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2023 Know Your Opponent: Nebraska Cornhuskers

There’s a new coach in Lincoln, and hopefully that leads to new experiences (like a winning season).

NCAA Football: Big Ten Football Media Day Robert Goddin-USA TODAY Sports

The Northwestern Wildcats will be taking the field in exactly two weeks. As we continue our season preview, we take a look at Nebraska, the lone team the Wildcats defeated last season.

The Basics

Returning Production:

Record: 4-8 (3-6 B1G)

Head Coach: Matt Rhule (1st Season)

The Stats (via ESPN’s Bill Connelly)

2023 SP+ Overall: 49th

2023 SP+ Offense: 65th

2023 SP+ Defense: 35th

2022 Capsule

After an extremely disappointing 3-9 2021, it was now or never for former Nebraska head coach Scott Frost. Despite having been at the school since 2018, the hometown hero had still failed to put forth a winning record.

Unfortunately for Frost, it ended up being never. Despite a promising performance from transfer quarterback Casey Thompson, Nebraska blew a pair of double-digit leads to Northwestern in Ireland in a 31-28 loss. The game was arguably the best single-game characterization of Frost’s tenure at the school, and its momentum flipped to Northwestern after a mind-numbingly disastrous onside kick attempt from the Cornhuskers.

Three weeks later, after a 45-42 loss to Sun Belt team Georgia Southern (in which the Nebraska defense gave up 642 total yards), Frost was canned. He was replaced by another former Nebraska quarterback, wide receivers coach Mickey Joseph. After getting blown out by Oklahoma, the Cornhuskers rebounded under Joseph, winning games against Indiana and Rutgers.

The defense’s issues would continue to plague the Cornhuskers, though, with Purdue and Illinois dropping a combined 69 points on Nebraska to drop Big Red to 3-4 entering November. The losing streak would stretch to five games after a blowout loss to Michigan was sandwiched in between two close, grueling losses to Minnesota and Wisconsin.

Despite all of that, the Cornhuskers ended the season on a high note. On November 25, they stunned the Iowa Hawkeyes in Iowa, defeating their border rivals for the first time since 2014. Thompson threw for 278 yards and three touchdowns, and Trey Palmer was responsible for 165 of those en route to setting a school record for receiving yards in a season. The next day, Nebraska officially hired Matt Rhule as head coach.

The Rhule hiring was probably the most consequential coaching decision the school had made since firing Frank Solich back in 2003. Rhule compiled a pair of 10-win seasons at Temple, then won 11 games and a Big 12 division title at Baylor in 2019 before becoming the head coach of the Carolina Panthers. While he flamed out after three years in the NFL with an 11-27 record, he has a history of turning around troubled programs in college. Cornhusker fans are hoping their program is next.

Offensive Overview

One thing’s for sure: Rhule will have his work cut out for him. Casey Thompson, the team’s leading passer, departed for FAU in the transfer portal. Anthony Grant, last year’s leading rusher, was suspended for the start of spring practice. Trey Palmer, the first-ever Nebraska receiver to crack the 1,000-yard barrier, is now making a name for himself in the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ preseason. Marcus Washington, the team’s second-leading receiver last year, only began practicing fully two weeks ago after a summer hand injury.

However, some new faces will likely help the Huskers stay on their feet offensively. Jeff Sims, the new quarterback, transferred in from Georgia Tech in the offseason. Sims started seven games last year for the Yellow Jackets, before a season-ending injury, and tallied over 1400 total yards and six touchdowns. Some of the receivers he’ll be throwing to include Billy Kemp IV, who totaled over 1,770 receiving yards in his Virginia career, and Arik Gilbert, who joins Nebraska after winning two national titles with Georgia.

Despite the new additions, there are also plenty of familiar faces, especially in the running back room. Grant is back, and is joined by Rahmir Johnson, who rushed for 495 yards in 2021, and Gabe Ervin Jr., who has shown flashes in two injury-plagued seasons. On Saturday, Rhule said that Ervin will be the lead back, assuming he can stay healthy. For a team that finished 100th in the country in rushing yardage last season, continuity will be key in setting up a consistent ground attack.

