Yahoo Sports' 2019 Top 25: No. 23 Nebraska

Can Nebraska rebound from a 4-8 season in 2018 to compete for the Big Ten West title. (Yahoo Sports)
Can Nebraska rebound from a 4-8 season in 2018 to compete for the Big Ten West title. (Yahoo Sports)

Welcome to Yahoo Sports’ 2019 preseason Top 25. We’ll be featuring a new team in our Top 25 every day until Miami and Florida start the 2019 season on Aug. 24. In each preview we’ll have an NFL draft prospect analysis by Yahoo Sports’ Eric Edholm and additional insight from Rivals writers who know the teams the best.

Previously: No. 25 Wisconsin, No. 24 TCU

No. 23 Nebraska

2018 record: 4-8 (3-6 Big Ten)

Returning starters: 7 offense, 6 defense

Putting Nebraska’s recent struggles in context

Nebraska was 4-8 in 2017, the final season of the Mike Riley era. The Huskers didn’t improve upon that in Scott Frost’s first season and also went 4-8.

Let’s put that into some perspective. The 8-16 run over the last two seasons was the worst two-season stretch in Nebraska history since the Huskers were 7-12 in 1960 and 1961. And in between those two-year streaks, Nebraska won more than eight games in a single season 48 times. Hell, Nebraska won no fewer than nine games in a given season between 1969 and 2001.

When Frost took over as UCF’s head coach ahead of the 2016 season, he inherited a team that didn’t win a single game in 2015. He promptly took the Knights to a bowl game in his first season and then UCF went undefeated at 13-0 in 2017.

While Nebraska is in a much tougher conference than UCF’s American Conference, Frost didn’t inherit a talentless team. Nebraska was 9-4 in 2016. And, as Husker fans will gladly tell you, this is a team that won four of its last six games of 2018.

“Nebraska is one of the teams that for a long time was one of the blue bloods of college football and winning as many game as anybody,” Frost said at Big Ten media day. “That wasn't built overnight. It's not going to be built overnight again. I have a strong sense that we're way ahead of where we were a year ago, and I think we'll keep improving from here.”

”I think we'll be a better team every time we get to play one of the teams that are on our schedule.”

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A healthy Adrian Martinez will go a long way

Martinez won the starting quarterback job as a true freshman ahead of Nebraska’s season-opening game against Colorado after the original opener was canceled because of storms.

Martinez suffered a knee injury against the Buffaloes and missed the Huskers’ loss to Troy. In the process, he exposed Nebraska’s lack of depth behind him. Martinez came back against Michigan the following week — perhaps because of that lack of depth — but wasn’t at full strength. Martinez completed just 7-of-15 passes for 22 yards and had his worst rushing performance of the season.

As Martinez got healthier, Nebraska got better. There’s a correlation there. He threw for over 200 yards in each of the last nine games of the season and rushed for over 50 in six of them. He finished with 629 yards rushing and eight touchdowns to go with 2,617 passing yards, a 65 percent completion percentage, and 17 passing touchdowns to eight interceptions.

With wide receiver JD Spielman back and Dedrick Mills and Maurice Washington (for now) at running back, Martinez has some talent around him. Much like McKenzie Milton in Frost’s second year at UCF, Martinez could be one of the most productive quarterbacks in the country in 2019.

The defense should get better again

Outside of Martinez, the biggest sign that Nebraska improved in 2018 compared to 2017 is the defense’s statistics. The Huskers gave up fewer yards per carry (5.0), fewer yards per play (5.8), and had 11 more sacks (25) than in 2017, and also allowed quarterbacks to complete just 56 percent of their passes.

The rushing defense could stand to take another step forward, so 2018 should serve as a good baseline for 2019 even though Nebraska does have to replace some talent. While six starters are back on the defense, the five that are gone all ranked Nos. 2-6 in terms of overall tackles. That includes Luke Gifford, who led the team with 5.5 sacks a season ago.

But LB Mohamed Barry should again be a stud and CB Dicaprio Bootle had 15 pass breakups despite failing to log an interception last season. Flipping a few of those breakups into picks seems like a safe bet.

“To look now and see what our guys are doing in the weight room and really just looking at them when you walk by them and seeing them in the locker room, in the hallways, they look completely different,” Frost said of his team’s strength and conditioning work this offseason. “This is a big, physical league. There's a lot of big, physical teams, a lot of really good teams, and regardless of your scheme on offense or defense, you can't get pushed around, you can't get outworked, and you can't get outsized. We made a lot of strides to catch up, and I think that will show up on the field.”

