2020 Big Ten Preview: Nebraska Cornhuskers
It does not seem so long ago that the Nebraska Cornhuskers were among the very best teams in the Big Ten. They were always right up there with Michigan, Ohio State, Penn State, and Wisconsin for a while. Unfortunately, they have not been quite that competitive since about 2016, when they went 6-3 in the Big Ten on their way to a Music City Bowl loss in Nashville. Since then, however, they have been on a relatively steady decline. The arrival of head coach Scott Frost in 2018 has not done much to help this decline either, Frost having a combined record of 9-15 (including back to back 3-6 conference records) over two seasons as the leader of the Cornhuskers.
With once great programs that seem to be on the decline, there is always a chance that they could have a breakout season and return to their former standard, but what are the chances that Nebraska does this in 2020?
Defensively, one thing is sure. This Cornhuskers defense is going to make a lot of plays. With 71.5 tackles for loss last season and 27 sacks and 11 interceptions, the defense was more than capable of making big plays.
One massive loss in the front seven, however, looms large for the Huskers. Khalil Davis, who made 44 tackles, including 11 for loss and eight sacks, now plays for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the NFL. Juniors Damion Daniels and Deontre Thomas and senior Ben Stille look to make up for the lost production. While Daniels and Thomas had limited play time last year, Stille had decent production last year, registering 31 total tackles, including six for loss and three sacks.
Another player worth mentioning in the front seven is JoJo Domann, who totaled 52 tackles, 10 tackles for loss, and 2.5 sacks from the outside linebacker position.
In terms of the secondary, a couple of players with limited experience will need to step up for the Cornhuskers. While Marquel Dismuke, Dicaprio Bootle, and Cam Taylor will return for 2020, Braxton Clark and Deontai Williams both have limited experience, which is especially important when considering that Nebraska’s pass defense was relatively steady last season, allowing 200 yards per game on average. This was painfully clear against Ohio State, where it seemed that the Buckeyes could move the ball at will in the run game. Yet, the Huskers defense held Justin Fields to 212 yards passing, an unusually low number for the electric quarterback.
Nebraska’s success on offense falls squarely on the shoulders of junior quarterback Adrian Martinez. Martinez has shown flashes, and his outstanding athleticism could make him an extremely difficult passer to play against. The junior signal-caller had 626 rushing yards and seven scores last season even though he had missed multiple games due to injury.
While Martinez passing numbers are not nearly as impressive (1,956 yards, ten touchdowns, nine interceptions), he could be a defensive coordinator’s worst nightmare based on his ability to escape pressure from the pocket and run.
In terms of the run game, the Huskers look forward to the return of senior running back Dedrick Mills, who totaled 868 yards from scrimmage and ten touchdowns in 2019. Mills, coupled with Martinez’s ability to add to the run game, could mean an extremely dynamic offense for Nebraska in 2020. The offense only looks more promising when considering Wan’Dale Robinson, a dynamic hybrid for them last year. With 753 yards from scrimmage split relatively evenly between rush yards and pass yards, Robinson is an extremely versatile playmaker.
While the loss of JD Spielman to TCU will be a big hit, look for Nebraska to run their offense less traditionally this fall.
Overall, Nebraska will need to rely on many relatively unproven players to make their mark on both sides of the ball. With a couple of huge losses this offseason, it isn’t easy to see the Cornhuskers improving much on last year’s performance, especially given that they do not have any out of conference games this season. If these new(ish) faces can come into their own, this may change. For now, however, the safe bet is that Nebraska will remain close to the bottom in the Big Ten.
2020 season record prediction: 2-6
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Up next: the Minnesota Golden Gophers