NASHVILLE, Tenn. — While the Tennessee football team jumped around in the end zone, and a swarm of fans clad in Orange in the southwest corner of Nissan Stadium sang Rocky Top to the victors, Nebraska sophomore Mick Stoltenberg stopped redshirt freshmen Carlos and Khalil Davis near the 50-yard line.
“It starts right now,” Stoltenberg told the two brothers, his arms around the two lineman.
The three walked off the field, and into a somber Nebraska locker room where the message after the Huskers’ 38-24 loss in the Music City Bowl was the same.
Head coach Mike Riley spoke. Then senior WR Alonzo Moore gave a small speech through tears. Then it was mostly quiet, teammates exchanging hugs and words of encouragement.
But those words spoke the same message as Stoltenberg. Take this game, learn from it, and move on. Because next year is the year Nebraska takes the next step.
“It’s your show now,” fellow senior WR Brandon Reilly told his teammates. “Be accountable and hold the other guys to that high standard. Don’t let your opportunities slip away.”
2017 will be Riley’s third season at the helm in Lincoln after going 6-7 in his first year and 9-4 in this, his second. The foundation set in 2015 and the 3-win improvement in 2016, senior DL Ross Dzuris said, was a huge step in the right direction.
“We’re just doing things right and the right way and I think each position group got better this year,” said Dzuris, who finished up his career with 6 tackles and a game-high 3 tackles for loss on Friday. “And I think it’s just the process. And it takes time and I’m looking forward to where this program is going.”
The frustration is that Nebraska can’t beat the blue bloods. The Wisconsin’s and the Ohio State’s, the Iowa’s and the Tennessee’s.
But Dzuris said that’s just part of it. In 2015, Nebraska could hardly beat anyone. In 2016, Nebraska was close in two of those losses.
In 2017, it’ll be time for the next step.
Nebraska will likely start either start redshirt junior Tanner Lee or redshirt freshman Patrick O’Brien at quarterback, and whoever it is will fit into the offense Riley and offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf are comfortable with.
Langsdorf insisted the offense won’t drastically change from this year to the next.
“We’re not throwing everything we did in the garbage,” he said.
But he likes who he has returning and likes the look of the offense early.
He’ll have RB Devine Ozigbo, who ran 7 times for 66 yards on Friday, back for his junior season. He’ll have WRs Stanley Morgan Jr. and De’Mornay Pierson-El back, as well, not to mention most of the offensive line.
And on the defensive side of the ball, freshman CB Lamar Jackson thinks it’ll be a completely different story than what happened in Nashville on Friday.
Nebraska gave up 521 total yards to Tennessee (9-4). Senior Volunteers QB Josh Dobbs accounted for 409 of those yards in his final collegiate game — 291 in the air and 113 on the ground. The Volunteers averaged 6.9 yards per play.
“All that stuff we have time to fix,” Jackson said. “We don’t have to play anybody for eight months so going into next season I think we’re going to be a much stronger team.”
And that starts now.
Which is why Stoltenberg didn’t even let some of his teammates off the field before he started planning for the next season.
He wants to meet with the rest of the defensive tackles early and often. When the new freshmen come in, he wants to show them the ropes. His goal? Have up to 10 guys ready to play. Whatever it takes to make that next step.
“We’re going to have to hit the ground running and start preparation for next year real quick,” Stoltenberg said.
And his teammates are listening.
After hearing the speech on the field and the talks in the locker room, Carlos Davis said he was ready. And he thinks the rest of the team is, too
“It’s gonna be an exciting year next year,” he said.