LINCOLN, Neb. — Nebraska opens preseason camp on Friday, marking the official beginning of the 2021 football season.
The Huskers, of course, open their schedule a week earlier than most teams around the country. They’ll also be preparing under modified rules from the NCAA that further limit how often teams can wear pads and practice full contact in the lead-up to the regular season.
There is a lot of ground to cover and a lot of progress to be made in the next 29 days, but here are six storylines to consider at the outset.
There’s just no way around the fact that pressure is going to be part of the conversation — or at least hang over the conversation — every day of preseason camp and then until the results on the scoreboard become clear for Nebraska.
The Huskers are 12-20 under coach Scott Frost in three seasons, have turned in four straight losing seasons dating to 2017 (Mike Riley’s final year) and have not been to a bowl game since the 2016 Music City Bowl.
A long rebuild and a global pandemic both played a role and 2021 isn’t exactly make-or-break, but everybody — Frost chief among the group — agrees that Nebraska’s next step forward has to show through in its record this fall. It matters for the fan base, it matters for momentum and it matters in recruiting. The building project doesn’t have to be fully completed this year (most coaches say it’s never done) but rebuilding? That’s probably run its course.
The Illinois factor
Nebraska opens its season in less than a month at Illinois in what will be Bret Bielema’s first game as the head coach there.
It is either going to feel like a launching pad or a stumbling block for the Huskers. Oklahoma looms in Week 3 and a rugged November schedule of Ohio State (Nov. 6), at Wisconsin (Nov. 20), vs. Iowa (Nov. 26) does, too. In between are a bunch of games NU should feel like it can win. But none will set the tone like Aug. 28 in Champaign.
"That game is a factor, right there. That game is going to determine how the season is going to go," senior safety Deontai Williams said at Big Ten Media Days earlier this month.
How many jobs are up for grabs?
There’s plenty of time to get into the weeds on position battles as camp gets underway, but several spots are open for the taking between now and Aug. 28.
The conversation starts at running back, where all six scholarship players are inexperienced at Nebraska. How healthy is USC transfer Markese Stepp, who missed most of the spring after foot surgery? One of several questions to be answered.
Playing time is up for grabs, too, at right guard and in the rotations at wide receiver, on the defensive line and at outside linebacker. Quinton Newsome came out of spring as the favorite to start at cornerback opposite Cam Taylor-Britt. Can he hold off Ohio State transfer Tyreke Johnson, sophomore Braxton Clark and a host of other challengers?
What’s the next step for the Blackshirts?
The easy answer is to force more turnovers. By the end of 2020, Nebraska had a solid unit — and has almost all of its production back aside from injured inside linebacker Will Honas and departed cornerback Dicaprio Bootle — but only forced seven turnovers in eight games. Only Maryland (four in five games) and Michigan (three in six) took the ball away less frequently among Big Ten teams.
What is this offense’s identity going to be?
Nebraska in 2020 and over the past two seasons has at times seemed caught in between on offense. Perhaps that has just been about the unit’s limitations. The Huskers have struggled to identify difference-makers at wide receiver outside of since-transferred JD Spielman and Wan’Dale Robinson.
They’ve been OK, but somewhat underwhelming along the offensive line. Occasionally, they’ve lined up and ran it right at somebody — Maryland in 2019 and Rutgers to close 2020 stand as good examples.
Frost talked last week about the tempo difference in the Big Ten and not wasting plays. It is also true that he and NU are less likely to catch teams out of position with tempo given the caliber of coaching in the league. It has happened occasionally — Wyatt Liewer had a walk-in touchdown when Purdue was confused and late getting lined up last year — but it’s more the exception than the rule. But Frost also stood firmly behind the scheme he’s been running and adjusting and trying to advance for more than a decade.
So what is Nebraska going to do? Are they going to play a lot of two tight ends with Austin Allen and Travis Vokolek and try to overpower people? Will they get away from that and go deeper into the receiver rotation?
NU ran the ball 53.4% of its snaps in 2018, 62.7% in 2019 and 59.3% last year. If they end up around 60% again, can they do it without overexerting Martinez? A year ago, 55% of Nebraska’s rushing yards (885 of 1,611) came from the quarterback position.