Better or worse? Previewing Nebraska's offense in 2020
With a game-winning 48-yard field goal in a cold and damp Memorial Stadium last November, Iowa kicker Keith Duncan blew kisses to the Huskers’ sideline as he ended Nebraska’s chance at qualifying for a bowl game and the ultra-important 15 extra practices that go along with it. The coronavirus pandemic robbed teams of their spring, which, in Nebraska’s case, really hurts considering the amount of questions on the offense heading into 2020.
At the end of last season, some in the Nebraska fanbase were questioning whether starting quarterback Adrian Martinez was the guy for the future. Martinez had a severe dip in production from his freshman year — he finished his sophomore campaign with 9 touchdown passes and 10 interceptions after throwing 17 TDs and 8 INTs in 2018 — and missed two games due to injury. For whatever reason, he didn’t look like the quarterback he was in 2018, and watched from the sideline as true freshman and highly-touted recruit Luke McCaffrey came in and led scoring drives that had the Memorial Stadium crowd chanting “Luuuke.”
There will be a competition at quarterback when practices begin between Martinez and McCaffrey — one which Martinez is the heavy favorite to win.
Nebraska was seventh in the B1G in scoring offense, averaging 28 points per game. The Huskers’ offensive line had a rough start, but it got better as the season went on and wound up paving the way for the third-best rushing attack in the conference at 203.2 yards per game. The down-field passing game struggled for the most part, averaging 212.6 yards per game.
Key losses: WR JD Spielman, QB Noah Vedral
Key returnees: QB Adrian Martinez, WR Wan’Dale Robinson, RB Dedrick Mills, OL Brendan Jaimes, OL Cam Jurgens, OL Matt Farniok, TE Jack Stoll, TE Austin Allen.
Passing offense: Worse
The departure of JD Spielman, among the best receivers in school history, stings. He was expected to have another strong season in the slot, maybe even stronger than last year’s 49-catch, 898-yard, 5-touchdown performance.
Without Spielman — who reportedly transferred to TCU — look for the electric Wan’Dale Robinson to step into that slot role. He played receiver and running back last season as a true freshman, and it was clear head coach Scott Frost wanted to get the ball in his hands as much as possible. Robinson finished with 40 catches for 453 yards and 2 TDs while rushing for 375 yards and 3 scores on 88 attempts.
One player who will be counted on to produce immediately is first-year Husker Omar Manning, a big-bodied outside receiver who is coming to Lincoln from Kilgore College in Texas. Manning is 6-foot-4, 225 pounds and was one of the top JUCO wideouts. Nebraska hasn’t had a receiver that big since Maurice Purify from 2006-07.
The theory with Manning in Nebraska’s passing offense is simple: he needs to be good enough to force defenses to rotate a safety over the top of him. Manning doesn’t need to catch a crazy amount of balls or be a 1,000-yard receiver. But if he can catch 40 passes for around 700-800 yards at that outside receiver spot, it’ll likely open up the middle of the field, which would free up space for Robinson or one of the tight ends.
The tight end position is one that the coaches are on record saying they want to include more in the passing game. Jack Stoll and Austin Allen are both capable receivers, and last season they combined for 32 catches for 317 yards and 1 TD — Stoll hauled in 25 passes for 234 yards and the one score.
The Huskers TE room is loaded, however, and the coaching staff and in-state media are very high on 6-6, 250-pound Rutgers transfer Travis Vokolek, who will be eligible to play this season after sitting out. Chris Hickman, a rangy 6-6 athlete from nearby Omaha, is another player who could see more action this season as a hybrid tight end/receiver.
Outside of Robinson and Stoll, however, there are a ton of questions at the other receiver positions, and those unknowns are the main reason the Huskers’ pass offense will be either the same or worse than it was in 2019.
A lot of the guys that could see action are young and will be playing the first college football of their careers. That group is jam-packed with highly-touted recruits, though, including Alante Brown, Jamie Nance, Demariyon Houston, Zavier Betts, Marcus Fleming and Will Nixon. Some of those players will likely get legit opportunities, and it’s up to them to take advantage.
Of course, all of these receivers can blossom and turn out to be great players under new wideouts coach Matt Lubick. But in the end, it’s Martinez who will need to get them the ball better than he did last year. He completed 59.3 percent of his passes (149-251) for just 1,956 yards. Plain and simple: Martinez needs to improve.
Rushing offense: Better
The game of football starts up front with the offensive and defensive lines. Last year, the Husker O-line got off to a very rocky start as Nebraska rushed for just 98 yards in the season-opener against South Alabama.
