5 lingering questions as Scott Frost, Nebraska prepare to start make-or-break season
LINCOLN — It’s been a long, tumultuous offseason for Scott Frost and Nebraska.
Coaching changes, an active transfer portal and an uneasy fan base top the list. But Saturday’s season-opener in Dublin against Northwestern has arrived, and the new-look Huskers, with 16 additions from the portal and 4 new offensive assistants are ready to put a 3-9 2021 season in the rearview mirror.
Frost knows the stakes are high. His seat is warm.
Win in Dublin, and Nebraska builds momentum heading into a Sept. 17 showdown with Oklahoma. A loss amplifies the critics and damages the psyche of the program further.
Here are 5 things to look for when the Huskers tangle with the Wildcats.
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Can Casey Thompson take command at QB?
Texas transfer Casey Thompson takes over the reins at quarterback. The 23-year-old has plenty of big game experience and looks to be a perfect fit in new offensive coordinator Mark Whipple’s system.
Thompson has weapons at his disposal, but will need time to deliver the ball. The Huskers gave up 29 sacks a year ago, something they hope to get corrected under new offensive line coach Donovan Raiola.
Whipple likes to confuse defenses with a variety of routes and schemes. If Thompson has time to throw, he should be able to spread the ball around to playmakers such as Trey Palmer, Omar Manning, Alante Brown and Marcus Washington.
Thompson has the ability to put up big numbers. He threw for 6 TDs in a Nov. 13 game against Kansas, and had 5 in games against Oklahoma and Texas Tech. His debut in a different setting Saturday will be one to watch.
Can Eric Chinander’s defense repeat its 2021 success?
One of the few pleasant surprises of 2021 was Eric Chinander’s defense. The Huskers ranked No. 15 in total defense and were 4th in the Big Ten, giving up 366.5 yards per game. They return their top 2 tacklers in linebackers Luke Reimer and Nick Henrich.
The unit played arguably one of its best games a year ago against the Wildcats in a 56-7 win.
TCU transfer Ochaun Mathis adds a great pass-rush option opposite captain Garrett Nelson. If the Huskers are successful harassing Wildcats’ QBs Ryan Hilinski and Brendan Sullivan, it could be a long night for the guys in purple.
Chinander, in his 5th season as defensive coordinator, handed out blackshirts to his top unit Wednesday in Dublin. And he’s ready to find out if his unit is up to the challenge.
“I want to see if these guys are who I think they are,” Chinander said Wednesday.
Does a clear-cut favorite emerge at RB?
A stable of potential starters made new running backs coach Bryan Applewhite’s job more difficult during camp. Who gets the starting nod may not be determined until kickoff. Who emerges is anyone’s guess.
Rahmir Johnson has found a new home as a “wideback,” as he calls himself. Look for Johnson in the slot as a receiver. Whipple loves his versatility and pass-catching ability.
Florida State transfer Anthony Grant and Gabe Ervin Jr. appear to have the inside track to playing time. But don’t count out Jacquez Yant. Yant barreled through the Wildcats defense for 127 yards a year ago and is a definite candidate to play in goal line and short yardage situations.
Ervin returns after tearing his ACL against Oklahoma last September. He’s had a great fall camp and seems poised to break out if healthy.
Grant looks to be a primary kick returner, but has also shown consistency and promise. His overall talent is hard to ignore.
Regardless, Applewhite is high on his group and their work ethic. “They all have a lunch pail attitude,” he said.
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Will the special teams show competence?
Train wreck may be too polite a term to describe Nebraska’s special teams in 2021. NU made just 50% of its field goal attempts while also committing huge miscues in the punting game in narrow losses to Michigan State and Iowa.
New special teams coordinator Bill Busch looks to shore things up in those areas. Montana transfer Brian Buschini takes over punting duties. He’s had a solid camp and looks to be a weapon to help flip the field. Buschini was named the FCS punter of the year in 2021 and led all FCS punters in net punting.
Furman transfer Timmy Bleekrode looks to add stability and consistency at kicker. NU struggled mightily in 2021 as Connor Culp and Chase Contreraz never could find their groove.
If the Huskers improve in both those areas, especially in a season-opening game where nerves are high, it will go a long way in reversing the close-game losses of a year ago.
Can Huskers flip the script in close games?
There’s probably no bigger indicator of how things will go for Nebraska than close games. NU was 0-9 in games decided by 9 points or less in 2021. Eight of those were one-possession losses.
Frost knows his team has to get over the hump in these settings. But was NU actually “close” in those games?
Starting quickly will be key. Nebraska led for an average of only 11 minutes, 7 seconds in its losses. They played from behind 31:06 per loss.
In order to reverse that trend, not falling behind is key. In four of those losses, (Oklahoma, Minnesota, Ohio State and Wisconsin) NU never led. Only twice (Purdue and Iowa) did they lead at half.
Thompson must take care of the ball. Careless turnovers were a bugaboo under former QB Adrian Martinez. Having a plethora of weapons at receiver and running back should help. As should the team’s confidence from a dominating win over the Wildcats last year.
Whipple was straight forward Wednesday when asked about season-openers.
“If you get out of the first quarter without giving the game away, then you can settle in.”
For Frost and the Huskers to erase the ghosts of 2021, that’s a definite must.