Nebraska drew extensive criticism for being the first school to push the Big Ten to play in 2020, though that criticism subsided when Ohio State joined in the push. The Cornhuskers got their wish and then had to endure a third consecutive losing season under Scott Frost, their fourth overall. Beyond that, the program hasn't been consistently relevant nationally in 20-plus years. Even so, Frost remains optimistic.
Once again, the Huskers have lost their leading receiver, Wan'Dale Robinson, to the transfer portal, after JD Spielman left following the 2019 season. Another wide receiver, Kade Warner, also left during the offseason. Though he caught only five passes, Warner was a co-captain, a reflection of his leadership, not just among receivers but on the team as a whole. That's a concern.
Frost's reputation is built around the offense, but the defense might help define Nebraska as it tries to climb back to relevance.
Previewing Nebraska's Offense for 2021
As the quarterback goes, so goes the running game. At least that's how the offense went last season. Adrian Martinez and the departed Luke McCaffrey accounted for 47 percent of the carries, 55 percent of the rushing yards and 37 of the 55 explosive runs. Martinez was the leading rusher, despite missing one game with injury. He has started for three seasons and has "enough talent to carry us as far as we want to go," says Frost. He just needs to be more efficient and avoid mistakes.
A group of young running backs should take some of the load off Martinez. Depth there shouldn't be a concern (although USC transfer Markese Stepp was injured in the spring). Keeping everyone happy could be.
Offensive success begins up front, of course, and Martinez will take snaps behind a big offensive line built around four players who started last season's final game at Rutgers. Cameron Jurgens is the leader. He was recruited as a tight end, a reflection of his athleticism.
The Huskers have recruited and developed size across the board, including at receiver. Big receivers are "a quarterback's best friend because (of) the big catch radius," says offensive coordinator Matt Lubick, whose first season at Nebraska was limited because of the pandemic. "It's a lot easier to throw to a 6'5" guy than a 5'9" guy."
Samori Toure, a transfer from Montana, is an example. He's 6'3" and 190 pounds, so "50/50 balls aren't 50/50 with him. He goes up and gets them," Lubick says. Toure can play outside as well as in the slot.
Tight ends in Nebraska's system are cross-trained and coached receiver responsibilities, giving the offense flexibility. They can line up wide as well as inside at the point of attack. Austin Allen leads the group. He has improved as a blocker and emerged as someone for whom Martinez can look for downfield.
Previewing Nebraska's Defense for 2021
The Huskers are experienced on defense thanks to five "super seniors" who opted to return, as well as cornerback Cam Taylor-Britt, who could have left by way of the NFL Draft following his junior season. Those six are among nine with at least five starts in 2020, so there's no lack of leadership, beginning with defensive end Ben Stille and safety Deontai Williams.
Outside linebacker JoJo Domann, one of the super seniors, was on the field all the time when the other team had the ball — he played all 91 defensive snaps in the Penn State game — and was the leading tackler with 58. Depth is such that he can expect some time to catch his breath this season.
Pressure on the passer is a priority. Nebraska ranked 98th nationally in sack rate, a statistic that dropped to 102nd on passing downs. Inside linebacker Will Honas, another of the super seniors, led with three of the team's 13 sacks. However, Honas is out indefinitely due to a knee injury suffered in the spring.
Defensive coordinator Erik Chinander is looking for reductions in missed tackles and explosive plays (the Huskers allowed about five of those per game last season). "If you can get that down a couple," he says, "and then you can find a way to create two or more turnovers per game, those are improvements." The Huskers intercepted five passes and recovered just two fumbles a year ago.
Physicality is an emphasis, and Taylor-Britt sets the tone with his play. He has to temper his aggression, though; he was disqualified twice for targeting. He needs to be on the field.
Nebraska ranked 50th nationally in total defense, including 69th in rushing defense, allowing 169.5 yards per game on the ground. Emphasis on seemingly small changes can turn into a "big thing," Chinander says.
Previewing Nebraska's Specialists for 2021
Outside linebackers coach Mike Dawson is in charge of special teams, after no on-the-field coach had that responsibility last season. Connor Culp, Big Ten Kicker of the Year, elected to return. But improvement in other areas is needed.
A special element of the schedule was lost; the Huskers will open against Illinois in Champaign instead of in Dublin, Ireland, as originally planned. They will renew a storied rivalry with a non-conference game at Oklahoma. With a schedule back-loaded with home games — four of the last five and six of the last eight — Nebraska should be able to fashion a .500 record, at least.
National Ranking: 48
Podcast: Top 25 Breakdown and Predictions
(Cam Taylor-Britt photo courtesy of Nebraska Athletics)