Nebraska football: Projecting the 2021 starting lineup
After a 3-5 campaign in 2020, Nebraska’s 4th straight losing season, it’s obvious that changes need to be made in the Huskers’ program.
Where should the changes happen? Probably not on defense. With all but 2 starters — corner Dicaprio Bootle and linebacker Collin Miller — returning, defensive coordinator Erik Chinander’s unit seems to be on an upward trajectory after a season in which it showed improvement where it needed to the most: stopping the run. The Huskers’ held opponents to 4.17 yards per carry in 2020 after 4.82 in 2019. The defense played well enough to win the Northwestern, Iowa and Minnesota games.
The offense, however, may be trending in the opposite direction. Nebraska averaged just 23 points per game, which ranked 12th in the B1G, so head coach Scott Frost took to the transfer portal for immediate help and came away with 2 big additions in former USC running back Markese Stepp and Montana receiver Samori Toure, an FCS All-American.
Stepp and Toure are viewed as potential quick fixes for the running back and wideout rooms, which lost starters Dedrick Mills to the NFL Draft and Wan’Dale Robinson to transfer (he landed at Kentucky, where he’s from).
Mills, who battled injury most of the season, was 13th in the B1G with 396 rushing yards and 3 touchdowns. Robinson, Nebraska’s do-everything playmaker who split time between slot wideout and running back, led the Huskers receiving core with 51 catches for 461 yards (12th in the B1G) and 1 score. He also rushed for 240 yards and 1 touchdown.
Mills and Robinson combined for 636 of Nebraska’s 1,611 rushing yards, which was 39 percent of the Huskers’ yards on the ground. They combined for 35 percent of the team’s receiving yards.
Mills and Robinson are only 2 of 5 departed players on the offense, though. The other 3 are all offensive linemen — left tackle Brenden Jaimes, guard/tackle Matt Farniok (both are preparing for the NFL Draft) and guard Boe Wilson (transfer to Western Kentucky). According to Parker Gabriel of the Lincoln Journal Star, that veteran trio combined for 95 career starts.
As for the production returning, quarterback Adrian Martinez will be back. Will Luke McCaffrey? If the Colorado native does return, what position will he play? After throwing 6 interceptions and 1 touchdown, hopefully not quarterback.
In Frost’s quarterback-run-heavy offense, Martinez and McCaffrey made up 55 percent of Nebraska’s rushing yards. Martinez’s 521 yards ranked 6th in the B1G.
QB: Adrian Martinez
RB: Markese Stepp
WR1: Zavier Betts
WR2: Samori Toure
WR3: Alante Brown
LT: Turner Corcoran
LG: Ethan Piper
C: Cam Jurgens
RG: Trent Hixson
RT: Bryce Benhart
TE: Austin Allen
The skinny: The key returner here is Martinez, who will likely be a 4-year starter. There’s no question that Martinez has flaws, but from everything fans have seen from Nebraska’s quarterback situation, he’s the best option the team has.
Will anyone behind Martinez seriously contend for the starting spot this spring? If the contenders are McCaffrey and Logan Smothers, it’s highly doubtful. McCaffrey may not even play quarterback and Smothers hasn’t taken a snap yet, so it’s hard to make any judgement there.
There’s no way around it — losing Robinson hurts. He was Nebraska’s best player and the face of the program. While the team would obviously take Robinson back in a heartbeat, the cupboard isn’t exactly bare at receiver.
Getting Zavier Betts, Austin Allen and Alante Brown back is an OK place to start. Adding a proven talent, albeit at the FCS ranks, in Toure is good, too. Don’t forget about Omar Manning, the JUCO receiver everyone wanted a couple seasons ago. Hopefully Manning figures things out and can get on the field in 2021.
Although it was fairly obvious during the season that Betts was still learning the playbook, he showed promise as a true freshman with 12 catches for 131 yards and 1 touchdown. With the departure of Robinson, Brown may now be the guy in the slot and will get more touches.
The 6-foot-8 Allen had a breakout junior campaign with 18 receptions for 136 yards and 1 score — he should lead a solid group of tight ends that includes Travis Vokolek and 4-star true freshman Thomas Fidone.
