As we wrap up our weekly series previewing Iowa football’s 2017 opponents, it’s time to take a look at the Nebraska Cornhuskers. Changes in both personnel and scheme on both sides of the ball could make the Huskers a tough nut to crack this season.
Nebraska exploded out of the gates in 2016, starting 7-0 before dropping a tough one in overtime at Camp Randall to Wisconsin. With a 7-1 record and respectable performances in all eight contests through the month of October, it looked as if Mike Riley’s bunch might be destined for big things. Then came the trip to Columbus, Ohio to face Ohio State. Quarterback Tommy Armstrong was knocked out of the game early and Nebraska had no answers for Urban Meyer’s crew. That 62-3 beatdown seemed to define the rest of the season for the Huskers. Including the Wisconsin loss, Nebraska was on the losing end of four of its last six games.
Who did they lose?
After starting more games than any quarterback in Nebraska history, Tommy Armstrong has finally left Lincoln. Also gone is running back Terrell Newby, Nebraska’s leading rusher from a year ago, and two starting receivers in Brandon Reilly and Jordan Westerkamp. Tight End Cethan Carter has moved on along with center Dylan Utter.
On defense, linebackers Josh Banderas and Michael Rose-Ivey have departed. Both saw significant playing time starting the day they stepped on campus. The Huskers also lost a highly underrated defensive end in Ross Dzuris and defensive tackle Kevin Maurice.
Who do they return?
After sitting out a season due to transferring in from Tulane, Tanner Lee steps in at quarterback. His presence should change the look of the offense, but we’ll get to that in a minute. Nebraska returns a solid stable of three running backs who will all battle to replace Newby as the bell-cow out of the backfield. Devine Ozigbo is a big, straight-line power back, while Tre Bryant and Mikale Wilbon are quicker, more dynamic runners who might fit Riley’s scheme a little better.
On the offensive line, the Huskers return plenty of starting experience, led by tackle Nick Gates and guard Tanner Farmer. Both have All-Big Ten potential.
In terms of weapons, Lee will have two formidable players to target in the passing game. Stanley Morgan Jr. looks the part of an NFL receiver and has shown flashes of greatness so far in his career. On the other side of the field is De’Mornay Pierson-El, a smaller-but-electric receiver with a skill set similar to what Riley had in Brandin Cooks at Oregon State.
On defense, twins Carlos and Khalil Davis team up with Mick Stoltenberg to man the interior of the defensive line, while Freedom Akinmoladun is back at defensive end. Behind them are four solid linebackers in Marcus Newby, Chris Weber, Luke Gifford and Dedrick Young. All four have seen playing time in their career, and the unit has the potential to be one of the best in the conference by season’s end.
Nebraska’s secondary should be nothing short of outstanding in 2017. Chris Jones might be the best corner in the Big Ten. Lamar Jackson will man the opposite side of the field — and he has the look of a guy who will play on Sundays as well. Joshua Kalu makes the move back to safety, while Aaron Williams and Antonio Reed will pair up with him. Realistically, the Huskers have five starting corners in their defensive backfield.
Not to be understated is the return of kicker Drew Brown — one of the best in the country.
Why should Iowa be worried?
Tanner Lee’s presence means a more pass-heavy offense than the Huskers have shown in recent years, including the Riley-era. Lee is a prototypical pocket-passer with underrated mobility. His film from Tulane shows him as a more accurate passer and better decision-maker than Armstrong. Between him and the talented targets he’ll have on the edges and coming out of the backfield, Iowa’s inexperienced secondary will be challenged.
On defense, former Hawkeye linebacker Bob Diaco takes over as the defensive coordinator. He brings with him a 3-4 defense designed to eliminate seams that lead to big plays in the running game: something that has plagued Nebraska in both Bo Pelini and Riley’s tenure. He’ll have an experienced and mature corps of players to work with as he installs the scheme. On paper, Nebraska has all of the tools to be the best defense in the Big Ten West.
Why should Iowa not be worried?
The changes on both sides of the ball for Nebraska have the potential to create some instability as a team of seasoned players are asked to change the way they play. The offensive line no longer has the safety net of an elite runner like Armstrong at quarterback, and the receivers have never played in a system where they’ll be realistically targeted so often. Execution is key, and Riley’s teams have struggled with penalty-free execution going back to his time at Oregon State.
Additionally, since arriving at Nebraska, Riley and offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf have a propensity to go away from what seems to be working by tossing in a bubble-screen or jet sweep just for giggles. More often than naught, those plays results in no or negative yards, killing any momentum the Huskers had built on the drive. You can change the flavor of ice cream, but that doesn’t change the fact that Riley and Langsdorf still love to add those unnecessary sprinkles.
Defensively, though mature, this unit is made up of guys who were recruited to play in a different defense altogether. Again, it comes down to execution, as one player out of position on every play sets up the defense for failure.
Key player for Nebraska
Tanner Lee — It’s all about timing and accuracy, with Lee’s ability to deliver the ball under pressure. If he stays healthy, he’ll have basically an entire season of Big Ten competition under his belt by the time he faces Iowa. If he has performed well, he’ll be confident in his ability to carve up the Iowa secondary. If he has a tough time throughout the year, the idea of Iowa’s front seven pinning its ears back and coming after him could make for a long day.
Key player for Iowa
Matt VandeBerg — The senior wideout needs to establish himself as a serious threat — even in what will likely be arctic conditions in Lincoln on Black Friday. Nebraska will need to respect the Hawkeye passing game if Iowa plans on having any room to run the ball and control the clock on the road. If VandeBerg can’t get open consistently against a solid secondary, it could spell trouble for the Iowa offense.