LINCOLN — Our Husker Camp Countdown begins Monday, and it’s never been harder trying to pick the 50 Nebraska football players we think will be big factors in the upcoming season. The 2017 Huskers are young and inexperienced at several positions, and the freshman class is full of guys who could contribute right away, if they’re ready, or redshirt, like freshmen usually do.
Expect some whiffs. Expect some guys off our radar to fly onto it by midseason.
It was easier to sort last season’s top 50. Our top three were quarterback Tommy Armstrong, safety Nate Gerry and receiver Jordan Westerkamp, and all three of those guys missed the Music City Bowl. NU lost by 14 points. Among last year’s top 10, only Devine Ozigbo, who played behind Terrell Newby, was a true miss. Our biggest gamble, putting defensive tackle Kevin Maurice at No. 8, proved to be right: Maurice had a strong senior year, garnering honorable mention All-Big Ten honors.
This year takes more projection and guesswork.
Certainly Nebraska has a few proven players in the secondary and a few more along the offensive line. We’ve been watching those guys for several years. We know what to expect from some of NU’s linebackers and defensive linemen. The top returning receivers, Stanley Morgan and De’Mornay Pierson-El, haven’t been the No. 1 targets very often, but you’ve seen a healthy amount of production there.
Other positions — tight end, outside linebacker, yes, even quarterback — are a little bit more of a mystery. Surely, all eyes will be on quarterback Tanner Lee, but is he the No. 1 guy? In 2015, we picked defensive tackle Maliek Collins. Could we anoint cornerback Chris Jones or safety Joshua Kalu in 2017?
Over the next two months, we’ll unveil the list and you’ll see. First, we note the honorable mention players who didn’t quite make the top 50 cut. Last year, outside of long snapper Jordan Ober, our honorable mentions didn’t make much of a dent. Heck, three of them — AJ Bush, Derrion Grim and Charles Jackson — left the program last season. To best reflect the uncertain nature of which players will rise on this 2017 team, the honorable mention list this season is longer.
» DiCaprio Bootle: A redshirt freshman, Bootle is probably one injury away from playing a lot. He’s the No. 2/No. 3 field corner, he could play some nickel, and he’ll definitely appear on special teams.
» Damion Daniels: The precocious, explosive defensive tackle is a trendy pick to be one of Nebraska’s best recruits from its 2017 class. Daniels has great potential; he’s also 17 years old until just days before the season kicks off. Does NU take a year with Daniels and let him grow more into his frame and shed a few pounds? He looked closer to 330 pounds when he visited for Nebraska’s spring game.
» The fourth tight end: Nebraska may very well need four tight ends for the offense, and the No. 4 guy last season — Tyler Hoppes — is likely to be the No. 1 guy this year. That means a whole slew of guys have a shot at playing time. One is senior walk-on Connor Ketter, who missed spring practice because of an injury but might have been the No. 2 guy heading into the spring. Others to watch are redshirt freshman David Engelhaupt and true freshmen Austin Allen and Kurt Rafdal. Engelhaupt, at 6-foot-3, 240 pounds, is more of an H-back type while the taller Ketter, Allen and Rafdal are downfield receiving threats.
» Sedrick King: An outside linebacker competing for playing time, King is roughly in the same spot he was last season: trying to put all the pieces together. He’s at that boundary linebacker spot, which is more of a pass-rushing spot, competing against Alex Davis and a few other guys. He appeared in eight games last season and had four tackles.
» Boaz Joseph: Backup corner and special teams guy for his fifth-year senior season, Joseph should make his share of tackles and play in a few games.
» Jordan Ober: Nebraska’s starting long snapper for a third straight season, Ober is counted on to make clean snaps on field goals, extra points and punts. He’s done a good job in his first two years.
» John Raridon: After redshirting last season, Raridon appeared ready to take a shot at the starting center job in the spring. Sophomore-to-be Michael Decker is clearly ahead of Raridon, who moved to backup guard. Cole Conrad moved to center to compete with Decker. Since NU’s starting guards are Jerald Foster and Tanner Farmer, and Boe Wilson is at guard, too, Raridon is perhaps a year away from significant playing time.
» Austin Rose: A walk-on running back from Lincoln North Star, Rose flashed some power and some good cuts in spring drills. He looked every bit as spry as scholarship back Devine Ozigbo, but such a thing has been true of other walk-on running backs at Nebraska, and, other than Andy Janovich, rarely have they played much. Rose has a chance, though.
» Deiontae Watts: Another 2017 recruit, Watts is on the other end of the age spectrum from Daniels; he’ll turn 20 this year. His academic eligibility is still a bit up in the air; he hasn’t arrived on campus yet. If Watts does, he may be a logical choice to play early. Or he may just redshirt and develop.
