Nebraska football: 10 bold predictions for the 2023 season
It’s been a string of disappointing seasons for the folks in Lincoln. Scott Frost was supposed to revive the once proud program. It didn’t happen.
Enter Matt Rhule in 2023. Rhule has a track record of building up downtrodden programs. He’s in for some heavy lifting with the Cornhuskers, but early reports are positive. Will Rhule’s philosophy of hard work and extra reps translate to more wins? We’ll soon see.
Across the nation, optimism abounds during fall camps. Lincoln is no different. Fans are thirsty for success after 6 straight losing seasons. How does it play out? Here are 10 bold predictions for the Huskers in 2023.
1. Jeff Sims will have a monster year
The Georgia Tech transfer is the solid QB1 after 2022 starter Casey Thompson transferred to Florida Atlantic. Sims has the physical tools to be elite. He showed flashes of brilliance with the Yellow Jackets and is listed on the Davey O’Brien preseason watch list.
Sims threw for over 1,100 yards in each of the past 3 seasons. He completed 55% or higher of his throws each year as well. It’s not a stretch to think Sims will eclipse his career-high of 1,881 yards in 2020.
Sims should flourish under new Huskers’ OC Marcus Satterfield. Satterfield’s South Carolina unit, and QB Spencer Rattler, put up eye-popping numbers over the final games of 2022. Satterfield has pledged to run the ball aplenty in 2023. And with a returning stable of RBs led by Anthony Grant and Gabe Ervin Jr., it makes sense.
At 6-4, 220, Sims’ chiseled frame is ideal as a running threat. Satterfield and Rhule might be hesitant to use him too much in that capacity. But if called upon, he has the ability to change games with his legs as well as his arm.
2. Anthony Grant, Gabe Ervin Jr. both hit 1,000 yards
The Huskers have had their share of lethal backfield tandems over the years. Ameer Abdullah, Rex Burkhead and Roy Helu Jr. are a few of many who’ve teamed up with others for a solid 1-2 punch.
But not since 1992, when Calvin Jones and Derek Brown both eclipsed 1,000 yards, have the Huskers had 2 1,000-yard runners. Could Grant and Ervin do it in 2023? Very possible. Especially if Rhule and Satterfield stay committed to pounding the rock.
Behind an improved offensive line, Grant should flourish, so long as he puts August camp fumbling issues behind him. He finished with 915 yards in 2022, but only 57 in his final 3 games. Grant went over 100 yards on 5 occasions, including a 189-yard, 2-TD performance against North Dakota.
Ervin, recently named the starter by Rhule, has shown dedication to the weight room and his diet this offseason. The sophomore didn’t get many opportunities in 2022 after coming back from a knee injury suffered against Oklahoma in 2021. But he’s getting first crack this September.
Rhule and Satterfield love Ervin’s toughness. And his physicality. He looks ready to break out. Rhule hopes he can be a 4th-quarter battering ram. He’s said it takes more than 1 back in the rugged B1G. He’s right. And if Grant re-emerges, he’ll have 2 big-time ballcarriers.
3. Nouredin Nouili’s comeback season
Speaking of an improved offensive line. Nouili, who missed the 2022 season following a suspension, returns to help anchor the unit.
The junior Colorado State transfer will help anchor the left side at guard. Nebraska missed his 6-4, 315-pound presence in 2022. Having him back to flank Arizona State transfer Ben Scott, who takes over at center, should vastly improve the unit.
4. Thomas Fidone emerges at tight end
There’s good and bad news on this front, Huskers’ fans. Fidone, the highly touted recruit out of Council Bluffs, Iowa, is finally healthy. Knee injuries sidelined him the past 2 years.
A healthy Fidone is good news for Sims and the offense. Bad news for opposing defenses. The 6-6, 250-pound sophomore gives Sims a big target over the middle, something that was missing a year ago.
The bad news at tight end is the status of Georgia transfer Arik Gilbert, a 5-star LSU recruit in 2020. Each day that passes, optimism about Gilbert being granted a 2nd transfer waiver by the NCAA to play in 2023 wanes.
