The Nebraska football season will be under way on Oct. 24th against Ohio State. So, before the season begins, let’s look at four of the biggest storylines to watch this season.
Luke McCaffrey’s challenge to Adrian Martinez for the starting job
Nebraska offensive coordinator Matt Lubick has said that redshirt freshman quarterback Luke McCaffrey and junior quarterback Adrian Martinez have both improved this offseason and both received first team reps.
“It’s a healthy competition … We feel good about both guys right now, we really do,” said Lubick.
This leaves the door open for two-year starter Martinez to, at some point in the season, potentially be replaced by McCaffrey, who appeared in four games last season.
This proposition is not too far-fetched. Nebraska’s schedule is unforgiving, especially at the beginning of the season when it faces Ohio State, Wisconsin and Penn State in three of the first four weeks.
Martinez had a down year in 2019 compared to his freshman season. In 2019, Martinez threw nine interceptions on 251 passing attempts, after throwing just eight interceptions on 347 passing attempts in 2018.
Martinez’s completion percentage was down to 59% last season from 65% in 2018, as well as 10 touchdown passes down from 17 in 2018.
All of this is to say, if Martinez’s downward trajectory continues, his job could be in jeopardy in 2020.
There’s many reasons to believe McCaffrey’s tenure as a starter is a possibility and all Huskers fans will be watching this storyline closely.
How will the young receiving core replace the production of JD Spielman
JD Spielman was one of the most productive receivers in program history, but transferred to TCU this offseason.
Spielman had over 800 receiving yards each of the past three seasons and led the team in receiving in 2019. He ranks seventh all-time in Nebraska history in receiving touchdowns, fourth in receiving yards and third in receptions. Several young receivers now have a large task ahead of them.
The most obvious candidate to step into the number one receiver role is sophomore Wan’Dale Robinson, who had 40 receptions, 453 yards and two touchdowns in 2019. He also tallied 88 rushes for 340 yards and three touchdowns last season after the Huskers became shorthanded at running back.
“We don’t care about outside hype and things like that, or what our schedule looks like,” Robinson said about the 2020 season. “We’re just trying to get better everyday.”
The Huskers also have two new faces that should cause problems for opponents on the outside.
Freshman Zavier Betts is a four-star recruit from Bellevue, Nebraska. In his senior season at Bellevue West High School he accumulated 64 receptions for 1185 yards and 17 touchdowns in 13 games.
The Huskers have also added junior Omar Manning, who was the number two junior college recruit and number one wide receiver in the 2020 class. Manning spent a year at TCU, where he was redshirted, before transferring to Kilgore College.
In his final season at Kilgore in 2019, Manning compiled 35 receptions for 727 yards and six touchdowns. Unlike other Huskers wideouts, Manning will likely be ready to contribute from day one, due to his wealth of experience playing at the collegiate level.
“It’s definitely nice to have some monsters on the outside, scare some people, but at the end of the day everyone just has to make plays, no matter the size,” Robinson said.
Nebraska’s defense needs to improve
Nebraska’s defense was 10th in the Big Ten last season in both points allowed and total yards. This has to change drastically in 2020 if the Huskers want to be successful.
The obvious scapegoat would be defensive coordinator Erik Chinander, whose defense has been lackluster since he’s been in Lincoln.
Parting ways with Chinander would be a drastic move, considering this season will only be Chinander’s third as the defensive coordinator and the difficulty of evaluating a shortened season.
Head coach Scott Frost would also likely be opposed to letting go of Chinander as the two go back a long way. They’ve coached together every year but one since 2007, and have been together at Northern Iowa, Oregon, UCF and Nebraska.
Chinander is very clearly Frost’s guy on the defensive side of the ball, and the real answer for who might pay the price for potential poor defensive performances in 2020 is the veteran players.
Firing coaches will probably not be the answer for the Huskers if things go south on the defensive end of the ball this season. It will be about adjusting schemes, giving young players snaps if veterans falter and reinforcing the team culture.
What are the prospects for Nebraska special teams this season
Last season, four of the Huskers’ seven losses were by a possession. Who usually wins closely contested games? Usually, the team with the better special teams play. The Huskers were not one of those teams.
The Huskers were 13th in the Big Ten in field goal percentage, making just 60% of their field goal attempts. At times in the season, the idea of attempting a field goal had to be completely removed from the decision-making process.
To give you an idea of the inconsistency of kicking for the Huskers, they used six different placekickers last season. The only kicker to attempt more than one field goal and still be perfect on the year was Matt Waldoch, who went 4-4, but he left for club soccer.
Barret Pickering, who went 3-5 on field goals in 2019, is also stepping away from the program. This leaves the place kicking position a huge question mark for the Huskers this season, and the kicking carousel isn’t likely to stop soon.
Nebraska has two options to handle field goals this season, both of which are newcomers to the program. The first of which is senior Connor Culp, an LSU transfer who made 87% of his extra points and 69% of his field goals in 2017. The alternative is sophomore Chase Contreraz, who made 96% of his extra points and 83% of his field goals in 2019 at Iowa Western Community College.
Nebraska was also ninth in the Big Ten in yards per punt at 40.9. The likely starter at punter for the Huskers is sophomore William Przystup. He also had some kickoff responsibilities last season, booting 11 touchbacks on 34 kickoffs in 2019.
The Huskers will need to clean up their act on special teams if they want to be competitive in close games in 2020.