» The Nos. 6 and 7 wide receivers: Each team tends to need at least six receivers — and often seven — to make the offensive engine run when top receivers get hurt or rotate out of the game for a snap. NU has several candidates for those roles, including Gabe Rahn, Conor Young and Jaevon McQuitty. McQuitty is a true freshman who enrolled early, but he missed the spring while recovering from shoulder surgery.
Sign up for Big Red Today news alerts
Get a daily Husker news roundup, recruiting updates and breaking news in your inbox.
1 of 59
No. 1 Tanner Lee: The Tulane transfer has been given the keys to Nebraska’s offense, and much is expected as a result. His ability to make the one or two passes that most quarterbacks can’t should come in handy. You can read more here.
No. 2 Chris Jones: Jones tore the meniscus in his left knee over the summer and will likely miss at least half the season. Could he miss all of it? Possibly — he has a redshirt season left. You can read more here.
No. 3 Nick Gates: He started every game in 2016, but Gates was much more effective before an ankle injury at Indiana. You can read more here.
No. 4 Joshua Kalu: A competent corner for most of his career, Kalu’s smarts and tackling talents should serve him well at safety, where coaches plan to keep him despite the injury to Chris Jones. You can read more here.
No. 5 Stanley Morgan: It’s Morgan’s turn and his time to be NU’s No. 1 receiver. The stats from first two seasons combined — 58 catches, 757 yards, five touchdowns — would be a good year in 2017. You can read more here.
No. 6 Aaron Williams: He has been a jack of all trades the last two seasons, finding the field in nickel and dime packages as well as on special teams. Now the Atlanta native appears to have parlayed that work and experience into a starting spot at safety. You can read more here.
No. 7 De'Mornay Pierson-El: Coach Mike Riley was openly excited about Pierson-El when he took over after the 2014 season, but injuries before and during the 2015 campaign have kept Riley from getting the best of what he envisioned. You can read more here.
No. 8 Carlos Davis: Voted the Huskers’ most improved player after the 2016 season, Davis gets the chance to take a bigger — and more important — step with a starting job at defensive end in the new three-man front. You can read more here.
No. 9 Jerald Foster: It’s not a reach to trace some of last season’s offensive line issues back to last August, when Foster injured a knee midway through fall camp and Nebraska had to scramble. Foster recovered in time to start the last four games, and that experience will be big heading into his junior season. You can read more here.
No. 10 Chris Weber: It’s an important season for Weber. It’s his first stint as a full-time starter and the defense wants a smooth transition for Bob Diaco. You can read more here.
No. 11 Tanner Farmer: The former state champion wrestler from Highland, Illinois, offers a strong and agile blocking presence, and that versatility will be tested along with that of his line mates this fall while protecting a pro-style quarterback for the first time. You can read more here.
No. 12 Tre Bryant: Nebraska still hasn’t settled on a starting running back, but Bryant might be the closest to the do-everything feature back coaches are looking for. He ran for 172 yards and one touchdown on 43 attempts last year and showed his ability to catch passes out of the backfield. You can read more here.
No. 13 Dedrick Young: Young already proved himself to be one of Nebraska’s best tacklers at outside linebacker the past two seasons, when he started 20 games and made 121 stops along with four quarterback hurries. You can read more here.
No. 14 Lamar Jackson: How confident is Nebraska that the sophomore from California can be a standout cornerback? Enough so that coaches tried accomplished senior Joshua Kalu at safety this spring in an effort to get Jackson on the field. You can read more here.
No. 15 Mick Stoltenberg: He showed up for spring practice with nearly 20 additional pounds of muscle in preparation for his new role as the starting nose tackle on Nebraska’s three-man front. And his positive impressions that first day were just the beginning as he settled in and stood out at his new position. You can read more here.
16. Freedom Akinmoladun: Few players expressed more excitement about their potential in the new 3-4 defense than Akinmoladun, whose four sacks were second on the team last year. You can read more here.
No. 17 Drew Brown: Brown connected from 35 and 33 yards in the spring game and was 12 of 14 last fall while hitting all 38 of his PATs. His consistency should give the Huskers a little more flexibility and margin for error as their schedule toughens and tight games abound. You can read more here.
No. 18 Cole Conrad: Nebraska felt strongly enough about Conrad to award the former walk-on from Fremont Bergan a scholarship in January and — in a surprise development — move him into the mix at center this spring to get him on the field. You can read more here.