With the 235-pound Stepp expected to handle the starting running back duties, right guard and receiver remain the biggest holes to fill. Without Farniok, the Huskers will be looking for a new right guard, and several players could fill it. The favorite could be Omaha native Trent Hixson, who has starting experience at guard. Others who could make a run for the starting spot are Broc Bando, Brant Banks and transfer Nouredin Nouili, who started 7 games as a true freshman at Colorado State in 2019.
DE: Ben Stille
NG: Damion Daniels
DE: Ty Robinson
LB: Luke Reimer
LB: Will Honas
LB: Garrett Nelson
Nickel hybrid: JoJo Domann
S: Marquel Dismuke
S: Deontai Willams
C: Cam Taylor-Britt
C: Braxton Clark
The skinny: Chinander and his defensive assistants must have smiles on their faces knowing they’ll get 9 of 11 starters back.
Maybe the most important of all the starters returning is Domann, Nebraska’s 6-1, 230-pound linebacker/safety hybrid who showed off his versatility with 6.5 tackles for loss and 5 pass breakups. It was crucial to get Domann back because there’s not a proven replacement who’s capable of what Domann does so well — help in run support on one play and cover receivers another.
Bootle, who says he’ll forgo his extra year to focus on the NFL Draft, had 5 pass breakups (tied for 9th in the B1G) and 1 interception in 2020. Miller was forced to retire from football after suffering a scary injury in the Illinois loss, but fortunately will fully recover. He played in 4 games and racked up 27 tackles.
Bootle’s absence will open the door for one of Nebraska’s talented young corners in the program. Braxton Clark should be the favorite. The 6-4 Florida native has the length to bother receivers and is in the mold of former Husker Lamar Jackson, who saw action with the New York Jets this season. Clark appeared to be on track to get reps in 2020 but never saw the field after suffering a shoulder injury in preseason.
Expect a fully healthy Clark to get the starting nod at corner in 2021 with former JUCO transfer Nadab Joseph and Tamon Lynum— more long athletes at 6-2 — getting looks, too.
Reimer was in the rotation at inside linebacker in 2020 and should be the guy who slides into the starting role next to Will Honas. Reimer, a Lincoln native, had injury issues at times, but still finished with 40 tackles and 2 sacks on the season.
It will be fun to watch the linebacker depth in 2021 as a couple in-state kids — Omaha’s Nick Henrich, who saw a lot of action at both inside and outside linebacker, and York’s Garrett Snodgrass — could see more opportunities. Don’t sleep on Northern Iowa transfer Chris Kolarevic, either. He was a 2-year starter and wants to prove himself at a Power 5 school.
The 2021 defense appears salty on paper and looks like the strength of the team that will hold offenses under the 29 points per game it allowed in 2020. Getting 9 of the 11 starters back is huge — there are solid veterans at all 3 levels, with Stille and Daniels on the defensive line, Honas at linebacker and Taylor-Britt, Williams and Dismuke in the backfield.
As for the offense, questions remain everywhere. None bigger than at quarterback, where it seems Martinez will be the guy once more in 2021. McCaffrey didn’t look like a P5 passer, and not much is known about Smothers.
The additions of Stepp and Toure are intriguing. Stepp showed flashes at USC, but he also has a history of being injured and missing time. If healthy, will Frost use the big, physical runner in a down-hill running scheme and stick with it? That didn’t happen as much as fans wanted when Mills was in Lincoln.
Will Toure help transform a non-threatening passing attack that produced just 190 yards per game into one with some life to it? He very well could, but again, he’d need an accurate passer to accomplish that — does Nebraska have one of those?
The young offensive line — how will it progress? The redshirt freshman Benhart learned on the fly at right tackle while Corcoran, a true freshman, was thrust into duty at left tackle in the final game of the season at Rutgers. Piper, another redshirt freshman, had good moments at left guard, but the Huskers need to find a right guard. Are the inaccurate snaps a thing of the past for Jurgens?
Despite the losses of Mills, Robinson and the 3 offensive linemen, there’s potential for the Huskers offense to be better in 2021. There was potential for the offense to be good last season, too, but it wasn’t. Until there’s improvement on the field, it’s hard to believe this 2021 lineup will fare much better than 2020’s.