To be fair, Nebraska chose to ride with a redshirt freshman center in Cameron Jurgens, a 6-3, 285-pound converted tight end. Jurgens got thrown around early on, but to his credit, he, as well as the entire unit, settled down and did much better as the season went on.
Nebraska rushed for 346 yards against Illinois, 305 against Maryland, 273 against Wisconsin, 238 against Northern Illinois and 220 against Indiana. With all five starters — Brenden Jaimes, Matt Farnoik, Jurgens, Boe Wilson, Trent Hixson — and talented 6-9, 295-pound redshirt freshman Bryce Benhart returning, as well as the hard-running Dedrick Mills, the Huskers’ run game should be better than it was last year.
After fumble problems early in the year, the 5-11, 220-pound Mills really settled in once Maurice Washington left the team. Mills, who was at Georgia Tech in 2016 and Garden City Community College before Lincoln, rushed for 745 yards and 10 TDs in his first season as a Husker. His best performance came at home against Wisconsin, where he rattled off 188 yards and 1 score on 17 attempts.
Untested redshirt freshmen Rahmir Johnson and Ronald Thompkins, or maybe even true freshmen Marvin Scott III and Sevion Morrison, could see action behind Mills. Also remember Robinson could get some carries in a variety of ways as well.
That leaves Martinez. There’s always a discussion about how much a team should run its starting quarterback. If you do it too often, there’s more opportunity for injury; if you don’t do it enough, you limit how productive the offense can be.
Martinez has shown he can be really good as a runner. In 2018, he rushed for 629 yards, which was the fourth-most of any true freshman in school history. He racked up 3,246 total yards that season, which ranked fifth-most in Nebraska history.
But in his sophomore campaign last year, Martinez injured his right leg scrambling for extra yardage against Northwestern. Then against Purdue, he broke the pocket and sold out for a touchdown by reaching for the end-zone pylon. That left his non-throwing shoulder exposed to a hit, and Martinez got up holding his arm. He later had offseason surgery on that shoulder.
It was clear Martinez played through multiple injuries last year, which was admirable. Huskers fans want to see him selling out for a TD, but they also want him able to play every game — it’s a tough dilemma. Frost wants to have a running QB in his offense, and with McCaffrey now in the fold, maybe that means less of the workload will be put on Martinez.
Kicking game: Worse
Two words: not great.
That’s an accurate description for Nebraska’s special teams play in 2019. The Huskers used six guys to kick field goals last year. They went a combined 12-20. Out of those six, only one is back in Lane McCallum, and according to the Nebraska athletics website, he’s listed as an outside linebacker.
Nebraska needed to switch things up in that department, so the Huskers went out and hired Jonathan Rutledge as the special teams senior analyst. He has plenty on his plate, so it should be interesting to see how much improvement comes in that area.
As part of Nebraska’s overall special teams’ makeover, the Huskers picked up a couple transfer place kickers in Connor Culp from LSU and Chase Contreraz from Iowa Western. Culp started for LSU in 2017 and made 11-16 field goals and 20-23 extra points.
As for kickoff and punt returners, the now-departed Spielman handled most of both last year. The Huskers weren’t good at either of them, averaging just 18.1 kickoff return yards and only 128 total yards on punt returns.
With Spielman gone, that leaves an opportunity for one of the young guys to get on the field right away. Players like Fleming, a 5-10, 170-pound speedster from Northwestern High School in Miami, Fla., or Brown, Nance and Johnson could get looks at kick returner. So could walk-ons Brody Belt and Zach Weinmaster, who each had three returns in 2019.
On punt returns, having a guy back there that can consistently catch the football will get a major boost in the competition. Look for the multi-talented Robinson, defensive back Cam Taylor-Britt — who did some punt returning last year — or Brown to be involved.
It’s easy to say that Nebraska’s 2020 kicking game can’t get worse than it was last year, therefore it’d likely be at least a little better this season. But with so many new faces and so little practice time, it’s hard to believe that until we see it.
With the entire offensive line and top running back returning, the Huskers should enjoy an improved rushing attack, which you need in the B1G. And after an injury-riddled 2019, a now-healthy Martinez should be in position to remind everyone that he can still be the player he was as a freshman.
Although there are so many unknowns in the wideout room, that receiver group is chalk full of young talent, starting with Robinson. It’d be a good bet that one or more of those true and redshirt freshmen — whether that’s Brown, Nance, Houston, Hickman, Betts, Fleming, Nixon, and of course, the big JUCO commit Manning — will click in Frost’s offense. Because of that, expect the Nebraska offense to be a bit better.