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Colorado vs. Nebraska, 9/8/18

Nebraska defensive lineman Khalil Davis (94) celebrates his sack of Colorado quarterback Steven Montez (bottom) in the second quarter on Sept. 8, 2018, at Memorial Stadium.

Two reasons to believe the hype

The quarterback: Adrian Martinez gave Nebraska fans long-term optimism with his record-setting freshman season. How much better can he be in Year 2? Coaches and teammates seem to think he’s primed to make a big jump. That would be bad news for Big Ten opponents.

The precedent: Scott Frost and company at UCF had a mediocre team in Year 1, but one that believed in itself by the end of the season. The next year, of course, the Knights went 13-0. That’s not to say the Huskers will be unblemished, but this coaching staff clearly thinks the potential for a “Year 2 jump” is more than just lip service.

Two reasons you should be cautious

The defense: This is a conversation about both talent and depth. The Huskers feel they’re better in both departments, and they’ll need to be after allowing an average of 34.3 points in Big Ten games last fall. Still, there are some positions — inside linebacker and outside linebacker, for example — where Nebraska, on paper, looks ill-equipped to handle even a moderate spate of injuries.

The precedent: Nebraska fans have been in this boat before. Good vibrations in the offseason lead to high hopes, only to see those hopes dashed when the games really get going. That, and a track record that includes a 4-12 record against Wisconsin and Iowa since joining the Big Ten and the inability to beat Ohio State (or Northwestern consistently) present plenty of hurdles.

Two freshmen set to help immediately

Nebraska Picture Day, 5.15

Nebraska running back/wide receiver Wan'Dale Robinson.

Wan’Dale Robinson. The freshman receiver is going to be split out wide. He’s going to play in the slot. He’ll line up in the backfield. He might return punts and/or kickoffs, too. Basically, Nebraska is going to find plenty of ways to get the ball in his hands. It’s odd to assume such things out of a freshman who’s never played a college game, but anything else would be a surprise.

Quinton Newsome. The first of four freshman defensive backs to really jump out and impress secondary coach Travis Fisher in preseason camp, Newsome has a chance to find a role at cornerback. Two veterans have the starting spots locked up, but considering NU might move Cam Taylor around and Braxton Clark’s been limited in preseason camp, Newsome isn’t far from being a very important member of the secondary this fall.

Two seniors primed for big finales

Lamar Jackson. The veteran cornerback has had an up-and-down career at Nebraska, but all signs point to a strong finish. He’s found his way after getting temporarily benched last season and has certainly seen a lot in his college career. Jackson has always had all the physical tools. Now, playing for Fisher for a second straight year, can he turn himself into a shutdown corner and a legitimate NFL prospect?

Tyrin Ferguson. Health has been the only thing to really hold Ferguson back, as he’s played in just 13 of 24 games the past two seasons and several of those he was in a limited role. When healthy, he’s a potential difference-maker from his outside linebacker spot. NU fans and coaches would love to see what a full season from the New Orleans native looks like.

Nebraska football practice, 8/14

Nebraska outside linebacker Tyrin Ferguson runs a drill during practice at Hawks Championship Center on Wednesday, Aug. 14, 2019.

Two stats from 2018 the Huskers need to fix

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5.0 yards allowed per rush: That ranked No. 106 in the nation and a number that just won’t do, particularly when the defensive line is considered at this stage to be the strength of Erik Chinander’s unit.

Minus 2 turnover margin: This allows us to cover some ground on both sides of the ball. Nebraska turned the ball over 22 times — 14 credited to Martinez — and forced 20 turnovers. Let’s say those numbers shift to 17 and 28 or so. In a league that almost always features lots of close games, that change would be a major difference-maker.

Two games that could define the season

Wisconsin (Nov. 16): How great would it be if the Badgers came to Memorial Stadium in mid-November with the Big Ten West still hanging in the balance? That would be the kind of late-season atmosphere that Nebraska fans have been waiting for for some time. This has all the makings of a stiff test, considering nine games' worth of wear and tear come before having to face UW’s star back Jonathan Taylor. If the Huskers can pass that kind of test in November, chances are they’ll be in good shape.

Iowa (Nov. 29): It’s a similar conversation to UW in that the Hawkeyes are a division foe who NU has struggled to beat in recent years. Is this the year that Black Friday has the same stakes for both teams? What if it’s to decide the West? Now that would be a good way to kick the Thanksgiving hangover.

Two trap games

At Colorado (Sept. 7): It’s not so much that Nebraska players — or fans, for that matter — won’t be keenly aware of the Buffaloes on the schedule, but rather the way in which CU is being described that makes this a potential trap game. Between the potentially huge number of Husker fans in the crowd, a first-year head coach in Boulder in Mel Tucker and a Vegas line that’s floated north of a touchdown in favor of Nebraska, there seems to be a feeling that this has the makings of a rout. Just don’t forget about senior quarterback Steven Montez (33-of-50 for 351 yards and three touchdowns against NU last year), All-America receiver Laviska Shenault (10 catches for 177 yards and two total scores) and fellow receiver KD Nixon.

At Maryland (Nov. 23): First-year coach Mike Locksley has a big challenge in front of him in College Park, but the Terps do have some talent, particularly on offense. Virginia Tech transfer Josh Jackson should bring some stability at quarterback, and running back Anthony McFarland Jr. is one of the best in the league. The placement on the schedule — a long road trip smack between home games against Wisconsin and Iowa — makes this a sizable challenge for the Huskers.

Two things we’ll be talking about in September

Robinson. Here’s guessing Frost gets the do-it-all freshman acclimated to the college game by getting him the ball early and often. Don’t be surprised if the Frankfort, Kentucky, native has put up some gaudy numbers already by the time Big Ten play begins.

The pass rush. NU racked up seven sacks against Colorado in its season opener last year, but then the rush fizzled some after that. If the Huskers get off to a similar start in Year 2 under Chinander, the question will be whether they can carry it into the later stages of the schedule.

Two things we’ll be talking about in November

Martinez. Everybody expects a hot start. Everybody expects improvement. Sometimes the expectations seem to get a little bit out of hand regarding the Fresno, California, native, but then again, the Nebraska coaches and players all seem to think Martinez will take a big jump, too. Just look at the November schedule: at Purdue, Wisconsin, at Maryland and Iowa. Martinez will have plenty of chances to help lead NU where it wants to go, but the rubber always hits the road in November.

The run defense. As the season wears along, how will Nebraska hold up against the run? Last year, Wisconsin and Iowa both ran roughshod over the Huskers. Both visit Memorial Stadium in November. If NU wants to make it to Indianapolis, stopping those attacks down the stretch will be critical.

Contact the writer at pgabriel@journalstar.com or 402-473-7439. On Twitter @HuskerExtraPG.

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Sports writer

Parker joined the Journal Star as the University of Nebraska football beat writer in August 2017. He previously covered Montana State athletics for the Bozeman Daily Chronicle and graduated from the University of Wisconsin in 2012.

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