After a dismal 6-7 record in 2015, the Nebraska football team made a decent improvement in 2016. The Huskers finished 9-4 as head coach Mike Riley completed his second year in Lincoln.
Nebraska looks to improve again in the 2017 season. Here’s a preview of what to expect:
With a record 44 starts at the quarterback position, Tommy Armstrong Jr. graduated in 2016, leaving the door open for a new face behind center.
After a battle during the spring season between junior Tanner Lee and redshirt freshman Patrick O’Brien, coach Mike Riley named Lee as the starting quarterback shortly after the spring game.
Lee, who transferred from Tulane following the 2015 season, is a pro-style pocket passer that better fits the ideal offense Riley ran in his previous gig at Oregon State.
Nebraska also lost its top running back from last season. Terrell Newby led the Huskers with 910 rushing yards in 2016.
However, three experienced running backs return in 2017. Juniors Devine Ozigbo and Mikale Wilbon, and sophomore Tre Bryant, who combined for 673 yards on 155 carries in 2016, will look to establish a consistent run game in Riley’s third season in Lincoln.
A lot of new faces will take over a receiving core that lost five of its top eight receivers from 2016, including Nebraska all-time great Jordan Westerkamp.
The top two returning receivers, senior De’Mornay Pierson-El and junior Stanley Morgan Jr., will see a large portion of the targets.
During Riley’s first season at Nebraska in 2015, tight ends totaled 28 receptions for 373 yards and three touchdowns.
Last year, the tight ends still totaled 28 receptions for 283 yards and two touchdowns, even with an injured Cethan Carter, who signed with the Cincinnati Bengals this spring.
As for the line, six linemen return with at least two starts; junior Nick Gates has the most with 23.
The left side of the line is set with Gates at tackle and junior Jerald Foster at guard. On the right side, senior David Knevel and junior Tanner Farmer should be in control.
The most crucial departure on the offensive line was center Dylan Utter, who started 27 games during his Nebraska career.
Sophomore Michael Decker, who competed against junior Cole Conrad during the spring season, will likely replace Utter.
The Blackshirts will be operating under a new scheme in 2017 with first-year defensive coordinator Bob Diaco at the helm.
Rather than running a 4-3 scheme as previous defensive coordinator Mark Banker did, Diaco runs a 3-4, meaning the Huskers’ defense will now consist of three linemen and four linebackers.
Diaco’s scheme has proved successful in the past, as he was the leader of the 2013 Fighting Irish defense that aided Notre Dame to the BCS National Championship game.
With the addition of the two secondary coaches, ‘Lockdown U’ also returns the majority of its members from the 2016 season.
The only player to depart was Nathan Gerry, who had 13 career interceptions that tied for second most in Nebraska history. The Philadelphia Eagles selected Gerry in the fifth round of the 2017 NFL Draft.
The secondary returns four players that have a combined 70 starts: Joshua Kalu, Chris Jones, Aaron Williams and Kieron Williams. These four players had 12 combined interceptions in 2016.
With the transition from the 4-3 scheme to the 3-4, the linebacker group added depth behind experienced junior Dedrick Young II and seniors Marcus Newby and Chris Weber.
Sophomore Alex Davis and junior Sedrick King moved from defensive end to linebacker.
With that change, the defensive line lacks a sufficient amount of depth.
Nebraska returns just three defensive lineman who have recorded starts: juniors Freedom Akinmoladun (17) and Mick Stoltenberg (9), as well as sophomore Carlos Davis (4).
Behind Stoltenberg and Davis at defensive tackle is Davis’ twin brother, Khalil Davis, and junior Peyton Newell.
Numbers are even thinner on the defensive end. Nebraska natives DaiShon Neal and Ben Stille are likely to get a hefty amount of snaps.
One thing that has surely remained consistent throughout the past three years is the excellent kicking from Drew Brown. Now entering his senior year, Brown has a chance to rank among the top kickers in Nebraska history.
At the start of the 2017 season, Brown ranks seventh in school history with 282 points. He likely won’t break Alex Henery’s career scoring record of 397, but Brown is sure to move up the list.
He also ranks third in career field goals made with 47, 21 shy of Henery’s record.
One noticeable change on special teams is that the Huskers no longer have a special teams coordinator. Instead, Riley said the special teams duties would be split up amongst the coaching staff.
Shortly after Diaco was hired in January, he approached Riley and volunteered to be the punters’ coach. As the designated punters’ coach, Diaco will be in charge of improving the play of sophomore punter Caleb Lightbourn.
Stepping in as a true freshman last year after the tragic death of Nebraska punter Sam Foltz, Lightbourn wasn’t expected to have a stellar season in 2016.
He ranked as the No. 7 punter in the nation coming out of high school according to 247Sports, averaging just 39.7 yards per punt in his first season at Nebraska.
A tough 2017-18 schedule is sure to test Nebraska right out of the gates in Week 1 against Arkansas State. The Red Wolves finished 8-5 last season, capped off by a 31-13 win against Central Florida in the AutoNation Cure Bowl.
The non-conference schedule only gets harder in Week 2 with the second game of the home-and-home series against Oregon. The thrilling 35-32 win against the Ducks last year at Memorial Stadium looked less and less impressive as the year went on. Oregon finished 4-8 and did not make a bowl game for the first time since 2004.
The Ducks should be better in 2017 under new head coach Willie Taggart, and playing in Eugene is never an easy task.
Nebraska closes out the non-conference schedule in Lincoln against Northern Illinois, which finished 5-7 last year.
The Huskers will ease into the Big Ten Conference season at home against Rutgers and then on the road against Illinois on Friday, Sept. 29.
The Friday game means the Huskers will have an extra day to prepare for Wisconsin the following week before facing Ohio State after that.
Nebraska faces the Badgers and Buckeyes a few weeks earlier than they did last year, and at home rather than in the hostile environments of Camp Randall Stadium and The Horseshoe.
In Week 9 of the 2016 season, Wisconsin narrowly defeated Nebraska in overtime 23- 17. In Week 10, Ohio State pummeled Nebraska 62-3.
The Huskers get a bye in Week 8 of the 2017 season before traveling to Purdue, but things won’t get any easier for Nebraska down the final stretch.
Each of the final four opponents finished the 2016 season with a winning record, including Penn State, who finished 11-3 after losing in the Rose Bowl.
After defeating both Northwestern and Minnesota in 2016, Nebraska will play the teams back-to-back in the upcoming season, before traveling to State College, Pennsylvania.
As usual, the Huskers will face Iowa in the regular season finale on Black Friday.
All in all, seven of Nebraska’s 12 opponents in 2017 made a bowl game in 2016. Those seven teams had a combined record of 65-28 (.699).
There are eight common opponents from 2016. The Huskers went 5-3 in those games, but were outscored 217-171.