Nebraska football: 10 burning questions as the Huskers head into the offseason
It was another turbulent season for Nebraska football. Scott Frost was fired after 3 games. Mickey Joseph served as interim coach and led the Huskers to a season-ending win over Iowa. But it wasn’t enough to land the full-time gig, as AD Trev Alberts hired former Baylor and Carolina Panthers coach Matt Rhule, and Joseph ran into legal trouble days after Rhule’s introductory press conference.
The Huskers finished 4-8, their 6th consecutive losing season. It’s hard to imagine 6 straight seasons of below .500 football being played in Lincoln. But here we are. Rhule has his work cut out.
Here are 10 questions Nebraska faces as it enters another critical offseason.
1. Who will be the QB in 2023?
Casey Thompson threw for 2,407 yards and 17 TDs in 2022, while missing 2 games due to injury. His health is of some concern and there isn’t official word on if he’ll return for 2023. But if he does, and he’s healthy, he’s the front-runner to pilot new OC Marcus Satterfield’s offense.
Nebraska also landed Georgia Tech transfer Jeff Sims from the portal. Sims brings a solid dual-threat skillset to the position and will undoubtedly challenge for immediate playing time.
Sorting through the possibilities will be a high priority for Rhule and Satterfield during spring practices.
2. Who will replace Trey Palmer’s production?
Palmer declared for the draft following the win over Iowa. Replacing his 1,043 receiving yards and 9 TDs won’t be easy. In fact, it may prove to be extremely difficult.
Palmer’s 71 receptions as well as his yardage total were Nebraska records. He developed a nice chemistry with Thompson and regularly displayed his ability to get open deep.
Marcus Washington, a transfer from Texas, came on strong at the finish. Washington finished with 31 catches for 471 yards while starting 10 games. Look for him to make a big jump in 2023.
Other receivers who could step up include Alante Brown and Malachi Coleman, a 4-star recruit from Lincoln East High School.
3. Can the offensive line take a step forward in Year 2 under Donovan Raiola?
Raiola was the only holdover Rhule kept from the Frost/Joseph staff. That was a bit of a surprise given that the line play was less than stellar. Too many penalties, missed assignments, etc., hindered the unit.
In order for the Huskers to improve, it must start up front. Getting tackle Teddy Prochaska back should help. As should adding Nouredin Nouili back to the mix from a suspension in 2022. Adding Arizona State transfer Ben Scott is another positive.
Don’t discount Raiola’s abilities to coach based on 1 shaky season. He has NFL experience with the Chicago Bears, and if he can get his unit to take a leap forward in 2023, more wins will be on the horizon.
4. Who can fill the void left at linebacker?
Nebraska has holes to plug on defense — starting with linebacker. Losing talented freshman Ernest Hausmann to Michigan in the portal was a gut-punch. Hausmann has a ton of talent and should only get better with experience.
Luke Reimer, Nebraska’s leader in tackles (86) and Nick Henrich, another veteran, look to return to form. Henrich was lost to injury following the Purdue game. If he returns to form it helps solidify things.
Dylan Rogers was a nice recruiting pickup and physically looks ready to contribute immediately. If he or others step up, the loss of Hausmann should be felt less.
Transfer Chief Borders could also step in right away and contribute.
5. Can Marcus Satterfield’s offense fly high in the B1G?
Satterfield had his share of critics at South Carolina. But the former Gamecocks OC got things figured out in impressive late-season showings against Tennessee and Clemson.
The offense went off for 586 yards and 63 points against the Vols and 415 yards and 31 points against the Tigers. Spencer Rattler got comfortable and heated up. Will Satterfield have the same effect on Thompson or Sims?
If things click offensively — and Rhule emphasized having a strong run/pass balance — the Nebraska offense will be fun to watch in 2023.
6. Can Tony White boost the defensive results?
Rhule snagged White from Syracuse to run the Nebraska defense. White’s 2022 Orange unit was a staunch bunch, finishing 22nd in the FBS, giving up just over 328 yards per game.
White will need to be stingy against the run in this league. It’s a conference where wins are decided in the trenches. NU must improve in that regard and slow down opponents’ running games.
The Huskers were No. 11 in the league in defense, giving up more than 27 points and 414 yards per game — numbers that White looks to improve on.
7. Can Tristan Alvano overtake Timmy Bleekrode at kicker?
Bleekrode was an upgrade at kicker in 2022. But Rhule signed Alvano in December, and the 6-2, 185-pound kicker from Omaha Westside showed in the Class A state championship game in Memorial Stadium why he was highly sought after.
Alvano nailed 5 FGs in the game, including a 45-yard walk-off winner. He proved he has ice in his veins and will come in immediately and look to win the job. It’s been awhile since the Huskers have had a reliable kicker that is consistent on kicks from 45 yards and up.
8. What happens at running back?
Anthony Grant had a nice season in 2022 with 915 yards and 6 TDs. Grant announced his return via social media Monday and he gives the Huskers proven experience at the position.
Perhaps redshirt freshman AJ Allen swoops in and wins the job. Allen was injured early in the season, but showed glimpses of excellence. He’s definitely a talented option.
Three-star Kwinten Ives, from Palmyra, NJ, signed in December and looks to join the mix for playing time.
9. Can Rhule re-establish a recruiting pipeline in Texas?
Rhule was busy reconnecting with high school coaches in Texas prior to the early signing period. During his time at Baylor, Rhule built strong relationships with the coaches in-state. He’s working to do it again while at Nebraska.
Getting Rogers (Cypress , TX) to sign was a monster step in the right direction. It’s no secret Rhule loves speed. His signing of Brice Turner from Bay City, TX, shows he’s after track athletes who can run.
Riley Van Poppel (DL – Argyle, TX) and Princewill Umanmielen (Edge – Manor, TX) make 4 signees from Texas for Rhule during the December period. Solid work, and a terrific sign that Texas is back in play with the new staff.
10. Can the new coaching staff change the mindset of the program?
Possibly more important than all the position questions and physical parts of the game is Nebraska’s mental state. Not just the players, but the fans and everyone. Nebraska football has taken years off of folks’ lives these past 20 years. It’s been a series of disappointments since the early 2000s. The Huskers have lost their swagger.
It will be important for Rhule and his staff to build the team back up mentally. Get the players believing again. A strong start would help. But a pair of road games at Minnesota and Colorado to open the year provide a challenge.
Nebraska football is in a fragile place mentally. The once-storied program desperately needs some good fortune in 2023. Rhule has built programs from the ground up before. It’s one of the things he’s known for.
The veteran coach has done it before, but perhaps his biggest professional challenge is currently in front of him.