Defensive Overview

The defense is also going to struggle with replacing talent, especially on the line. Garrett Nelson, a team captain and second-team All-Big Ten player last year, is now on the Miami Dolphins. Ochuan Mathis is now on the Rams, and Colton Feist, who finished third on the line in tackles with 46, did not return to the team. The best returning defensive lineman, Ty Robinson, finished last season with 24 tackles and a pair of sacks. He’ll be key in helping the younger players and transfers get used to the new 3-4 formation that defensive coordinator Tony White brings over from Syracuse.

The linebackers bring back a few more key returners. Luke Reimer and Nick Henrich were starters last year, and they’ll be starters again this year. The duo looks to combine for even more tackles than the mark of 123 they put up last year. Some of the other linebackers, like John Bullock or Grant Tagge, do have game experience, but it’s primarily on special teams.

In the defensive backfield room, the ‘Huskers return a slew of talent. Marques Buford Jr. and Malcolm Hartzog, the only Cornhuskers with multiple interceptions last year, are back, as is Quinton Newsome, who had 44 tackles and 10 pass breakups last season. Senior Omar Brown and junior Deshon Singleton also saw plenty of action in 2022, and with all that returning talent, there’s an argument that defensive back is Nebraska’s deepest position this year.

Three Players to Know

QB Jeff Sims

As Sims goes, so go the Huskers. The Georgia Tech transfer is arguably a top-five quarterback in the conference, but there is no guarantee that he’ll light the world on fire. He is, after all, learning a new system, and coming off of an injury.

The bigger problem for Sims, though, is turnovers. In his three seasons of action at Georgia Tech, Sims threw for 30 touchdowns — but also 23 interceptions. In his abbreviated 2022 season, the ratio was just 5-to-3. His freshman year, 2020, was even wilder, as he finished 3rd in the NCAA with 13 interceptions.

Despite concerns over protecting the football, the Cornhusker offense appears to be in capable hands with Sims. According to DC Tony White, who faced off against Sims while at Syracuse, the quarterback is better than ever and has a dual-threat ability that can confound defenses. While Sims may not always break the 300-yard barrier just by throwing the ball, his mobility could push him over that edge by total yardage, especially if an experienced offensive line gets better as the season goes on.

OL Teddy Prochazka

Prochazka is a Nebraska kid, and was the No. 73 overall prospect in the Class of 2020. He also had offers from schools like Michigan and Iowa off the heels of consecutive all-state seasons and a runner-up finish at the Nebraska football state tournament. With a pedigree like that, it’s no wonder Prochazka was the 16th true freshman to play on the Cornhusker offensive line.

And he did more than just play. In the 2021 63-7 humiliation of Northwestern, he became the seventh true freshman in the modern era of Nebraska football to start on the offensive line when he earned the starting left tackle spot. In that game, the Cornhuskers totaled 427 rushing yards, and Prochazka was key in that. A game later, he earned the start against ninth-ranked Michigan, but suffered a season-ending injury in that contest.

In 2022, Prochazka was a Day 1 starter. He kept that job all season — well, all of his season. He suffered a second consecutive season-ending injury in the Georgia Southern game, just the third game of the year. He’s once again likely to take the starting left tackle job, especially if his body manages to not betray him for a third straight year. If he does stay healthy, then defensive linemen better be careful, lest they find themselves getting pancaked by the 6’10”, 320-pound Nebraskan mountain.

LB Luke Reimer

The main man on the defense last year, Reimer will be at the forefront of the Nebraska defense this year as well. Last year, the linebacker made his second consecutive all-Big Ten honorable mention after leading the team with 83 tackles. He reached that mark despite missing a pair of games. Had Reimer been healthy, the number could have been closer to his 2021 mark of 108 tackles. He currently sits at 15th in Nebraska history with 245 career tackles and could see that number shoot way up this year.

He’s not just a tackler, though. Reimer garnered five pass breakups in 2021 and six in 2022, showcasing his smarts and his nose for the ball. He also can beat offensive linemen with regularity, as his 9.5 tackles for loss over the last two years showcase.

Aside from being a leading tackler, Reimer is also a leader. He was one of the first four Cornhuskers to earn a single-digit number (Reimer chose No.4), which Rhule gives out to players who “exemplify what it means to be a Cornhusker.” The honor was voted on by Reimer’s teammates, but there was no doubt that the man who’s played in 38 collegiate games would earn it. He’ll probably be slightly less popular with offenses if they can’t account for him this season.