Nebraska might've been the most respected 4–8 team in the country at the end of 2018, even though Scott Frost's first season as head coach produced the same record as Mike Riley's last. The Huskers lost their first six games but held together for a competitive finish that included a 36–31 loss at Ohio State and a 9–6 victory against Michigan State. Similarly surprising given the record, perhaps, is the inclusion of sophomore quarterback Adrian Martinez's name in discussion regarding the 2019 Heisman Trophy.
The optimism that followed the arrival of Frost and staff, following a 13–0 season and dramatic turnaround at UCF, remains despite last season’s struggles.
Perviewing Nebraska's Offense for 2019
Discussion of the offense has to begin with Martinez. As if expectations weren't already high, Frost said on the Husker radio network in the spring that by the time Martinez finishes: "I hope he's thought of as the greatest ever to play at Nebraska at that position." Defensive lineman Darrion Daniels, a grad transfer from Oklahoma State, was asked what other Big 12 quarterback he had faced was most like Martinez as a run-pass threat. "Patrick Mahomes," Daniels said.
Martinez averaged a school-record 295.1 yards of offense per game. How much he improves depends not only on a year’s experience but also on those around him.
The status of running back Maurice Washington is uncertain because of off-field legal problems, creating opportunity for junior college transfer Dedrick Mills and true freshman Rahmir Johnson to help fill the void created by the loss of 1,000-yard rusher Devine Ozigbo.
The most significant loss on offense is wide receiver Stanley Morgan Jr., although JD Spielman might have reached 1,000 receiving yards as well if he hadn't missed the final two games because he was injured. Tight end Jack Stoll is a receiving threat, and walk-on wideout Kade Warner has gotten on the field because of his reliability. Cal transfer Kanawai Noa was added to the team after spring practice and is expected to help right away. Otherwise, the receivers are unproven.
The offensive line is led by Brenden Jaimes, who has 21 consecutive starts. He went through a period of adjustment last season, moving from right to left tackle. The Huskers' line play mirrored his adjustment, improving as the season progressed and players became more comfortable in Frost's system. Right tackle Matt Farniok might be a better fit at guard, but that would leave a void at tackle. Cam Jurgens, recruited as a tight end, appears to have a bright future at center, where he emerged as the projected starter in the spring.
Previewing Nebraska's Defense for 2019
On defense, the primary concern off the field is outside linebackers (and special teams) coach Jovan Dewitt's battle with throat cancer. Despite having begun treatment, Dewitt was a regular at practice in the spring, an inspiration to coaches and players.
Statistically, there's plenty of room for improvement. The Huskers allowed, on average, the third-most yards (433.5 ypg) and points (31.3 ppg) since 1946, when official records were first kept.
As with the offense, a season of comfort in Erik Chinander's defense has allowed for that improvement. The base is a 3-4 alignment, but opposing offenses can't lock in on that.
"Once you figure it out, you can just play faster," says Frost. "You can let everything go and just attack the ball."
The defensive line has experience and, after Mike Dawson left for the New York Giants, a third coach in as many years — Tony Tuioti, who came from California. The line also has Daniels, who left Oklahoma State to play with his brother Damion. He'll have an immediate impact at nose guard, joining twins Carlos and Khalil Davis and Ben Stille in an experienced front.
Inside linebacker Mohamed Barry, the leading tackler, has stepped into a leadership role along with Darrion Daniels, while JoJo Domann has added muscle and figures to provide much-needed pressure on the outside. Because of his versatility, Domann could line up at safety, the position at which he was recruited, depending on the scheme.
Lamar Jackson and Dicaprio Bootle are experienced corners, though Jackson was the only corner with an interception last season; he had two of Nebraska's 11. The rest of the secondary is mostly young and unproven. Deontai Williams is the lone exception, with one start. Even so, the defense is expected to make a big jump in Year 2 under Frost.
Previewing Nebraska's Specialists for 2019
Walk-on Isaac Armstrong took over for Caleb Lightbourn, a scholarship player, as the punter, starting the final seven games and averaging 43.6 yards, second best in the Big Ten. Barret Pickering made 40-of-41 extra-point kicks and 14-of-18 field goals, including his last 10. The return game needs to improve.
The Huskers have made dramatic strides on the field and off. They're much more comfortable in Frost's system. And they're much better prepared to compete in the Big Ten after a year under strength coach Zach Duval.
Nebraska failed to play in a bowl for the second season in a row. "I'm not used to having Christmas off," Frost says. "It was nice to be with family." However, he adds, "I don't want it to ever happen again."