Having Fidone and the 6-5, 275-pound Gilbert at TE would be huge. However, a week from the opener at Minnesota, it’s looking like it’ll be Fidone’s job to hold down solo.
5. Tony White’s 3-3-5 defense translates well to B1G
White served as Syracuse’s DC in 2022. He runs a bit of an unorthodox defense. Can it work in this league?
Nebraska has the guys to excel in the scheme. White wants dudes playing fast — flying around and not worrying about making mistakes. He has playmakers such as Isaac Gifford at safety and Luke Reimer, Nick Henrich and MJ Sherman at linebacker.
If the guys up front hold their own, look for the 2nd and 3rd level guys to stand out.
They’ll find out early — Aug. 31 vs. Minnesota — if they’re cut out for the challenges of the league.
6. Brian Buschini breaks punting record
Buschini averaged 44.0 yards per punt in 2022 and helped Nebraska’s special teams turn the corner from a disastrous 2021.
This year, the junior hopes to break the school single-season record of 46.51 yards per punt (Sam Koch, 2005). Buschini is a master of his craft and might add kickoff duties to his job description this season. He will continue to be a weapon for Nebraska on special teams.
7. MJ Sherman will lead NU in tackles
The Georgia transfer played in 39 games from 2020-22. Most of his time was spent on special teams, but he saw spot duty at LB.
Sherman has made a big splash during summer conditioning and into August practice. White loves Sherman’s motor and says he’s a natural fit in the 3-3-5.
Returnee Luke Reimer led the team in 2022 with 86 tackles. Sherman and Reimer should feast in White’s scheme. Don’t be surprised if both end up north of 80 tackles.
8. Bowl drought will end
Many won’t view this as a bold prediction. Trust me, when I tell you, IT IS.
Nebraska hasn’t reached a postseason since the 2016 Music City Bowl. Each preseason, pundits claim “this is the year” for Nebraska. Six, 7 and even 8 wins have been predicted. But over the past 6 seasons, Nebraska has massively underachieved. There’s no other way to say it.
Mike Riley’s last season was a disaster. Frost was supposed to right the ship. He didn’t. Frost’s 16-31 record in Lincoln, including 0-14 against ranked opponents, was a major flop.
Now it’s Rhule’s turn. More about him in a bit. But if you examine the 2023 schedule, it sets up for a bowl run. No, the Huskers won’t be world beaters in 2023. But the likelihood of reaching 6 wins with a schedule absent of Penn State and Ohio State is strong.
9. Matt Rhule solidifies his ‘program-builder’ reputation
It’s hard not to like Rhule. He’s been a hit on social media with fans and has built strong early relationships with players. Gifford recently said the Rhule “brings out the very best” in players.
Rhule’s track record in college speaks for itself. He turned around bottom-feeder programs at Temple and Baylor. Odds are he does the same in Lincoln. But what will Year 1 look like?
Rhule struggled in the initial year of his previous college stops, going 2-10 at Temple and 1-11 at Baylor before quick turnarounds. It won’t be same at Nebraska. Why, you ask?
Nebraska has a much better roster for Rhule to work with. The cupboard isn’t stocked, but it isn’t bare either. Nebraska AD Trev Alberts has provided the necessary resources for Rhule and staff to hit the ground running.
With his pedigree and work ethic, it shouldn’t take Rhule long to get NU back to bowl game status. After that, competing for a division title. Although in the crazy world of realignment, each year is tougher.
It goes without saying, college football is a better place when Nebraska is relevant. Rhule says Year 1 is about earning back respect. Don’t bet against it.
10. Huskers finish 6-6
To some, a 6-6 record would be a disappointment. Don’t kid yourself. It would be a huge success.
Getting Nebraska to a bowl game (the Duke’s Mayo Bowl, Dec. 27) would be a solid accomplishment for Rhule in 2023. There are still plenty of question marks (offensive line, WR depth, DL). Staying healthy will be important.
But look for NU to improve as the season progresses. Rhule has made it a point of emphasis to get guys a high number of reps in practice. That will pay dividends as the calendar hits October and November.
Wins against Colorado, Northern Illinois, Louisiana Tech, Northwestern and Purdue should happen. Find 1 more, and NU is bowling.