Biggest Game: Ohio State (Sept. 28)

A Sept. 7 trip to Colorado should be a good litmus test for Nebraska’s year-to-year improvement. But that’s a very winnable game. With a win in Boulder, Nebraska should be 4-0 heading into a Sept. 28 matchup with Ohio State at home in Lincoln. Nebraska hung with the Buckeyes a year ago in Columbus as Martinez completed two-thirds of his passes and had three total touchdowns. If Nebraska somehow pulls the 2019 upset, it should be Big Ten West or bust.

Nebraska's JD Spielman, right, celebrates with teammate Jerald Foster after scoring a touchdown against Northwestern during the first half of an NCAA college football game Saturday, Oct. 13, 2018, in Evanston, Ill.. (AP Photo/Jim Young)
Nebraska's JD Spielman has caught 10 touchdowns in his first two seasons of college football. (AP Photo/Jim Young)

Impact player

WR JD Spielman

Spielman has quietly been one of the most productive young wide receivers in college football over the past two seasons. He had 55 catches for 830 yards as a freshman but flew under the radar with just two scores. In 2018, he upped his catches to 66 and had 818 receiving yards and eight touchdowns.

With Stanley Morgan gone, Spielman returns as Nebraska’s No. 1 wide receiver. And his rapport with Martinez is outstanding. After just 13 catches over the first three games of the season, Spielman had seven or more catches in five of the other seven games he played before missing the final two games of the regular season.

Biggest question

From Sean Callahan at Husker Online: There are two concerns/questions that really jump out for Nebraska. The Huskers must settle in on two new starters on the offensive line, and center particularly is where the biggest unknown remains. Converted tight end and former four-star recruit Cameron Jurgens is there right now, but his health and durability for this season remains a question. After Jurgens, redshirt freshman Will Farniok is the other guy to watch. Inside linebacker is also a question, as the Huskers don’t have much depth or experience after defensive leader Mohamed Barry.

Husker Online’s breakout player

RB Dedrick Mills

The junior college transfer comes to Nebraska after leading Georgia Tech in rushing in 2016 and taking Garden City C.C. to the junior college national championship game in 2018. He will give the Husker rushing attack a physical element in 2019, ideally replacing Devine Ozigbo’s production from a year ago.

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Top 2020 NFL draft prospect

DT Darrion Daniels

From Yahoo Sports NFL draft analyst Eric Edholm: The Huskers failed to have a player drafted this past spring for the first time since 1962, although that should change next April. The question is which player will top that list? We’re going to go with one who has yet to play a snap for the Huskers. That would be Daniels, a grad transfer from Oklahoma State who transferred in to play one year with his younger brother, Damion Daniels (likely to be his backup at nose tackle).

The 6-foot-4 Darrion Daniels arrives at 330 (or more) pounds and is making a quick impression on his teammates. For one, he’s apparently a good singer. But more importantly, Daniels is a run-stopper — which is badly needed for a team that has allowed 5.7 and 5.0 yards per rush the past two seasons.

Nebraska LB Mohamed Barry has been impressed so far with Daniels, especially after seeing him running condition drills throughout the offseason while coming off a season in which he was limited to four games because of injury.

“This dude,” Barry said at Big Ten Media Days, “he's a dog."

The Huskers should be improved up front, featuring another pair of brothers — twins Carlos and Khalil Davis — on the D-line. In fact, both Davis brothers are on NFL teams’ radars, too. Daniels might be more of a throwback run-stopping D-lineman, but that size and power won’t go overlooked come draft time.

Fantasy sleeper

TE Jack Stoll

Tight end isn’t a very deep position in college fantasy football. So if you’re looking for a player to take a flyer on, Stoll isn’t the worst option. He had 21 catches for 245 yards and three scores in 2018. He will have to be more reliable as a multi-catch threat, however. Stoll had five games with just one reception last season.

Over/under projection

Under 8.5

This is tough. Nebraska has a pretty weak schedule, especially compared to Wisconsin. The Huskers draw Maryland and Indiana from the Big Ten East in addition to Ohio State. 2-1 through that swing seems doable and we’ll go with 6-3 the rest of the way and a decent chance at a Big Ten West title.

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Nick Bromberg is a writer for Yahoo Sports

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