Post-Spring Preview: Nebraska Cornhuskers

By Kevin Fay on May 23, 2017 at 10:00 am
This is terrifying
Terrifying image credit: Jim Brown, USA Today

Nebraska Cornhuskers

2016 record: 9-4 (6-3, T-2nd Big Ten West)

Head Coach: Mike Riley (3rd year, 15-11, 108-91 overall)

Last Bowl Appearance: 2016 Music City Bowl (38-24 loss vs. Tennessee)

Key losses: Nebraska loses their starting quarterback of the last 47 years in Tommy Armstrong, the backup Ryker Fyfe, starting running back Terrell Newby, do-everything WR Jordan Westerkamp, along with Brandon Reilly and Alonzo Moore, three tight ends that they never used, guard Sam Hahn and center Dylan Utter. Yikes. That is a ton of lost production and experience. The good news is, whoever lines up behind center will have a fairly experienced offensive line to protect them.

Defensively however, it is almost the complete opposite. They return a fair amount of production that was overall a pretty solid unit from last year with one caveat. In Nebraska’s four losses last year, they gave up an average of 40.8 points per game. Key losses from that defense include their leader in tackles for loss and sacks in former walk-on Ross Dzuris, defensive tackle Kevin Maurice, linebackers Josh Banderas and Michael Rose-Ivey, and safety Nate Gerry. While new defensive coordinator Bob Diaco has stated the scheme will stay the same, there may be a little bit of an adjustment period.  

Key returners/additions: Former Tulane transfer Tanner Lee appears to be the guy at quarterback. He will battle Patrick O’Brien for the highly touted role of “bridging the gap until Tristan Gebbia is ready to be the starter in 2018.”

Devine Ozigbo and Tre Bryant will likely split carries in the backfield and whoever starts there on opening weekend will likely only be penciled in.

At the wide receiver spot, Nebraska fans simply need to patient with this group. They'll be young but extremely exciting. Stanley Morgan and De’Mornay Pierson El are back, but the Huskers are very inexperienced behind them. They signed high four-star Tyjon Lindsey, along with high three-star early enrollees Jaeveon McQuitty and Keyshawn Johnson.  

On the defensive side of the ball, Nebraska will be looking to Freedom Akinmoladun to step up and be the feature defensive end everyone is expecting him to be. On the inside, Mick Stoltenberg will anchor the defensive tackle spot, with a likely rotation of the Davis brothers in the other spot. 

At linebacker, while they lose Banderas and Rose-Ivey, there is still plenty of experience to soften those losses. The projected starters of Chris Weber, Marcus Newby, and Dedrick Young have plenty of playing time under their belts. Avery Roberts comes in as one of the best linebacker prospects in the nation. 

The strength of the Huskers' defense will undoubtedly be the secondary. Chris Jones and Josh Kalu will likely be completing their NFL rookie minicamps at this time next year. They combined for 21 pass breakups and four interceptions last year and figure to be difference makers. Losing Nate Gerry at safety hurts, but Aaron Williams, Kieron Williams, and Antonio Reed all have experience and should be solid. 

Lingering question: Will their offense actually be better even with losing all of that production?

It’s entirely possible. Tanner Lee has received a lot of praise, and there will be experience on the offensive line and at running back. If the wide receivers can live up to their potential and carry their end of the deal, this offense could be fun to watch. Combine that with a stout defense and Husker fans could be having flashbacks to the glory days. However, the likely scenario is that this side of the ball will take some time to gel, which won't be terrible for them, as their defense figures to be excellent. 

Key game: Wisconsin. If Nebraska has any hopes of making it to Indianapolis for a shot at the Big Ten title, they absolutely need to beat Wisconsin at home. Wisconsin has a very favorable schedule and Nebraska might be the only potential loss on the Badgers’ schedule before the Big Ten Championship Game. Unfortunately for Nebraska, they face both East favorites Ohio State (home) and Penn State (away) this year, so they may need some help to get to Indy.

Fear Level: Moderate to high. That fear level will vary based on Nebraska’s offense and overall team health heading in to one of the last games of the year. It’s really tough to project how good an offense will be when they lose that much production, but in evaluating Nebraska’s offense as a whole, if the receivers can even be just competent, they will be in games. It is definitely in Nebraska’s favor that this game is played late in the season. If Wisconsin stumbles at any point, Nebraska could potentially be playing for a spot in Indy. Their defense should be one of the top units in the Big Ten, with great linebackers and a ton of experience in the secondary. If there is a potential trap game on Penn State’s schedule, this could be it.