No. 19 David Knevel: Knevel and Husker coaches were ready to see what he could do over the course of a full slate of games at right tackle last season before an ankle injury against Oregon hampered his play in multiple contests, forcing him to miss three games late in the year. You can read more here.
20. Khalil Davis: The redshirt sophomore might not be a starter as he learns a new position at nose tackle, but he’ll provide valuable depth behind Mick Stoltenberg and be a big body who can clog running lanes and get after the quarterback when necessary. You can read more here.
No. 21 Mikale Wilbon: This spring — kind of a put-up-or-shut-up period for Wilbon — he made strides as a pass blocker and in learning Nebraska’s pro-style playbook. You can read more here.
No. 22 Tyler Hoppes: Lincoln Southwest graduate, Wayne State transfer and Husker walk-on Hoppes picked the perfect time to be a senior tight end at Nebraska: He’s No. 1. You can read more here.
Husker Camp Countdown: No. 20 Khalil Davis
23. Luke Gifford: He has gone from safety in high school to playing close to the line of scrimmage. Between defense and special teams, Gifford is in line for a breakthrough season. You can read more here.
24. Marcus Newby: The fifth-year senior from Maryland has done a little bit of everything in his NU career, and this season he’ll be in a natural outside linebacker role that will generally suit him. You can read more here.
No. 25 Eric Lee: The top-rated prospect from Nebraska’s 2015 recruiting class, found his footing — in a big way — this spring under new cornerbacks coach Donte Williams. You can read more here.
No. 26 JD Spielman: He ostensibly will be a slot receiver for the Huskers, but he’s capable of many things. He can be a jet sweep guy. He could even run the ball out of the backfield. You can read more here.
27. Keyan Williams: He’ll be an immediate factor in the slot, where he’s shown the ability to get open and run good routes. He can catch the ball, too. You can read more here.
No. 28 Alex Davis: He has a real shot to be NU’s starting boundary outside linebacker, but that role requires run-stopping and pass-rushing skill sets that Davis hasn’t quite shown yet. You can read more here.
No. 29 Kieron Williams: NU’s No. 3 safety in spring after Joshua Kalu moved from cornerback to be paired with Aaron Williams. You can read more here.
30. Devine Ozigbo: He is a bit of an enigma — a big back with nimble feet who may be No. 3 headed into training camp. You can read more here.
31. Mohamed Barry: He’s now in position to play behind Chris Weber and Dedrick Young at inside linebacker as the Huskers launch their 3-4 scheme under Bob Diaco. You can read more here.
32. Antonio Reed: It appears he will start the season as a backup safety again — with Aaron Williams and Joshua Kalu emerging as the No. 1s after spring practice — but Reed offers important value on special teams. You can read more here.
33. Avery Roberts: Nebraska appears to be stockpiling some good youth and talent at linebacker, and Roberts is among those at the forefront. You can read more here.
34. Bryan Reimers: He has proven to the coaches that he can go up and get it, so his size and length are tools that can help the Huskers at receiver. You can read more here.
No. 35 Tyjon Lindsey: Lindsey isn’t very big but comes in with the kind of explosiveness and open-field danger that concerns opposing defensive coordinators. What NU won’t know until August, however, is how the former Ohio State commit handles the grind and demands when fall camp starts. You can read more here.
36. Michael Decker, C: Decker is smart and athletic, and he added needed size through his first two years in the program. It has been awhile since Nebraska has featured a multiyear starter at center. Can the Omaha North graduate with a winning background become that player? You can read more here.
37. Luke McNitt, FB: Nebraska again will utilize McNitt in power sets, and he will continue to be a physical, hard-nosed and versatile force on special teams. You can read more here.
38. DaiShon Neal, DE: Is Neal somebody who benefits from the move to a 3-4 scheme? The next few months will start telling the story. You can read more here.
39. Tyrin Ferguson, LB: He was ultimately believed to be a best fit at outside linebacker. He is considered versatile enough to play either spot, however, and should push for some playing time as the Huskers go forward. You can read more here.
40. Matt Snyder, TE: Opportunity won’t be a problem for Snyder, who now just has to make the most of one. Nebraska lost three four-year lettermen at tight end, and former walk-on Tyler Hoppes is the only returnee with any sure inroads to playing time. You can read more here.
41. Patrick O’Brien, QB: The redshirt freshman competed for the starting quarterback job with junior Tanner Lee all the way through spring practices before coaches named O’Brien the backup. You can read more here.
No. 42 Caleb Lightbourn, P: Lightbourn moved past his infamous punt last November against Minnesota that traveled -2 yards with a strong spring and is tracking to again start as a sophomore. Thrust into duty last season after the death of Sam Foltz, Lightbourn averaged 39.7 yards per punt on 65 kicks, 21 of which settled inside the opponent’s 20-yard line. You can read more here.
