We've already run down which Nebraska football players deserve more love heading into the 2019 season. Now, it's time to examine the Cornhuskers roster through a different lens. As those familiar with the sport know, luck plays a huge role in the success or failure of a football team beyond turnover margin. What we analyze today isn't a statistic buried in spreadsheets, but rather players that could make or break the Huskers' season themselves.
Luke McCaffrey, QB
Noah Vedral was already tabbed as an underrated player whose ascension to the official backup spot behind Adrian Martinez would be no shock. However, McCaffrey's presence only solidifies the notion that Nebraska's quarterback depth chart is better than it was only one year ago. Many fans view him as an eventual wide receiver much like father Ed, but his position coach doesn't find such a suggestion worth a second thought.
Mario Verduzco told the Lincoln Journal Star, "We're fired up and really excited about Luke playing quarterback for us here. I know there's been some chatter about him playing other positions. Luke's going to play quarterback for us and he's going to be a damn good one." That may sound like coachspeak, but nothing Verduzco has said about or done with his charges indicates that he's telling the press or fans what they want to hear.
At some point, Martinez and perhaps Vedral will need time to rest. An offense that dictates the speed head coach Scott Frost wants demands taking a moment to catch your breath. These periods may be seen early on versus South Alabama and Northern Illinois, but it's difficult to pinpoint when Nebraska will have opportunities down the road. Preparing McCaffrey for what would qualify as a near-worst-case scenario at quarterback is simply good long-term planning.
Dedrick Mills, RB
A seeming one-time academic risk, Mills is enrolled at Nebraska and ready to pick up where he left off at Georgia Tech and Garden City (Kansas) Community College. Mills doesn't quite have the same build as departed bruiser Devine Ozigbo. However, he provides a blend of power and speed to offer a battering ram at the position and he'll only continue to develop.
Of course, the elephant in the room is whether Maurice Washington is available as he's battling legal troubles. While the Huskers' running back room will be overflowing with dynamic playmakers with no "Martinez" surname, Washington's experience and natural talent only enhance what Frost can accomplish.
If Washington isn't cleared to return, the onus shifts to Mills carrying the load while being supplemented by true freshmen Wan’Dale Robinson and Rahmir Johnson. The latter two appear slotted for the DUCK-R position, but Frost demands flexibility out of his offensive skill players.
Austin Allen, TE
Last season showed just how much Frost wants several reliable tight ends to be viable threats for his quarterbacks to target. During his first season at UCF, Jordan Akins was the third-most productive receiver with Jordan Franks at No. 6. The two combined for 490 yards and two touchdowns.
One year later, Akins was still at No. 3 only this time he had 515 yards and four scores himself despite missing the Knights' game against UConn. Michael Colubiale surpassed Franks with 220 yards and a touchdown himself. While Akins was hauling in 16 yards per catch, Colubiale brought in just over 22.
There's no reason a healthy Jack Stoll shouldn't reprise his role as a starter, but he needs help a la Franks or Colubiale. Enter Allen. He and Kurt Rafdal have been jockeying for second place on the depth chart like something out of Ben Hur, but the difference has been negligible.
While the two had similar receiving totals (Rafdal's 64 yards on four catches versus Allen's 54 on two), the latter's ability to eat up big chunks of yardage and targets this past spring sounds far more like what Colubiale accomplished in year two during Frost's stay at UCF. Some good news is that even if he can't get the job done, Rafdal does provide a player with a similar height to step in.
Cameron Jurgens, OL
When you take a player who's never played an offensive line position before and pack about 30 pounds on his frame, that's a project. Requiring him to learn the most cerebral position up front on top of all that and be ready in time for the next season provides little room for failure. While offensive line coach Greg Austin has built up Nebraska's big men, whether Jurgens can adjust to his new body and retain enough mentally to go against the likes of Ohio State is still questionable.
Keep an eye on the Huskers' fourth game of the year versus Illinois. Frost tested Tanner Farmer against Cole Conrad as the man in the middle in 2018's fourth contest against Purdue and eventually made the switch permanent during the next game against Wisconsin. If the Jurgens experiment falls flat this year, AJ Forbes is ready to pounce on the spot.
Jackson Hannah, LB
Nebraska needs some significant help at linebacker. However, Collin Miller and Will Honas should be able to reinforce the inside spot opposite Mohamed Barry. Even if they can't, the true freshman Hannah offers a tremendously versatile athlete. While he could play the interior, he's dynamic enough to move outside where question marks about for Erik Chinander's defense.
It wouldn't be a surprise to see Hannah opposite Jojo Domann as the season enters the midway point, if not before. If Chinander runs with Hannah, he must gain experience quickly. Much like McCaffrey, early opportunities present themselves for Nebraska's defensive coordinator to experiment with the roster.
(Top photo courtesy of www.huskers.com)