Nebraska opens its 2021 spring practice and fourth under coach Scott Frost looking to find the right answers for a program that hasn’t posted a winning season since ’16. The Cornhuskers finished 4-8 in Frost’s debut in ’18 and 5-7 in ’19. Nebraska played in eight games last fall and recorded a 3-5 mark, dropping Frost’s overall record to 12-20 in Lincoln.
The schedule doesn’t allow for many breaks this fall, as Nebraska opens at Illinois, faces Buffalo (one of the favorites to win the MAC) on Sept. 11, followed by a road trip to Oklahoma on Sept. 18. The Cornhuskers play at Minnesota and Wisconsin, while also catching Ohio State and Michigan in crossover play. Both sides of the ball have to take a step forward, along with improved special teams, for Nebraska to earn a bowl invite in 2021. This spring is the first step to finding answers for the preseason question marks.
5 Storylines to Watch During Nebraska's Spring Practices
1. Get Adrian Martinez on Track
As a true freshman in 2018, Martinez threw for 2,617 yards and 17 touchdowns to eight picks and added 629 yards and eight scores on the ground. The California native seemed prime to emerge as one of the top quarterbacks in the nation. However, the next step has eluded Martinez. His completion percentage dropped to 59.4 in ’19, while throwing for 1,956 yards and 10 touchdowns to nine picks. A seven-game sample size in ’20 isn’t the best gauge of where he is in his development, but Martinez averaged just seven yards per pass attempt – the lowest of his career – and tossed only four touchdowns to three picks. Also, he was pushed for the job by Luke McCaffrey. But with McCaffrey transferring to Louisville, Martinez is entrenched as the starter going into ’21. Can Frost and offensive coordinator Matt Lubick get him back on track this offseason?
2. Develop the RB/WR Room
While Martinez needs to play better, Nebraska’s quarterbacks also need more help from the skill talent. At running back, Dedrick Mills departs after running for 396 yards last season, leaving Marvin Scott (62), Rahmir Johnson (30) and Ronald Thompkins (24) as the top statistical options. As for some new faces, USC transfer Markese Stepp should get his opportunities, Sevion Morrison is back from injury and true freshman Gabe Ervin is another name to watch. Will a go-to No. 1 back emerge here? Or will the Cornhuskers go with a committee approach? Sorting out the pecking order this spring is crucial.
Wan’Dale Robinson’s transfer to Kentucky leaves a big void at receiver, but Nebraska hopes the addition of Montana transfer Samori Toure, along with the development of Omar Manning – a top junior college recruit in the 2020 class – can emerge as difference-makers on the outside. Additionally, the return of Will Nixon from a season-ending injury, and the development of Oliver Martin and Zavier Betts provide optimism here. True freshman tight end Thomas Fidone is an intriguing option to watch this offseason. The Cornhuskers had only one completion of 40-plus yards last fall, so it’s important to find players who can stretch the field in ’21.
3. Sort Out the Offensive Line
Every part of the offensive operation at Nebraska has room to improve in 2021. In addition to improving execution, the Cornhuskers have a couple of personnel questions to sort out this spring. Left tackle Brenden Jaimes and guard Matt Farniok are off to the NFL, leaving Ethan Piper (left guard), Cameron Jurgens (center) and Bryce Benhart (right tackle) as the returning starters. Turner Corcoran – the first true freshman in Nebraska history to earn a start at left tackle – is expected to start there in ’21. He’s poised for a breakout season after finishing the year with a strong performance against Rutgers. The open spot at right guard could go to a couple of different players, including Broc Bando, Ezra Miller, Trent Hixon or Nouredin Nouili.
Assuming Corcoran and Benhart continue to develop, and Jurgens progresses at center, the Cornhuskers would have the makings of a solid offensive line. This spring is all about getting the starting five a chance to jell and build depth, while also working out the mix at right guard.
4. A New Starter at Cornerback
Nebraska’s defense doesn’t have a ton of personnel holes to fill this spring. However, the secondary is a bit in flux, as cornerback Dicaprio Bootle departed Lincoln for the NFL. The good news is that a strong foundation remains in place here. Deontai Williams and Marquel Dismuke are back at safety, and Cam Taylor-Britt is one of the top corners in the Big Ten. Who steps up to fill the space opposite of Taylor-Britt? Quinton Newsome could get the first look, but Braxton Clark (back from missing all of 2020 due to injury) and Nadab Joseph are two names to watch.
5. Build on Last Season’s Defensive Progress
Nebraska’s defense seems to be trending in the right direction going into the 2021 season. After allowing 5.96 yards per play in conference games in ’19, this unit cut that total to 5.46 last fall. The sample size was limited, but it’s notable the run defense allowed 169.5 yards in Big Ten games after yielding 223.4 the previous year. With nine starters back, another step forward should be within reach. The front is experienced with linemen Ben Stille, Casey Rogers, Damion Daniels and Ty Robinson returning, while the linebacker unit is anchored by JoJo Domann, Will Honas, Luke Reimer and Garrett Nelson. Nebraska may not be an elite defense in ’21, but this group can help take some of the pressure off an offense likely to be a work-in-progress early in the year.