No. 43 Peyton Newell: Newell is still looking for his first official college tackle entering his fourth year in the program, but it could be on the horizon. A former top recruit from Hiawatha, Kansas, he has gone from defensive end to tackle and back to end in the Huskers’ new 3-4 defense. You can read more here.
44. Deontre Thomas, DE: If Thomas ends up redshirting his true freshman season, it won’t be for lack of ability. His frame and speed (he runs the 40-yard dash in 4.6 seconds) are ideally suited for Nebraska’s new 3-4 scheme. You can read more here.
45. Boe Wilson, OG: Nebraska coaches felt good enough about Wilson in fall camp last year that they worked him out at first-team left guard following an injury to starter Jerald Foster. You can read more here.
No. 46 Matt Farniok, OT: Farniok will have his chance to alleviate concerns about the offensive line’s depth in the coming months. The redshirt freshman from Sioux Falls, South Dakota, is plenty valuable if he does nothing more than serve as a quality backup to returning starters Nick Gates (left tackle) and David Knevel (right tackle). You can read more here.
47. Wyatt Mazour, RB: Mazour earned a spot on Nebraska’s travel squad to Indiana last year and may have taken off with the opportunity if not for a concussion suffered during practice. But the walk-on, who coach Mike Riley calls “our Danny Woodhead” showcased his skills with a dominant spring game that featured quick bursts and broken tackles. You can read more here.
48. Ben Miles, FB: An Andy Janovich-style breakout would be a lot to ask from the son of former LSU coach Les Miles as he enters his freshman season as a rare scholarship fullback. But it isn’t out of the question, either. Read more here.
49. Jack Stoll, TE: The redshirt freshman hasn’t done anything to take himself out of consideration for the leading role at tight end, and that alone is encouraging for a redshirt freshman competing at one of Nebraska’s most unresolved positions heading into fall camp. Read more here.
50. Collin Miller, LB: The redshirt freshman was named defensive MVP of the scout team last fall while lining up as a defensive end. Coach Mike Riley said Miller had been playing inside linebacker in the new 3-4 scheme, but then the product of Fishers, Indiana, missed the entire spring with a toe injury. Read more here.
DiCaprio Bootle, honorable mention: A redshirt freshman, Bootle is probably one injury away from playing a lot. He’s the No. 2/No. 3 field corner, he could play some nickel, and he’ll definitely appear on special teams.
Damion Daniels, honorable mention: The precocious, explosive defensive tackle is a trendy pick to be one of Nebraska’s best recruits from its 2017 class. Daniels has great potential; he’s also 17 years old until just days before the season kicks off.
Boaz Joseph, honorable mention: Backup corner and special teams guy for his fifth-year senior season, Joseph should make his share of tackles and play in a few games.
The 4th tight end, honorable mention: Nebraska may very well need four tight ends for their offense, and the No. 4 guy last season – Tyler Hoppes – is likely to be the No. 1 guy this year. That means a whole slew of guys have a shot at playing time. One is senior walk-on Connor Ketter (pictured), who didn’t practice in spring because of an injury but might have been the No. 2 guy heading into spring camp. Others to watch are redshirt freshman David Engelhaupt and true freshmen Austin Allen (pictured) and Kurt Rafdal. Engelhaupt, at 6-foot-3, 240 pounds, is more of a H-back type while the taller Ketter, Allen and Rafdal are downfield receiving threats.
Sedrick King, honorable mention: An outside linebacker competing for playing time, King is roughly in the same spot he was last season: Trying to put all the pieces together. He’s at that boundary linebacker spot, which is more of a pass rushing spot, competing against Alex Davis and a few other guys.
Jordan Ober, honorable mention: Nebraska’s starting long snapper for a third straight season, Ober’s job is make clean snaps on field goals, extra points and punts. He’s done a good job in his first two years.
John Raridon, honorable mention: After redshirting last season, Raridon, No. 50, appeared ready to take a shot at the starting center job in the spring. Since NU’s starting guards are Jerald Foster and Tanner Farmer, and Boe Wilson is at guard, too, Raridon is perhaps a year away from significant playing time.
Austin Rose, honorable mention: A walk-on running back from Lincoln North Star, Rose flashed some power and some good cuts in spring camp. He looked every bit as spry as scholarship back Devine Ozigbo.
Deiontae Watts, honorable mention: Another 2017 recruit, Watts is on the other end of the age spectrum from Daniels; he’ll turn 20 this year. His academic eligibility is still a bit up in the air; he hasn’t arrived on campus yet.