The long offseason wait without Nebraska football is just about over.
Game action doesn’t return for another month for Scott Frost’s team, mind you, but two more dominoes fall this week when the Cornhuskers officially report Thursday and conduct preseason camp No. 1 on Friday morning.
On Thursday, Frost and several players will meet with reporters to preview camp and look forward toward the beginning of the 2019 season, which begins Aug. 31 at Memorial Stadium against South Alabama.
Over the next month, there are many storylines to track, many jobs to be won and lost, and much more to keep track of. Here’s a look at some of the areas to keep eyes on in the early parts of camp.
At some positions, NU’s depth chart should stay relatively stable, saving for the possibility of some kind of radical shift or injury. At other places, the pecking order couldn’t be more wide open.
Frost and the coaching staff will use spring ball and then input from the strength and conditioning staff over the summer to come up with a starting point as camp begins. Last year, Husker coaches split reps more evenly for essentially the first half of camp before starting to dial up more turns for the guys who had won or taken the lead for jobs.
A quick spin through some of the least (and most) settled position groups on the roster:
Offensive line: The center of attention, poor pun intended, will be the middle spot in Greg Austin’s unit. Much of that might depend on redshirt freshman Cam Jurgens’ health or lack thereof. If sophomore walk-on Trent Hixson keeps a firm grip of the left guard job and the Huskers are searching for a center, is it as simple as plugging in Will Farniok? Could a freshman or a walk-on win the job or challenge Hixson? Might the Huskers shuffle further, causing open competition at multiple spots? This could be a simple process or a complicated one.
Wide receiver: Troy Walters recently rattled off a dozen names that could potentially factor into the Huskers’ wide receiver corps behind junior standout JD Spielman. Seniors on their last chance? Check. Returning veterans looking to emerge? Check. Exciting newcomers? Check. Who’s going to check enough boxes for Walters? And keep in mind his oft-cited slogan last year: “No block, no rock.” After Spielman, Cal graduate transfer Kanawai Noa and freshman Wan’Dale Robinson feel like good bets (as does sophomore walk-on Kade Warner in at least some capacity), but there are many, many candidates — including three other true freshmen, two of whom only arrived this summer.
Punter: Another wide open competition that will pit incumbent senior walk-on Isaac Armstrong against redshirt freshman walk-on and Michigan State transfer William Pryzstup. Armstrong took over for Caleb Lightbourn, who lost his job last fall and then transferred after spring ball. Armstrong started strong before fading down the stretch. Przystup brings a big leg and arrived this summer.
Quarterback: Pretty straight forward. This is sophomore Adrian Martinez’s team. Redshirt sophomore Noah Vedral is the favorite to win the backup job, but NU will want to get freshman Luke McCaffrey on the field at least a little bit if he’s physically ready, while also preserving his redshirt. Junior Andrew Bunch and redshirt freshman Matt Masker make the depth in this group significantly better than last fall.
Defensive line: NU has five scholarship seniors and a rotation of at least six that Tony Tuioti feels comfortable with. Depth is not going to be a problem. The big question for guys like the Davis brothers, Ben Stille and Darrion Daniels is who is going to be a real, true difference-maker? The Huskers need a couple of them up front.
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Kicker: Barret Pickering put a rocky first half of his rookie season behind him and finished with a bang, converting his last 10 field goals. Heading into his sophomore campaign, the Hoover, Alabama, native is the only scholarship specialist left on the roster.
Tight end: There is still some wiggle room here, either for redshirt freshman Katerian Legrone to force his way onto the field or if Rutgers transfer Travis Vokolek gains immediate eligibility. Even so, there is stability in Sean Beckton’s room that could last years. Junior Jack Stoll and sophomores Austin Allen and Kurt Rafdal provide a trio of big targets that expects increased production in 2019.
Linebacker: The depth inside is probably the most critical, considering the Huskers have just six scholarship players there for two starting spots and half are true freshmen. Senior Mohamed Barry will man one and the other will likely be won between juniors Collin Miller or Will Honas. Outside isn’t all that much better. Seniors Alex Davis (performance) and Tryin Ferguson (health) both have plenty to prove, junior JoJo Domann moved to the position last year and sophomore Caleb Tannor is looking for a big jump in Year 2.
Running back: The Huskers will eventually have a final answer on sophomore Maurice Washington’s legal situation in California and his status with the program will be clarified. Otherwise, it’s junior college transfer Dedrick Mills, a freshman class headed by Rahmir Johnson, senior walk-on Wyatt Mazour and what feels like a last good chance for Jaylin Bradley.
Washington's status: When will Washington’s case (in which he faces a felony and a misdemeanor) conclude? What will NU decide on any punishment (which of course will be based in part on the court’s findings)? The case was first filed in February and there’s currently no end in sight, though that can change really at any time.
Vokolek's waiver: Frost at Big Ten Media Days in Chicago said NU hadn't determined yet if the school would file for a waiver asking for Vokolek to gain immediate eligibility. That's the first decision. If the Huskers file, then it's up to the NCAA.
Attrition: Last year, three scholarship players — defensive back Will Jackson, linebacker Avery Roberts and quarterback Tristan Gebbia — left NU over the course of camp. It’s become the way of the world, especially since the transfer portal went live last October. It will probably pop up again over the next month. To what degree? That part, only time will tell.
Returning from injury
A relatively lengthy list of players missed time in the spring due to more serious injury or offseason surgeries. The unknowns of Jurgens’ situation have been well-covered. Freshman inside linebacker and Omaha native Nick Henrich had shoulder surgery in the spring and it’s unclear just how close to being ready he’ll be during camp. Others that could be closer to full speed include Honas (knee), redshirt freshman defensive back Braxton Clark (shoulder), redshirt freshman defensive lineman Tate Wildeman (shoulder) and freshman tight end Chris Hickman (shoulder), among others.
Bottom line: The list of potentials is long. In addition to those mentioned above, consider the four new defensive backs led by Noa Pola-Gates, the trio of receivers including speedster Demariyon "Peanut" Houston, offensive linemen Bryce Benhart and Ethan Piper and defensive lineman Ty Robinson, listed at 6-6 and 315 already.
None are a sure thing — Robinson is considered the closest — but all will have a chance to show they belong on the field early.