LINCOLN — Even as all reporters’ ears and fans’ eyes turn toward the quarterback position at Nebraska, there are, in fact, seven position battles more interesting and competitive than the premier spot, where Texas transfer Casey Thompson is projected to be the guy who takes the 2022 season’s first snap in Ireland.
Elsewhere? Jobs are aplenty. We could pinpoint ten position battles with some ease, but we’ll keep the spotlight to just seven that are truly up for grabs. How Nebraska answers questions at these positions may go further toward determining NU’s success in 2022 than which QB takes the snaps.
A look at the key position battles:
Center: Coach Scott Frost and new offensive line coach Donovan Raiola have a dilemma in replacing three-year starter Cam Jurgens, who chose the NFL draft over one more year with NU. Jurgens had shrugged off snap issues to become in 2021 the Huskers’ best offensive lineman by some margin, and collegiate center may be the most important position along the line, given the leadership and communication duties. Trent Hixson and Ethan Piper could be candidates. Come fall, Turner Corcoran — currently an injured tackle — may get a look if NU feels like it has two offensive tackles it trusts. No position is a bigger question mark.
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Corner opposite Quinton Newsome: The man teammates call “Q” owns one job in the secondary after the baptism by fire he received from opposing teams that chose to pick on him instead of Cam Taylor-Britt. Who lines up opposite Newsome? Our money is on one of the transfers, Omar Brown (Northern Iowa) or Tommi Hill (Arizona State), but don’t count out Braxton Clark, the lanky defensive back who covers well on deeper routes. NU’s scheme asks its corners to be good tacklers. Newsome is. He had 57 tackles last year. Brown, perhaps the top candidate when healthy, may be limited this spring.
Nickel: How many players could, like JoJo Domann did, take away an opposing tight end on third down and snuff out the jet sweep on first and second down? So gifted in coverage that Nebraska chose to use him there instead of as a pass rusher, Domann will be the toughest single player to replace from the 2021 team. Defensive coordinator Erik Chinander may well use multiple players — Isaac Gifford, Javin Wright perhaps Chris Kolarevic — to do it. Kolarevic, who played inside ‘backer in 2021, has the athleticism and tools to play the spot.
running back: How the about the Nos. 1, 2, 3 spots? All are up for grabs. Nebraska featured, at one time or another last season, four different backs, all of whom return for 2022. Rahmir Johnson, Gabe Ervin, Jacquez Yant and Markese Stepp had their moments and struggles. Johnson, the best pass-catcher of the bunch, probably gets the first-team nod to start spring for new coach Bryan Applewhite, who has brought in two of his own recruits, including junior college star Anthony Grant. Like a lot of positions at Nebraska, the guys in the room have talent. Can they be consistent? Can they get five yards when only three seems available?
Safety: Marquel Dismuke was one of the key quarterbacks of NU’s defense for each of the last three years, and his departure requires secondary coach Travis Fisher to find not only skilled pass defenders, but guys who can make calls and get the defense in the right spot. Myles Farmer — 30 tackles and one interception in 12 games last season — will have to fend off junior college transfers DeShon Singleton, early enrollee Jaeden Gould and returners like Noa Pola-Gates, Marques Buford and Koby Bretz. This group has to grow up fast. NU’s safety play was strong in 2020 and 2021 because of Dismuke and Deontai Williams. Farmer has to lead a young room.
Slot receiver: Samori Touré, who had 46 catches for 898 yards and five touchdowns primarily out of the slot, was a one-year hit at Nebraska. NU will miss his maturity and steadiness, but the Huskers have multiple options at the spot, including transfers Trey Palmer (LSU) and Isaiah Garcia-Castaneda (New Mexico State). Returning players include Alante Brown and Will Nixon, who each made minor impacts in 2021. In four years under Frost, the slot spot had a somewhat defined role of stretching the defense with deeper over routes and slot fades along with taking the occasional option pitch in the run game. It’s possible new NU offensive coordinator Mark Whipple has different designs on the spot; Pittsburgh receiver and Biletnikoff Award winner Jordan Addison, for example, played all over the field.
No. 2 tight end: When healthy, Travis Vokolek will start — he came back for a sixth year of football to do exactly that — but the battle behind him should be a lot of fun, especially as Vokolek may gear it down a bit this spring. It’s a talented group, headlined by fourth-year player Chris Hickman and redshirt freshman Thomas Fidone, who had his promising first year slowed by a torn ACL. Fidone, the highest-rated recruit in the 2021 class, will be challenged by the other two freshmen in that class, AJ Rollins and James Carnie. Rollins impressed former NU tight end Austin Allen — the Big Ten’s best in 2021. If Allen thinks that, pay attention.