LINCOLN, Neb. — We’re almost there, friends.
In 10 days, the long offseason will be over and Nebraska football will be back. Out with story lines of firings and hirings and the 2017 recruiting class. In with quarterback battles, a new defense and new faces.
Nebraska spring practices will officially kick off on March 4.
Here are 10 things to look forward to:
1. Tanner Lee
The main focus of the next few weeks will undoubtedly be the battle for the starting quarterback position between Tanner Lee and Patrick O’Brien.
Lee, a Tulane transfer, is a redshirt junior with two years of eligibility left. He played for two seasons at Tulane in 2014 and 2015, and has an incredibly high ceiling, according to his peers. He’s currently the projected favorite to win the starting position, likely because of his Division I experience and how highly coaches have talked about Lee in the past few months.
The 6-foot-4, 205-pound pro-style passer will get a lot, if not most, of the attention in March and April.
2. Patrick O’Brien
O’Brien will also compete for the starting quarterback position. The redshirt freshman is the first quarterback hand-picked by coach Mike Riley and offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf, who have also spoken highly of him.
O’Brien is 6-foot-4, 230 pounds and comes from San Juan Capistrano, Calif. He competed in the Elite 11 camp in summer 2016.
The main advantage O’Brien has over Lee is experience with the team and the regular game week. While Lee was on the scout team, O’Brien was behind quarterbacks Tommy Armstrong and Ryker Fyfe every day at practice. Don’t count O’Brien out of the quarterback battle with Lee.
3. Bob Diaco’s 3-4 defense
Nebraska’s defense in 2017 will be drastically different from 2016’s version.
Under newly hired defensive coordinator Bob Diaco’s 3-4 scheme, the Huskers personnel will change, the schemes will change, and Nebraska essentially has to start from scratch.
Most notably, Nebraska will have to figure out who fits in the outside linebacker spots and the defensive end spots. Those are the biggest question marks going into spring practice. It’ll be interesting to see which players Diaco likes at those positions. Who he picks will also tell us more about what this defense will really look like.
4. Jaevon McQuitty
Of all the early enrollees, true freshman Jaevon McQuitty might have the best shot to play right away on the offensive side of the ball.
McQuitty, a 4-star wide receiver from Columbia, Mo., can play both outside and slot receiver.
Unlike last year, Nebraska’s wide receivers will be relatively young this coming season. The only senior of the group with major playing time is De’Mornay Pierson-El. The main outside target will be junior Stanley Morgan Jr., but beyond that, there really isn’t a lot of experience. McQuitty could gain some ground this spring to become the other outside threat.
5. JD Spielman
Spielman was a scout team MVP in 2016 with Lee, and the combination could be dangerous in 2017.
Riley was tempted to not redshirt Spielman last season, but chose to, which Nebraska fans will surely enjoy down the road. Spielman will likely take over a slot position, but could also be a guy Nebraska puts back to return kicks. He could also be a key player in the jet sweep.
Regardless of where he plays, Nebraska will add a real weapon this spring.
6. Running back battle
With Terrell Newby gone, the starting running back spot is now wide open.
Sophomore Devine Ozigbo is likely a favorite to win the job, since he got a majority of carries early last season until his ankle injury in October. But a late push by freshman Tre Bryant might make the battle much closer than some expect.
Riley and Langsdorf haven’t been shy about their appreciation for Bryant, who also returned kicks last season. He could make a push this year as the starter. If he doesn’t win it, Nebraska could still be looking at a 1-2 punch with Bryant and Ozigbo.
7. Chris Jones and Josh Kalu
The one main thing that won’t change on the defensive side of the ball is the defensive back situation.
Jones and Kalu, who will both be seniors, will be fun to watch this spring for a few reasons.
The first is to see how both of them develop. New cornerbacks coach Donte Williams (who also will be interesting to watch) has said he thinks both Kalu and Jones have NFL potential. So how much of a leap can they make in the spring?
Plus, with a few new cornerbacks coming off redshirt seasons, how will Kalu and Jones adapt to the role of teaching the young guys who will take over for them after they’re gone?
8. Carlos Davis and the defensive line
The nose tackle position is a fascinating spot in Diaco’s 3-4. One of the main reasons why the addition of 3-star defensive tackle Damion Daniels to the 2017 class was such a big deal was because he fits the nose tackle position perfectly.
But before Daniels gets to campus, the spot will likely be sophomore Carlos Davis’ to lose. But that’ll also depend what Diaco really wants at that nose tackle spot.
The entire defensive line will be interesting to watch, since Nebraska hasn’t been recruiting linemen who fit into a 3-4 scheme.
9. The offense
Langsdorf was adamant after the Music City Bowl in saying that a drastic change in offensive philosophy wasn’t coming.
Then again, with a drastic change in style of quarterbacks (from Armstrong to Lee or O’Brien), there inevitably will be some big changes, regardless of what the coaches say. What the changes will be, however, still aren’t clear. Will Langsdorf trust Lee or O’Brien to pass more on first down? Will Lee or O’Brien run? Plenty of answers will come in the spring on Nebraska’s actual offensive philosophy.
10. The spring game
The recruiting element of the spring can’t be overlooked.
Nebraska’s 2018 class is already off to a hot start with three commitments before March. But getting a good crop of recruits to come to the spring game on April 15 will be imperative for Nebraska to keep that momentum.
The spring game will also be the culmination of spring practice, which means it will be, essentially, the first real tryout of the new Nebraska team. The new offense, the new defense, which freshmen could play right away. Everything.
But, we’re still 52 days until then. So we’ll pump those brakes.