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Actual Nebraska football talk is about to return.
Husker conversations are an everyday occurrence, of course. But since March 9 — the day NU coaches and players spoke at length with reporters ahead of the spring practice season that ultimately didn’t happen because of the COVID-19 pandemic — the focus has been on seemingly everything except football.
The Big Ten dominated headlines for schedule changes, a season postponement/restart and the inner workings of its governing body. Nebraska players filed a lawsuit. A recruiting dead period is ongoing. Player safety testing protocols evolved. The NU athletic department underwent multiple rounds of cost-cutting measures. National politics and social-justice issues entered the dialogue.
Meanwhile, team workouts continued to varying degrees behind the scenes. Players and coaches were rarely seen or heard publicly beyond a few in-house radio interviews and social-media video drops.
The volume rises this week as the Huskers ramp up preparations for their Oct. 24 season opener and begin twice-a-week media Zoom sessions. Let’s reset where Nebraska left off and what to expect before that first kickoff against Ohio State.
Since pre-spring interview sessions with Husker coaches and players more than six months ago, precious few updates related to actual football have been released. Still, a few breadcrumbs dropped this week.
How different will the roster look from last season?
Nebraska has undergone more than its share of attrition in the offseason. Sixteen scholarship players with remaining eligibility transferred or left the program.
Notable names absent include backup quarterback Noah Vedral, veteran receiver JD Spielman, running back Maurice Washington and kicker Barret Pickering. Three of NU’s top 2020 signees — all from Florida — transferred in Henry Gray, Jaiden Francois and Keyshawn Greene.
Still, the undercurrent of activity won’t much affect NU’s top units this year. The offense, for example, could roll out 10 of the same starters from last season if it wanted to. That’s third-year quarterback Adrian Martinez, the entire offensive line, tight end Jack Stoll and running back Dedrick Mills, along with Wan’Dale Robinson leading a mostly inexperienced receiving corps.
Half of last year’s starting defense could do so again too. Nebraska graduated cornerback Lamar Jackson but brings back a loaded secondary and plenty of experience among projected starting linebackers with seniors Will Honas and Collin Miller inside and senior JoJo Domann and junior Caleb Tannor outside. The three-man defensive line will have all new starters.
Nebraska’s coaching staff added two new full-time assistants in offensive coordinator/receivers coach Matt Lubick along with outside linebackers coach Mike Dawson. Lubick replaces Troy Walters — now with the NFL’s Cincinnati Bengals — and Dawson returns after a year in the NFL to take over for Jovan Dewitt, who left for North Carolina.
If the Big Ten protocols and testing frequently can’t control spread among its 14 programs, it tells us something interesting about the difference between college and pro sports.
What should be Nebraska’s areas of strength?
Experience on offense should finally be an asset for the Huskers as they enter Scott Frost’s third season as coach.
That institutional knowledge could be even more valuable during a season in which teams lost most spring workouts and must speed through a condensed fall camp. For example, Nebraska returns an offensive line that started every game together last year — from left to right: Brenden Jaimes, Trent Hixson, Cam Jurgens, Boe Wilson and Matt Farniok. And though coaches are still considering moving Farniok to right guard to make room for redshirt freshman Bryce Benhart at tackle, they have the luxury of standing pat too.
Meanwhile, Mills already has a year in the up-tempo attack and broke out in the final third of last season. The tight end room is full of veterans like Stoll and Austin Allen and has Rutgers transfer Travis Vokolek available this year.
On defense, the secondary is versatile and talented. Seniors Marquel Dismuke and Deontai Williams will likely start at safety, with another senior, Dicaprio Bootle, at corner. Junior Cam Taylor-Britt can oscillate as needed. Watch out for underclassmen like Myles Farmer, Braxton Clark and others as well.
What are some traditional storylines to watch during the next few weeks?
» What happens with special teams? It’s basically a total reset as NU searches for a new kicker, punter, holder, return men and coverage units.
After two years of Dewitt coordinating the group, the job will fall to Jonathan Rutledge, who left Auburn for NU as an analyst in the offseason. And his task is considerable — Frost speculated in the offseason that special teams cost Nebraska three games in 2019.
NU didn’t have the benefit of spring to hold auditions. It will have to go off its previous workouts at less than full pads and the next few weeks to figure out lineups.
» Who emerges at defensive line? Last year’s starters are all on NFL rosters, leaving the team to find another rotation of 6-8 players. Lone senior Ben Stille figures to start. Beyond that, NU could go with experienced juniors like Damion Daniels and Deontre Thomas. It could go with recent junior-college additions like Jordon Riley, Pheldarius Payne and Keem Green.
Redshirt freshman Ty Robinson has big-time upside, as does freshman Nash Hutmacher. Sophomores Casey Rogers or Tate Wildeman could make a move too. There are plenty of bodies to parse through.
» How does the receiver group come together? Six-foot-4 juco transfer Omar Manning should make an instant impact while Robinson, a sophomore, is now operating full time at the position. Walk-on Kade Warner — a contender to earn a scholarship this fall — is back too.
Everyone else is untested at the college level but presents plausible upside. Redshirt freshman Chris Hickman showed promise after shifting from tight end late last season. Freshmen Zavier Betts and Alante Brown should play early. Walk-ons are notable at this position and include a pair of transfers in Levi Falck (South Dakota) and Oliver Martin (Iowa) along with freshman Ty Hahn.
How about a few bigger-picture thoughts?
» Watch closely what approach Nebraska takes to ramping up for the abbreviated season.
The team hasn’t donned full pads since its 2019 season ended against Iowa last November. It plans to do so Wednesday — the first day the Big Ten allows it — as it works back into what Frost calls “football shape.” Striking a balance between getting acclimated to physical contact and staying fresh for potentially nine games in nine weeks will be key.
Nebraska football coach Scott Frost chatted Thursday night on the radio about the passing of his father, Larry, and the upcoming 2020 football season.
Another difference in 2020 is that this camp will occur under the 20-hours-per-week limit typically in place during the season. Normally, fall camp in August has no hours limit. Now Nebraska will conduct it while players attend classes and while other college football games play out across the country.
» Remember that the four-game redshirt rule is not in effect this year.
There is no need for coaches to count games as they set lineups, particularly on special teams. If freshmen like linebackers Blaise Gunnerson and Jimari Butler are ready, they can play without consequence. Same for fellow 2020 recruits like Hutmacher (D-line) or Ronald Delancy (defensive back). NU held running back Rahmir Johnson to four games last year to preserve his redshirt; freshmen rushers Sevion Morrison and Marvin Scott won’t be under such limitations if they are producing.
» The effects of COVID-19 may not be over.
Just because Nebraska is preparing for a nine-game regular season doesn’t mean it will go off without a hitch. Under the Big Ten’s strict testing standard, teams must stay under a 5% team positivity rate over a seven-day window. For Nebraska and its roster of 154 players, that means if eight Huskers test positive the team can’t play a game that week.
Beyond that, any positive test for a Big Ten player means they must sit out at least 21 days. Daily antigen testing for league schools begins Wednesday. While Nebraska won’t make public its test results, keeping the numbers low will be a top priority in the coming months.