Nebraska football: 5 biggest holes to fill in 2021 starting lineup
A disappointing pandemic-impacted 2020 campaign was followed by a rocky offseason full of attrition for Nebraska. To be fair, the Huskers aren’t alone in losing players to the transfer portal.
Defensive coordinator Erik Chinander has to love that all but 2 of his starters will be back as senior corner Dicaprio Bootle is focusing on the NFL Draft while senior linebacker Collin Miller was forced to medically retire following an injury against Illinois.
Head coach Scott Frost’s offense, however, took the brunt of the departures. Slot receiver Wan’Dale Robinson — the face of the program and the best player the Huskers had — transferred to Kentucky where he’ll be running passing routes constructed by former LA Rams’ assistant Liam Coen. Backup quarterback Luke McCaffrey, a very talented runner but one who lacked the passing skills needed to be a starter in the B1G, also left. So did running back Dedrick Mills, who looked the part and had flashes, but never really got on track in his career in Lincoln. Kade Warner, NFL Hall of Famer Kurt Warner’s son and co-captain, left, too, but he didn’t play much toward the end of the season anyway.
It wasn’t just a few skill guys, either — the offensive line took some losses. Left tackle Brenden Jaimes and right guard Matt Farniok are both training for the NFL Draft, while key backup Boe Wilson and Farniok’s younger brother, Will, transferred, too. Wilson landed at Western Kentucky.
These exits create holes to fill, especially on an offense that struggled to score points last season. We tackled what the 2021 starting lineup might look like here, but let’s dive a bit deeper into the 5 positions that need to be addressed.
Running back: Markese Stepp replacing Mills
What you need to know: If fans simply take a look at Stepp’s body type, the imagination runs wild with how he could be used in the offense. The transfer from USC is 6-feet and 235 pounds. If you watch highlights from his time as a Trojan, you’ll see a physical, down-hill runner.
In other words: Stepp is exactly what the doctor ordered.
— Nebraska Football (@HuskerFBNation) February 5, 2021
Stepp will need to get a waiver to play immediately, but assuming he gets that — it’s likely because the offense he was recruited to changed to an Air Raid while he was on campus — Nebraska’s offense could have a guy who can be leaned on heavily in the run game.
Of course, like all backs, Stepp will need to stay healthy. Mills battled injuries regularly — that tends to happen with hard-running bruisers. But if Stepp can get on track early, it benefits everyone — none more than quarterback Adrian Martinez.
There will be others competing for the starting spot, including Sevion Morrison, Marvin Scott III, Rahmir Johnson, Ronald Thompkins and even Gabe Ervin, a true freshman, but the experienced Stepp will have the advantage.
Backup quarterback: Logan Smothers replacing Luke McCaffrey
What you need to know: Talking about the backup quarterback usually isn’t exciting, but it sure is at Nebraska given Martinez’s injury history. In each of his 3 seasons as the starter, Martinez has missed some time due to injury.
If Frost continues to run Martinez a lot, Smothers will likely see time in 2021. The 6-2, 190-pound former 3-star prospect from Muscle Shoals, Ala., hasn’t taken a snap in a game yet, but fans are eager to see what the kid can do. That eagerness will be ramped up if Martinez has a similar roller-coaster performance like he did in 2020.
Receiver: Samori Touré replaces Levi Falck
What you need to know: Much like JUCO transfer Omar Manning last year, naturally there’s already a lot of pressure being put on Touré, Nebraska’s new addition and former FCS All-American at Montana who caught a single-season school record 87 passes for 1,495 yards and 13 touchdowns.
— Samori Touré (@samori_toure) February 1, 2021
At 6-3, Touré is a big target who has shown he can stretch a defense vertically, which is what Frost and offensive coordinator/receivers coach Matt Lubick wanted to change about Nebraska’s wideouts. Recently, the Huskers’ top receiving targets — Robinson and JD Spielman — have been around the 5-9, 5-10 range and struggled to get on top of bigger safeties down the field.
TOUCHDOWN MONTANA! Jensen finds Samori Toure for an 81-yard strike!
— Montana Griz Football (@MontanaGrizFB) October 28, 2017
Falck, a transfer from South Dakota, has solid hands and will continue to be a dependable blocker on the outside, which Husker coaches love. In 2020 he caught 13 passes for 122 yards and 1 score. Oliver Martin, a transfer from Michigan and Iowa, had good moments and will likely still be in the rotation, but is more of a possession receiver.
Both Falck, Martin and Wyatt Liewer lacked explosiveness — that’s where Touré comes in. At Montana, he ran away from corners and safeties and provided that big-play ability the offense desperately needs.
Just getting started🤫🤫 pic.twitter.com/wL3owgTLHz
— Samori Touré (@samori_toure) December 21, 2019
Slot receiver: Alante Brown replaces Robinson
What you need to know: No one can deny that Robinson played his heart out. He did what the coaches asked, even if it meant playing out of position and running the ball between the tackles as a small slot receiver. But Robinson’s departure creates an opportunity for someone to take that slot receiver spot, and Brown should be that guy.
After a largely uneventful freshman season where he grabbed only 3 catches for 41 yards, Brown will get all the reps he wants in 2021. At 5-11, 190 pounds, he’s built in the same mold as Robinson — but bigger — and has elusiveness.
There will be other contenders at slot, including Will Nixon and incoming true freshman Thomas Fidone. Coaches have been high on Nixon, who missed all last season with a torn ACL but could be ready to roll as the season approaches.
Fidone, the top recruit in the 2021 class, could a possibility, too. At 6-5, 230 pounds, he provides a different kind of option at slot — think a potential mismatch nightmare for the defense where he’s bigger than the safety/nickel covering him and faster than a linebacker.
Right guard: Trent Hixson replaces Matt Farniok
What you need to know: The O-line is going to have young starters all over in 2021. The tackle positions are set with Turner Corcoran, who filled in for Jaimes on the left side as a true freshman in last season’s finale at Rutgers, and Bryce Benhart, who started every game on the right as a redshirt freshman. Ethan Piper was thrown into the fire at left guard and played in all 8 games, starting 7. The Norfolk Catholic product should hold down the fort at that position again in 2021.
That leaves right guard, and there are a bunch of guys who could make a run there. Out of everyone, though, Trent Hixson may have the upper hand because he has starting experience. The Omaha Skutt grad and former walk-on started every game at left guard as a sophomore in 2019. Could there be some shuffling with Hixson and Piper at the guard spots? Sure, that’s not out of the question.
Others who could contend for the job include Colorado State transfer Nouredin Nouili, Broc Bando, and maybe even Iowa transfer Ezra Miller, who was listed as a tackle in Iowa City but could probably help out inside.