Nebraska Preview: Cornhuskers Host Arkansas State
After losing four of their last six games to finish the 2016 season, there are plenty of question marks surrounding the Nebraska football program heading into 2017.
The Cornhuskers kick off the season Saturday (September 2) against Arkansas State looking for answers, especially on the offensive side of the ball.
Gone is 86 percent of the production from last year's team, including Nebraska's leading passer (Tommy Armstrong Jr.), rusher (Terrell Newby), and receiver (Jordan Westerkamp). It will be the first time since 1984 that the Big Red has had to replace its three offensive leaders.
The quarterbacking duties now fall on the broad shoulders of Tanner Lee. The 6'4 junior will be seeing his first live game action since the 2015 season, when he started nine games for Tulane. Lee ran the scout team for Nebraska last season while sitting out his transfer year.
He'll be handing the ball to a trio of backs with experience in the Husker system.
Junior Devine Ozigbo rushed for five touchdowns in 11 games last season. Sophomore Tre Bryant played in 12 games as a freshman last year, while junior Mikale Wilbon averaged six yards a carry in 2016.
The prime targets to catch the football will be junior Stanley Morgan Jr. and senior De'Mornay Pierson-El. The two combined for more than 700 yards thru the air last season.
The strength of the unit will be the offensive line, which was the best in the Big Ten last season, allowing just 15 sacks. Junior tackle Nick Gates will start for the third straight year. Junior Tanner Farmer and senior David Knevel both have significant starting experience.
Defensively, Sioux Falls Husker fans will have to get used to not seeing Washington High School grad Nate Gerry leading the Blackshirts. But the biggest change will be the scheme Nebraska runs. New defensive coordinator Bob Diaco is one of three new coaches on that side of the ball. He brings with him a 3-4 system.
Up front, there's a solid group with juniors Freedom Akinmoladun and Mick Stoltenberg, and sophomore Carlos Davis.
Senior Chris Weber and juniors Dedrick Young II and Marcus Newby lead the linebackers.
The secondary is talented and experienced with seniors Joshua Kalu, and Kieron Williams both back. Junior Aaron Williams also started 11 games last year. Nebraska will have to replace starter Chris Jones, who's expected to miss most of the season with a knee injury.
Both starters are back on the Husker kicking game with Caleb Lighbourne handling the punting and Drew Brown the placekicking.
Arkansas State comes to Lincoln for the third time in the last nine seasons, having lost to Nebraska in 2009 and 2012 by a combined score of 80-22.
The Red Wolves, out of the Sun Belt Conference, won eight of their last nine games last season to finish 8-5 and qualify for a bowl game for the sixth straight year.
Quarterback Justice Hansen took over after three games and was 8-2 as a starter. The Oklahoma transfer threw for 2,700 yards and 19 touchdowns in 2016.
At running back, Warren Wand is just 5'5, but has picked up more than 1,500 yards on the ground the past two seasons. Johnston White has 25 touchdowns in his career.
When the Red Wolves throw the ball, tight end Blake Mack is the leading target. He averaged more than 19 yards a catch on 34 receptions last year.
The biggest question for Arkansas State is the state of the offensive line, where five new starters will be taking the field Saturday night in Lincoln.
Defensively, just four starters return.
End Ja'Von Rolland-Jones led the team with 13.5 sacks last season, while Alabama transfer Dee Liner is 337 pounds and was second on the defensive line in tackles in 2016.
The Red Wolves are very young at linebacker, but the secondary is experienced and deep. Junior defensive back Justin Clifton is the team's top returning tackler (87 in 2016) and had a pair of interceptions.
Kickoff is 7:00 PM, Saturday (September 2) in Lincoln.
You can catch all of the action on ESPN 99.1.
I talked with the 'Voice of the Huskers', Greg Sharpe, about the matchup with Arkansas State: