Preview 2017: Nebraska Cornhuskers
Previewing and looking ahead at the Nebraska Cornhuskers season – and what you need to know.
What You Need To Know About The Nebraska Offense
The Husker offense didn’t have much firepower, and it didn’t have much toughness for the ground game. But it was just effective enough when it had to be to go along with the good year from the defense – at least when Tommy Armstrong was healthy and under center.
Armstrong came up with a strong season – he was one of the Big Ten’s MVPs in the truest sense of the word valuable – but the Huskers were 99th in passing efficiency. This year, expect more from the passing game and more shots down the field – at least that’s the hope.
Enter Tanner Lee, a transfer from Tulane who was just okay in his former gig, but looked strong throughout out last year with the Husker scout team and now seems to be ready to instill more life into the offense as long as he gets time to work.
The receiving corps doesn’t have Jordan Westerkamp around to make big plays, but there’s talent in Stanley Morgan Jr. and De’Mornay Pierson-El to hope for plenty of pop. Leading rusher Terrell Newby is gone, and Lee – or Patrick O’Brien, or Tristan Gebbia, if either one takes the job – they aren’t gong to run like Armstrong – but Devine Ozigbo, if healthy, leads a decent group of backs.
The O line has to be better. It’s experienced, and it has a few options to play around with if there’s going to be a little shuffling, but it’s mediocre. It’ll be a serviceable front five, but it’s not going to take over games.
Biggest Key To The Nebraska Offense
The offense has to do something well at a high level. The hope is that the revamped passing game will crank up the production, but the mediocre O line will keep the running attack from exploding and the pass protection isn’t expected to be special, even after allowing just 15 sacks last year. There was nothing for defensive coordinators to worry about, and that’s got to change. This hasn’t been a team built for shootouts, and that needs to change.
What You Need To Know About The Nebraska Defense
Bob Diaco was a dud as the UConn head coach, but he’s a whale of a defensive mind and an elite defensive coordinator who’s a fantastic get for the program. With him comes the 3-4 defensive scheme, along with a whole lot of fire and jacked up energy. There’s never taking a play off in a Diaco defense.
It’s going to take a little adjusting, though, from a defense that turned in an excellent season – at least when it didn’t have to deal with offenses with talent.
The linebackers are there to fill in the spots, even with the loss of leading tackler Josh Banderas along with Michael Rose-Ivey. A few players stepped in in spring ball to look the part, but will the pressure into the backfield follow? Just okay last year, the pass rush rarely took over games. Now, the outside linebackers have to be killers – that part of the puzzle wasn’t unleashed this offseason.
The 6-4, 270-pound Freedom Akinmoladun is built to be a 3-4 end, while 305-pound Mick Stoltenberg is a decent option to start out inside. The rotation has be sound, though.
The secondary should be one of the team’s biggest strengths, even after losing star safety Nate Gerry. Josh Kalu will likely move from corner to safety, and there’s a good chance the corner combination of Chris Jones and Lamar Jackson becomes among the most physical and productive tandems in the Big Ten. But now …
Biggest Key To The Nebraska Defense
Someone has to show up and dominate. Randy Gregory generated 16.5 sacks over the 2013 and 2014 seasons, and no one filled the void in 2015. Akinmoldun led the team with a mere 4.5 sacks two years ago, and Ross Dzuris led the team wit 5.5 last season.
However, as great as Diaco is as a defensive coach, his UConn teams weren’t exactly the ’85 Bears over the last few years when it came to rattling the quarterback. For a defense that only generated three takeaways over the final five games, the disruption has to come.
Nebraska Will Be Far Better If …
The punting game needs to be stronger. Nebraska can obviously be forgiven for a lousy year punting after the tragic death of Sam Foltz. An All-America-caliber player, Foltz averaged over 44 yards per kick two years ago, but freshman Caleb Lightbourn wasn’t able to step in right away and match the production, averaging under 40 yards per pop for a punting game that finished 123rd in the nation. For a team without a lot of explosion, field position will be at a premium.
Best Nebraska Offensive Player
WR/KR De’Mornay Pierson-El, Sr. – Okay, okay, he’s been a lot more potential than production as a receiver, but he hasn’t been able to stay in one piece. He’s already one of the Big Ten’s most dangerous return men, but he hasn’t been able to recapture the glory of his freshman season, when he averaged 17.5 yards per punt return with three scores.
Even so, he’s still dangerous – and now it has to translate to the passing game. He only has 55 career catches for 686 yards and six scores – four of those as a freshman – but the 5-9, 195-pounder should be a game-changer now that he’s healthy.
2. QB Tanner Lee, Jr.
3. RB Devine Ozigbo, Jr.
4. WR Stanley Morgan, Jr.
5. QB Tristan Gebbia, Fr.
Best Nebraska Defensive Player
S Joshua Kalu, Sr. – A big corner or an athletic safety, the 6-1, 195-pound veteran can move, attacks the ball, and makes more than his share of huge plays with 66 tackles last season with a pick and 11 broken up passes, after coming up with 75 tackles with three interceptions two years ago. Now he’ll move from corner to safety. While he might not be a big hitter, he should be a statistical star.
2. S Kieron Williams, Sr.
3. LB Dedrick Young, Jr.
4. CB Lamar Jackson, Soph.
5. LB Luke Gifford, Jr.
Key Player To A Successful Season
QB Tanner Lee, Jr. – Tommy Armstrong meant everything to the Nebraska offense. He was the heart-and-soul guy who carried the O when he was healthy. But he wasn’t in one piece late, and now he graduated.
Patrick O’Brien looked good enough this offseason to be the No. 2 man, and star recruit Tristan Gebbia might be the most talented option – eventually – but Lee did what he needed to do this offseason to show that he’s ready to be the guy. The 6-4, 220-pound transfer from Tulane was just okay for the Green Wave, but with a year in the Husker system, he looks ready to break out. The Nebraska offense is banking on it.
The Nebraska Season Will Be A Success If …
The Huskers are still in the Big Ten title hunt on November 24th. Wining nine games last year was nice in a bounce back sort of way. but Nebraska – as a program – is supposed to be in the thick of the College Football Playoff chase every year, and it’s just not.
If Nebraska is good again, it’s supposed to win at Oregon. It’s supposed to take advantage of getting Wisconsin and Ohio State at home, and it’s supposed to be good enough to be knee-deep in the Big Ten hunt throughout the season. Getting to double-digit wins is a must to show that the program is improving, and that means also being relevant in late November.
Key Game To The Nebraska Season
Oct. 7 vs. Wisconsin – Iowa is fine, Northwestern is plucky, and Minnesota will be dangerous, but if Nebraska wants to win the West, it has to beat the Badgers in Lincoln. After playing Rutgers and Illinois, the Huskers should start out the Big Ten season strong, but after Bucky comes Ohio State, and then a run of three road games in four dates before facing Iowa. One of those away games? At Penn State.
2016 Nebraska Fun Stats
– Fumbles: Nebraska 16 (lost 5) – Opponents 10 (lost 3)
– Sacks: Nebraska 26 for 173 yards – Opponents 15 for 135 yards
– Time of Possession: Nebraska 32:10 – Opponents 27:50