Prior to last season, Nebraska athletic director Bill Moos said that six wins and a bowl would be reasonable for coach Scott Frost’s third team. The response from most was disbelief: Only six wins?
As it turned out, Moos was too optimistic. The Huskers failed to achieve bowl-eligibility for a third consecutive season. Part of the problem was the health of quarterback Adrian Martinez, who was coming off an outstanding freshman season. He missed two games because of a knee injury and then had offseason surgery on his non-throwing shoulder.
Martinez will have a veteran group around him, but depth is a concern on both sides of the ball. And if Nebraska is to be a factor in the Big Ten’s West Division, it will have to happen with young players. Freshmen, redshirt freshmen and sophomores comprise 70 percent of the roster.
Previewing Nebraska's Offense for 2020
In addition to Martinez, 10 other players with five or more starts return, including the interior linemen and tight end Jack Stoll, all of whom started every game. The offense suffered a setback in early June when wide receiver JD Spielman entered the transfer portal. Spielman went home to Minnesota before the start of spring practice “to do things he needs to do,” Frost said at the time.
Spielman led the Huskers in receiving, topping 800 yards (898) for a third season. His transfer adds uncertainty at wide receiver, easily the biggest concern on an offense that has a new coordinator/receivers coach in Matt Lubick, with whom Frost had coached at Oregon.
Wan’Dale Robinson, who started four games, lined up at running back as well as wide receiver. Like Spielman, he’s fearless despite his size and took a physical pounding, missing two games as a result.
Kade Warner, also hampered by injury last season, is reliable, always in the right place.
With Lubick in charge, the offensive organization was “already better,” Frost said during his spring news conference. Also, offensive line coach Greg Austin is more active in the running game — he now has the additional title of run-game coordinator.
The Huskers ranked 30th nationally in rushing last season and should be better behind a veteran line, which could see some adjustment to ensure depth. Matt Farniok, who has started every game at tackle the past two seasons, could move to guard if a redshirt freshman such as Bryce Benhart steps up in fall camp. The team’s leading rusher, Dedrick Mills, went through a period of adjustment after transferring from junior college, but by season’s end, he showed he was more than just an inside threat.
Previewing Nebraska's Defense for 2020
Though the defense improved statistically in coordinator Erik Chinander’s second season, the Huskers still didn’t get enough pressure on opposing quarterbacks. One step to address that was replacing outside linebackers coach Jovan Dewitt with Mike Dawson, the defensive line coach in Frost’s first season who left for the New York Giants for a season.
As with the offense, depth is a concern. That’s especially important given the tempo at which Frost wants the offense to play. A successful up-tempo offense will mean that the defense is on the field more. And if that’s the case, more defensive players must be in the mix.
Four of the front five are new, with outside linebackers JoJo Domann and Caleb Tannor starting 11 games between them on one side. Four of Domann’s starts came in a nickel alignment; he was primarily a safety his first three seasons — one of them an injury redshirt — but has added weight and muscle to play outside linebacker, where his pass-rushing ability is needed.
Defensive end Ben Stille has 14 starts over three seasons, including 11 as a sophomore.
A group of youngsters will be pushing for playing time on the outside, among them Garrett Nelson, who became more disciplined without losing his infectious enthusiasm. Youngsters also will figure at inside linebacker behind Collin Miller, a returning starter, and Will Honas, second on the team in tackles.
The secondary is a strength, with returning starters Marquel Dismuke, Dicaprio Bootle and versatile Cam Taylor-Britt, who started one game at outside linebacker in a nickel package, six at safety and three at cornerback. Bootle also started at both corner and safety, the latter to preserve a redshirt for Myles Farmer. There’s talent here; it needs to be complemented by pressure up front.
Previewing Nebraska's Specialists for 2020
Special teams probably cost the Huskers as many as four games last season, according to Frost. The unit is now overseen by Jonathan Rutledge, a special teams analyst, with all the coaches involved on-field. Kickers Barret Pickering and Matt Waldoch left with eligibility remaining, further clouding the picture. However, Frost continued to add to this position over the summer, as LSU graduate transfer kicker Connor Culp and freshman punter Daniel Cerni are set to join the team this fall.
Six wins are probably a reasonable expectation for Frost’s third team, despite greater optimism going into a spring that ended after two March practices due to the coronavirus pandemic. If the Huskers are to win enough to earn their first bowl bid since 2016, they’ll have to start strong, since they face a back-loaded conference schedule. Nebraska's final five opponents all finished last season ranked in the AP top 15, and three of those games are on the road.
National Ranking: 37
(Top photo courtesy of Nebraska Athletics)