemented concern that cropped up one week prior in a sloppy 35-21 win over South Alabama. As we now know, the Buffaloes gave Nebraska a taste of things to come.
Biggest Surprise: Kicking woes
Nebraska has been spoiled by good kickers in the past, and it seemed like all that positive karma evened out over the course of 2019. With presumed starter Barret Pickering injured prior to the season opener, Dylan Jorgensen took over his duties. Then he got injured. Punter Isaac Armstrong (who had never kicked at the FBS level before) was the next man up.
With a still ineffective kicking game, Nebraska opened the doors to just about anyone they could find. You already know about McCallum. Finally, former club soccer player Matt Waldoch looked like the most consistent player the Huskers had at the position all year. One could make an argument that he has the inside track for the 2020 starting gig.
Biggest Disappointment: Special teams
While the kicking debacle was most certainly a disappointment, there's little you can do about the injury bug. However, one glaring problem was the apparent decision by Nebraska to not fully embrace the return game.
The Huskers had the opportunity to return 67 kickoffs in 2019. They tried 23 times. One of the most explosive plays in the game was essentially an afterthought, a decision that leaves only questions in its wake.
Was the risk of injury too great to have returners advance the football? Did assistant coach Jovan Dewitt not prepare a proper corps to put Frost’s offense into an even more advantageous position? Did the new fair catch rule make the team too complacent? Whatever the reason, 2019’s special teams are an excellent example of what’s not acceptable moving forward.
Senior That Will Be Missed the Most Next Season: Lamar Jackson, CB
Named 2018’s Biggest Surprise, Jackson turned in a year that only helped his draft status. He finished the season with 40 tackles (30 solo), 3.5 tackles for a loss, one sack, three interceptions, and 12 pass breakups. With a solid combine, he could be sitting pretty come late April.
Player to Watch in 2020: Cam Taylor-Britt, DB
Originally a safety, Taylor-Britt swapped positions with cornerback Dicaprio Bootle this season. His effectiveness at the spot and as a nickel back may force defensive coordinator Erik Chinander’s hand at keeping him there.
A silky smooth player with swag to spare, Taylor-Britt was responsible for three interceptions, including a pick-six versus Iowa. Perhaps one of Nebraska's finest pupils during turnover drills, No. 5 was responsible for forcing four fumbles. The junior-to-be from Montgomery, Ala., appears to have a bright figure and may be key in replacing the effort of the aforementioned Jackson.
Biggest Offseason Question Mark: Who Starts at Quarterback Next Season?
There was a period of time when it looked like Adrian Martinez had the starting spot locked up for three years before the inevitable siren song of the NFL came calling. Now, it appears he may not even be listed No. 1 on the depth chart as a junior, considering the season he just had.
Noah Vedral frequently showed a more decisive command of the offense, and the team rallied around the true freshman Luke McCaffrey during his snaps just as well. Add in the arrival of the highly-touted Logan Smothers, and head coach Scott Frost has the luxury of challenging a loaded quarterback room to separate itself on the practice field during the offseason.
— Written by Brandon Cavanaugh, FWAA member and part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Be sure to follow him on Twitter (@eightlaces). To contact him with tips, story ideas or for interview purposes, click here.