Nebraska’s Much-Needed New Look Could Lead To Success In 2017

    Nebraska hired Bob Diaco to upgrade the defense, while the offense will have a new quarterback. Perhaps a refinement is all that was needed for the Huskers to claim the Big Ten West division.

    January 18, 2017

    Nebraska hired Bob Diaco to upgrade the defense, while the offense will have a new quarterback. Perhaps a refinement is all that was needed for the Huskers to claim the Big Ten West division.

    If there wasn’t excitement in Lincoln following the 2016 college football season, there should be with the addition of Bob Diaco as the team’s defensive coordinator and the chance to remake the offense with a new starting quarterback at the helm.

    Nebraska hired the former UConn head coach to run a defense that struggled as the Cornhuskers lost four of their final six games in 2016. Diaco replaces Mark Banker, who coached with Mike Riley for 20 seasons at four stops before being dismissed last week.

    The Huskers, who went from 6-7 under Riley in his first season to 9-4 in 2016, ranked 10th in the Big Ten in yards per play allowed, yards per rushing attempt and passing yards per game last season. They closed the season with a 40-10 loss to Iowa and a 38-24 setback to Tennessee in the Music City Bowl. Nebraska also suffered a 62-3 setback in Week 10 to an Ohio State team that ended up being shut out by Clemson in the Fiesta Bowl.

    The fact that Banker’s relationship with Riley goes back two decades likely made it that much harder for Riley to let go of his longtime assistant, but it was a move that was necessary for the Huskers to reach the upper-echelon of the Big Ten, especially in a winnable West division.

    Former UConn head coach Bob Diaco is the new defensive coordinator at Nebraska. (Credit: David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports)

    What the 43-year-old Diaco brings to the table is a proven track record of coordinating very good defensive units, as well as a solid recruiting background that should benefit a program looking for future standout Blackshirts. As DC for Brian Kelly at Notre Dame, he was the 2012 winner of the Frank Broyles Award, which is given to the top assistant in the country. Diaco was a semifinalist for the award the previous season. His defense in 2012 ranked among the top 10 nationally in 12 categories, as the Irish finished 12-1, with their lone defeat coming to Alabama in the BCS national championship game. In his lone season as the defensive coordinator on Kelly’s Cincinnati staff in 2009, he helped the Bearcats earn a trip to the Sugar Bowl.

    Diaco is returning to his roots essentially, given his college football experience began in the Big Ten as a two-time all-conference linebacker at Iowa. He will be making significant changes to the Huskers’ unit, switching to a 3-4 defensive scheme. Diaco should mold this ‘D’ into a more playmaking bunch, as expect the Huskers look to bring that Blackshirt mentality back to Lincoln.

    While defensive upgrades were needed headed into ’17, changes on offense will be necessary as well. And the Huskers will have a chance to be a more consistent outfit in the fall.

    Quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr. is departing, so the Huskers will have a new No. 1 QB for the first time since midway through the 2013 season. Armstrong started 44 games—the most ever by a Nebraska quarterback—so the Huskers will miss his leadership and moxie. But Armstrong completed just 51.4 percent of his passes in ’16 despite getting off to a strong start.

    There should be newfound enthusiasm on offense, though, as Tulane transfer Tanner Lee is considered the frontrunner for the starting job in ’17 after being a standout on scout team. Of course, playing on the road in the Big Ten is a lot different than running the scout team, but Lee possesses a strong, accurate arm, and he has two years of starting experience at Tulane. He has a calm, cool demeanor that coaches love a QB to possess when things go awry. Lee will be surrounded by much better talent than he was with the Green Wave, so it’s unwise to put too much stock in his underwhelming numbers at his old school.

    Joining Lee in the race to replace Armstrong will be California native Patrick O’Brien, who came to Lincoln with a nice pedigree. The Class of 2016 pocket passer was a finalist in the Elite 11 quarterback competition and was a 4-star prospect according to O’Brien traveled with the team this past season despite not playing in a game, while Lee attended the team’s home matchups.

    With Jordan Westerkamp and Brandon Reilly gone, more will be expected of De’Mornay Pierson-El and Stanley Morgan Jr., both of whom will see their roles expand tremendously in an offense that is expected to be more wide-open. Helping matters is the fact that the program just picked up a commitment from four-star wide receiver Tyjon Lindsey, who decommitted from Ohio State. The Las Vegas prospect is one of the best overall players in the country and will be a much-needed addition to a team that also has a pledge from four-star wide receiver Keyshawn Johnson in this cycle. Lindsey is someone who can contribute immediately, adding instant speed to the Huskers’ offensive attack.

    And while Riley and Co. will certainly miss productive running back Terrell Newby, experience returns in the form of sophomores Devine Ozigbo and Mikale Wilbon. The offense, which struggled in the second half of the season, must get more consistent production on the ground, though. The Huskers ranked just 73rd nationally and ninth in the Big Ten in rushing yards per game last season.

    The Big Ten West division could be up for grabs in 2017. While Jeff Brohm was a very good hire at Purdue, the Boilermakers need time to even compete for a bowl game. Illinois is recruiting better under Lovie Smith and his staff, but it’s hard to envision the Fighting Illini competing for a division crown. Then there are three teams—Iowa, Northwestern and Minnesota—that can be tough “outs” on any given Saturday. The Huskers have the prowess to surpass those teams and consistently win division crowns.

    But the real threat to Nebraska in 2017 is Wisconsin, which claimed a 23-21 win in Lincoln last year on a game-winning 46-yard field goal from Rafael Gaglianone with :04 remaining. The Badgers had a trio of seven-point losses to Big Ten East division contenders Michigan, Ohio State and Penn State last season, and were still in the discussion for a College Football Playoff berth on the last Saturday of the regular season. Simply put, the Badgers remain the standard in the West. Nebraska knows that the division goes through Madison.

    Nonetheless, the hiring of Diaco, as well as a chance for a new identity on offense, at least gives the Huskers hope that the days of both heartbreaking and blowout losses are in the rear view mirror. That Riley has this program on an upward trajectory as the league continues to become more and more competitive. Part of the reason that Bo Pelini was let go is because those annual 9-4 seasons felt incomplete, and games against the better Big Ten competition typically didn’t favor the Huskers during his tenure. Riley just had one of those seasons, so Nebraska fans are expecting an improved product moving forward.

    As is the entire Nebraska athletic department.

    MORE: Wake Forest Lands Commitment From Well-Decorated In-State WR


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