Around the B1G West: Nebraska
There's no way around it for Nebraska. 2019 was a major disappointment. The Huskers came into the season picked to win the Big Ten West in the unofficial media poll, and finished a disappointing 5-7. It's the third straight season NU has failed to qualify for a bowl game.
Where are things at heading as Scott Frost enters his third season at Nebraska? Here's a complete snapshot of what's going on at NU, as the Huskers hope to take a step forward in 2020.
Three prominent storylines
Can Martinez return to his old self?
Heading into the 2019 season quarterback Adrian Martinez had some of the best odds in Las Vegas to win the Heisman Trophy. When the year ended he was graded out as one of the Huskers lowest starters on PFF College at 52.1. He saw a significant drop in his play at times, but the question is was it all him? Did the inconsistency at running back, wide receiver and offensive line play a factor? That's the debate right now as Martinez enters his junior season. Redshirt freshman Luke McCaffrey will push him, as will junior Noah Vedral. Both have proven they can run this offense at a high level.
Major questions still at wide receiver
With the indefinite departure of senior JD Spielman, Nebraska was down to just four scholarship wide receivers to open up spring practice. However, redshirt freshman Chris Hickman has since moved over from tight end and junior Kade Warner should be looked at like a scholarship guy based on the number of snaps he's played already. We don't know if Spielman will be back in 2020, but the good news is sophomore Wan'Dale Robinson returns. You can make a case he'll be better than Spielman long term, as he's a more versatile playmaker. The missing piece to the puzzle is the four scholarship wide receivers the Huskers will add this summer - four stars Omar Manning, Marcus Flemming and Zavier Betts, and three-star Will Nixon. Qualification issues still surround both Manning and Betts, but NU remains confident both will be in Lincoln by June.
What will this defensive front seven look like?
Nebraska lost four key members of their defensive front seven, led by NFL combine defensive line invites Darrion Daniels, Carlos Davis and Khalil Davis. They have a lot to get sorted out on the defensive line, as developing the right rotation of players will be the biggest challenge. Inside linebacker should be as deep and talented as it's been since Frost got to NU, while outside linebacker remains the biggest question. The Huskers have run the 3-4 defense the last three seasons, but they have failed to get adequate production from the outside linebacker position, which has made it tough for NU to generate a pass rush with just four. Defensive coordinator Erik Chinander has had to blitz probably more than he would like, and that has to change going forward for his defense to take that next step.
Three biggest departures
JD Spielman, wide receiver
Technically Spielman is still a part of the Nebraska football program, but you have to operate like he won't be here at this point. Spielman took a personal leave from the program in late February, and it's unknown at this point if he'll return. Spielman has 170 catches for 2,546 yards and 17 touchdowns the last three seasons. NU has said Spielman needs to be back in Lincoln by early summer realistically to be a part of things in 2020.
Darrion Daniels, nose tackle
At times, Daniels was a disruptive force in the middle of Nebraska's defensive line. He was only in Lincoln for one season but still selected as a captain by his Husker teammates. His impact really doesn't show on the stat sheet, but he gave the Huskers a solid 40+ snaps a game in 2019.
Carlos & Khalil Davis, defensive ends
Defensive linemen Carlos and Kahlil Davis are four-year type starters/contributors the Big Red must replace upfront. The twin brothers ran the fastest 40-yard dashes for defensive linemen over 300 pounds at the NFL Combine. Khalil Davis was fourth in the Big Ten in sacks with eight, while Carlos Davis was second overall for the Huskers with four.
Three key returnees
Wan'Dale Robinson, wide receiver
Frost admits last season he probably played the talented Robinson too much at running back, but the circumstances put them in that situation. He's arguably Nebraska's most versatile player, as he could easily catch 1,000 yards and run for 1,000 yards. A possesses a very similar skillset to Purdue's Rondale Moore.
Brenden Jaimes, left tackle
Senior left tackle Brenden Jaimes will go down as one of the only four-year starters on the offensive line in school history. His solid play in 2019 was overshadowed by NU's 5-7 record. Jaimes had the 5th best pass-block grade for All-Big Ten linemen, and the second-best pass-block grade for all Big Ten tackles with a mark of 87.2 according to PFF College. He allowed just two sacks and six quarterback hurries on the season, which ranked fourth in terms of allowed pressures for Big Ten offensive tackles. He considered putting his name into the draft but opted to come back for his senior season. Jaimes will lead an offensive line that returns all five starters and adds a group of six players that redshirted in 2019 to the mix.
DiCaprio Bootle, cornerback
The secondary is the strongest overall position group on Nebraska's defense in 2020, and the versatility of DiCaprio Bootle will be a big part of that. Bootle has played in 36 games and made 25 starts the last three seasons. He's shown the ability to be an effective player at both safety and corner. That gives NU secondary coach Travis Fisher a lot of options.
Three big additions
Matt Lubick, offensive coordinator/wide receivers coach
After sitting a year out, Matt Lubick rejoins Frost in Lincoln after working with him at Oregon. He should give Nebraska a significant upgrade in terms of being a voice next to Frost he really respects and trusts. Frost is ultimately the play-caller, but Lubick will have a big say in things. The offense previously lacked rhythm and flow at times in 2019.
Mike Dawson, outside linebackers coach
Mike Dawson rejoins the Huskers have coaching outside linebackers for the NY Giants in 2019. Dawson was previously Frost's defensive line coach at both UCF and NU from 2016 to 2018. Like Lubick, he brings coordinator experience to the table, and he should help better develop the outside linebacker position, which has been a big weak spot for the Huskers under Frost.
Alante Brown, wide receiver
Nebraska will bring in a very talented 2020 recruiting class, but Chicago native and Prep School product Alante Brown has already opened a lot of eyes in Lincoln. He ran the fastest 40-yard dash of NU's 10 newcomers here for spring practice. He's also been a standout in the different unorganized workouts the Huskers have conducted per multiple sources. Look for him to compete for significant snaps in 2020.
Expectations for 2020
There are a few key things Nebraska needs to happen for this season to be a success. No. 1, either Martinez needs to return to his old self, or another player needs to step up at quarterback. This offense is very much driven by the success of the quarterback position. They also need big seasons from running back Dedrick Mills and Robinson at wide receiver.
The other thing is the schedule. Nebraska has a very favorable opening seven games. They need to get out of that opening seven with at least a 5-2 to 6-1 type mark for this season to have a good feel. Their final five games are at Ohio State, Penn State, at Iowa, at Wisconsin and Minnesota. Today, six of NU's 12 games are against projected ranked teams in 2020. I think most just want to see a step forward, get back to a bowl game and hover between 6 to 8 wins is probably realistic.