In case you’ve been living under a rock or haven’t been following Nebraska football since last season ended, there is a ton of hype surrounding this year’s squad — more than one would expect for a team that finished 4-8 last season.
Part of the excitement is due to the fact that Nebraska is ranked No. 24 in the Associated Press’ Preseason Poll. Last time the Huskers began a season ranked was in 2014, former head coach Bo Pelini’s final season in Lincoln.
To go along with a top-25 ranking, Nebraska also received plenty of national buzz. The Huskers were tabbed as the favorite to win the Big Ten West by Big Ten media members this summer at Big Ten Media Days.
Additionally, Las Vegas oddsmakers believe sophomore quarterback Adrian Martinez can make a significant jump in his second full year as Nebraska’s starter. According to Bovada, Martinez has the fifth-highest odds to bring home the Heisman Trophy in December.
Where is all of this reason to believe coming from? The answer is that it’s year two. In 2016, Scott Frost’s Central Florida Knights went 6-7 in his first season coaching the team. Frost’s second year at Central Florida went much better, as they went 13-0 and won the Peach Bowl against No. 10 Auburn.
Between Nebraska’s preseason ranking and Martinez’s Heisman hype, there is plenty of reason to believe that the Huskers can make a similar jump in Frost’s second season. However, several things need to happen in order for a UCF like leap to take place.
The first thing that needs to occur is for Martinez’s play to elevate in 2019. At UCF, Frost was able to guide quarterback McKenzie Milton to an incredible season in 2017. The year prior, Milton completed 57% of his passes for 1,983 yards along with 10 touchdown passes and seven interceptions.
Milton clearly gained confidence in the offense his second year, breaking out for 4,037 passing yards and completing 67% of his passes. He threw 37 touchdowns and nine interceptions. Like Martinez, Milton contributed heavily on the ground as well, running for 613 yards and eight touchdowns in the Knights’ undefeated season.
In 2018, Martinez outperformed Milton’s 2016 season under Frost. The Fresno, California native completed 64% of his passes while throwing for 2,617 yards, 17 touchdowns and eight interceptions. Martinez added 629 rushing yards and eight touchdowns.
So, it’s reasonable to expect that Martinez should improve on his 2018 season as he, like Milton, gains a deeper understanding of Frost’s offensive scheme. One thing that should contribute heavily to the potential Martinez-Heisman buzz is Nebraska’s strength of schedule. According to ESPN’s Football Power Index, the Huskers have the 50th-hardest schedule in the country — which is one of the easier schedules among power five teams
While that number doesn’t come close to Central Florida’s 83rd-ranked 2017 schedule (which ended up lower after a game against Georgia Tech was canceled due to Hurricane Irma and replaced by FCS opponent Austin Peay), the Huskers do luck out by playing Big Ten rivals like Ohio State, Northwestern, Iowa and Wisconsin at home. That should not only benefit Martinez’s stats, but also the team’s Big Ten West title chances.
One thing that will need to drastically improve in Frost’s second year is the defense. In 2018, Nebraska had the 100th-ranked defense in the NCAA, allowing 436 yards per game. If that is to change in 2019, Nebraska must first improve last season’s horrendous run defense.
After allowing 195 yards on the ground per game last season, Frost and his staff went out and added senior nose tackle graduate transfer Darrion Daniels from Oklahoma State to bolster the defensive line. Daniels, who only played in four games last season for the Cowboys due to injury, looks to anchor the Husker defense next to his younger brother Damion.
In 2017, Central Florida had the 39th-ranked defense in the country and gave up 370 yards per game. Ironically enough, that UCF defense was also led by a pair of brothers in twins Shaquem and Shaquill Griffin. If Nebraska wants to make a leap forward in 2019, seniors like Mohamed Barry, Carlos Davis and Khalil Davis will need to step up and bring the defense back to a competitive level.
Offensively, Husker fans can look for junior wideout JD Spielman to match the production UCF wide receiver Tre’Quan Smith had in 2017. As Central Florida’s No. 1 target, Smith caught 59 passes for 1,171 yards and 13 touchdowns.
Spielman figures to assume the No. 1 wideout role this season, as he amassed 818 receiving yards and eight touchdowns in eight games last season. Besides Spielman, junior tight end Jack Stoll and sophomore running back Maurice Washington are the only returning players that eclipsed 200 receiving yards in 2018. Now that Spielman is Nebraska’s top target, look for him to snag a majority of Martinez’s passes and surpass 1,000 receiving yards.
One final element that was critical to UCF’s season in 2017 was offensive depth. The Knights had six players crack 200 receiving yards and five players break 150 rushing yards during their undefeated season. In 2019, the Huskers will need offensive depth behind Spielman and Martinez. Look for senior graduate transfer wideout Kanawai Noa, freshman receiver Wan’Dale Robinson and junior running back Dedrick Mills to make strides in Frost’s offense.
While an undefeated season is unlikely, an improvement on last year’s record is almost guaranteed in Frost’s second year at the helm of the Nebraska football program. The Huskers have the pieces to make a run at the Big Ten West title. Offensive depth and defensive improvements are needed if Nebraska wants to finish the season ranked like the 2017 Knights.