Nebraska football: 5 biggest areas of concern ... and possible solutions
A new season brings new enthusiasm to Lincoln.
Yes, Nebraska finished with a disappointing 3-9 record last year, missing out on a bowl game again. It wasn’t exactly the kind of performance the fanbase was expecting in the fourth year of the Scott Frost era.
But with several offensive staff changes in the offseason, an aggressive approach to recruiting through the transfer portal and a (slightly) more favorable schedule, there’s a belief Frost and his crew can get things fixed for the 2022 season.
That doesn’t mean there aren’t still some issues heading into the season. Here are 5 concerns facing the Huskers entering 2022, as well as some possible solutions:
Concern: Nebraska was one of the worst pass-blocking teams at the FBS level last season, ranking 126th out of 130 teams, per Pro Football Focus. That forced Adrian Martinez to run a lot more than he would’ve liked and proved to be an issue all season long. Run blocking was better but still left something to be desired. The Huskers finished 74th nationally in that category. All around, they have to show significant improvement in a short amount of time up front.
Solution: Part of Frost’s changes to the offensive staff meant a change along the offensive line. Donovan Raiola brings NFL experience to Lincoln, never a bad asset to have on staff. Nebraska also landed two new additions from the transfer portal — Hunter Anthony from Oklahoma State and Kevin Williams from Northern Colorado. Plus, Turner Corcoran and Bryce Benhart both return, along with a slew of other rotational players from the front line.
Basically, the Huskers have done everything they could do in the offseason to address some of the offensive line concerns. Bringing in experience from the transfer portal and having a fresh face to coach the unit are steps in the right direction — although there’s no guarantee it pays off.
Concern: Everything. Sorry to paint with a broad brush here, but is it really necessary to get into the specifics of what went wrong in this phase of the game last season?
Solution: Arguably the biggest move Frost made in the offseason was hiring a dedicated special teams coordinator. Bill Busch will be in charge of focusing his attention on that aspect of the game, a much-needed change after Nebraska lost 8 of its 9 games by 1 possession last year (with plenty of special teams errors).
The Huskers also poached the portal to add a new kicker and punter to the roster. Former Furman kicker (and punter) Timmy Bleekrode was successful on 21-of-25 field goal attempts during his time in the FCS ranks, including a long of 51 yards. Brian Buschini arrives in Lincoln after being named the FCS Punter of the Year last season at Montana. He averaged 46 yards per punt, pinned opponents inside the 20-yard line 30 times and had 28 kicks exceed 50 yards.
On paper, Nebraska’s special teams has a chance to go from the ultimate weakness to a legitimate strength for the team. All the pieces are there, it’s just a matter of putting them together.
New faces on defense
Concern: Nebraska’s defense is going through a complete overhaul but it’s losing some major contributors at all three levels of the defense. Most notably, the Huskers lose Ben Stille and Damion Daniels up front, JoJo Domann and Will Honas at linebacker and Cam Taylor-Britt, Deontai Williams and Marquel Dismuke.
Last year, Nebraska surrendered just 22.7 points and 366 yards per game, ranking 36th and 47th nationally in the respective categories. Are the Huskers losing too much to back up their strong defensive effort from a year ago?
Solution: Are you noticing a theme, yet? Once again, the transfer portal was an area of focus in the offseason to address some of the concerns defensively, particularly in the secondary. The addition of Tommi Hill from Arizona State and Omar Brown from Northern Iowa are significant. Both could probably step in immediately and make a big impact. Plus, the Huskers still have quality players in Quinton Newsome and Myles Farmer returning.
Shutting down the rushing attack and getting pressure on the quarterback is going to be important for the Huskers this year, and they’ve got the talent at the linebacker position to create some havoc in the backfield. Leading tacklers Luke Reimer and Nick Henrich will be the anchors at that spot and Garrett Nelson returns after a solid season.
Really, the linebacker corps is going to have to be the heart and soul for the Huskers again in 2022. Considering that was the strength of Erik Chinander’s unit a year ago, that’s a positive sign.
The run game
Concern: Statistically speaking, Nebraska’s rushing attack has been relatively good compared to the rest of the B1G. Last year, the Huskers averaged 180.2 yards per game on the ground, fifth-best average in the conference. The issue is that Adrian Martinez was the team’s leading rusher each of the last 2 seasons and was a Top 2 ball carrier for the Huskers in all 4 years. Establishing a lead back has been a real struggle for Frost. Putting too much pressure on the quarterback to create yardage with his legs has been a real problem for the Huskers.
Solution: Improvement along the offensive line is going to help Nebraska’s run game tremendously. The other thing working in the Huskers’ favor is that the running back room is loaded with experience. Rahmir Johnson, Jaquez Yant, Markese Stepp and Gabe Ervin Jr. all return. Frost and his staff also added junior college running back Anthony Grant and former Texas A&M back Deondre Jackson to the mix, as well. There’s no shortage of options.
Whipple’s offense should allow running backs to get more involved in the offense in a variety of ways. Pitt incorporated some delayed handoffs and RPOs into its offense last season, which should open up more opportunities for the Nebraska running backs.
The biggest thing? Nebraska can’t be afraid to stick with the rushing attack. At times, it’s felt like the Huskers have abandoned the run game too early. With the number of quality players in the backfield, this team should be capable of wearing down defenses throughout the season, even if it’s not the most explosive ground game.
Concern: This is a team that hasn’t gotten over the hump in 4 years. Last year, the Huskers dropped 8 games by a single possession and lost all 9 contests by single digits. At some point, the voice in your head starts to say, “Here we go again.”
Yes, this is a new year, a new team with new players. But those thoughts don’t just vanish overnight from the minds of the guys who have been in the program for multiple seasons.
Solution: Is there really one? Frost tried everything last season to try to and refocus his team and hit the reset button throughout the year. Maybe simply having a few months away from football will generate a new mindset.
If there is a cure, though, it’s probably to win a close game, regardless of opponent. Pulling through in a make-or-break moment might be the remedy that sparks this program.