Portal, Junior Colleges Kind to Huskers
Story by Steve Beideck
Rewind your mind two months, to the day after Thanksgiving when Iowa came to Lincoln and scored 19 points in the fourth quarter to hand Nebraska its seventh loss of seven points or less.
So many questions and no immediate, reassuring answers were available to soothe what Nebraska football fans had just endured – a 3-9 season where the biggest margin of defeat in any single game was just nine points.
Turnovers, penalties and mental miscues that proved so costly in all nine of those losses rotated among position groups like a wheel of misfortune. Drilling down on someone or a single position group was akin to putting a finger in a dike.
Who should fix these things and how should it be done? The new athletic director was the one who should – and did – begin to provide that guidance.
Now, not even two months later, there are reasons for optimism. Hype or hope? Doesn’t matter. The present suddenly offers so many presents for Nebraska fans to mentally unwrap the next seven months. Will that trip to Ireland for the 2022 season opener bring the Huskers two commodities that were in short supply last season – victories and luck?
The state of Nebraska football will come into truer focus during the Aug. 27 opener against Northwestern. A thorough evaluation will be ongoing through the regular season finale Nov. 25 at Iowa.
But think about where the Huskers are now compared to two months ago. The transfer portal has brought to Nebraska the starting quarterback at Texas (Casey Thompson) and a potential starter-in-waiting at Florida State (Chubba Purdy).
Thompson will have two seasons of eligibility while Purdy, who heavily weighed Oklahoma before committing to the Huskers, has four years remaining after playing in just three games in 2020 and once in 2021.
In 10 games as the Longhorns starting quarterback, Thompson threw for 2,421 yards with 24 touchdowns and nine interceptions.
Working with both new quarterbacks and the others already on Nebraska’s roster will be new offensive coordinator Mark Whipple. It was Whipple who built the Pittsburgh offense that led the Panthers to a 45-21 victory over Wake Forest in the ACC championship game.
Whipple molded Panthers quarterback Kenny Pickett into a Heisman Trophy finalist. Whipple also owns a Super Bowl ring and had stints with three different NFL teams. He’s a man who happily says he loves helping players get better, no matter where they are on the depth chart.
Don’t forget about two new running backs who used to call Florida State and Texas A&M home. Anthony Grant, the top junior college running back in 2021, was most recently at New Mexico Military Institute where he helped lead the Broncos to victory in the NJCAA Division I national championship game over Iowa Western.
Grant rushed for 1,730 yards and 18 touchdowns in 2021, including 192 yards on 34 carries in the championship game. At FSU Grant was the Seminoles’ primary kick returner in 2018 and redshirted the following season before his two seasons in Roswell.
Deondre Jackson will have four years of eligibility remaining when he joins the Huskers after the conclusion of the second semester. In two seasons with the Aggies, Jackson had just three carries for 13 yards, but his turn to shine may await at Nebraska.
Two receivers will add talented depth to the group now being coached by former Nebraska quarterback Mickey Joseph. Speedster Isaiah Garcia-Castaneda comes to Lincoln from New Mexico State with two seasons of eligibility plus a redshirt season.
Former five-star recruit Trey Palmer followed Joseph from LSU, and he’s expected to contribute both as a wide receiver and return specialist. In 2021 Palmer caught 30 passes for 344 yards and three touchdowns. In 2020 Palmer was the first LSU player since 1981 to return a kickoff for a touchdown in Tiger Stadium.
Combined with his punt return touchdown in 2019 against Northwestern State, Palmer became just the eighth player in school history to return both a kickoff and punt for a touchdown in a career. Among those other seven players were Heisman Trophy winner Billy Cannon, Kevin Faulk and Eddie Kennison.
Offensive linemen Kevin Williams of Northern Colorado and Hunter Anthony of Oklahoma State bring versatility and experience to a unit that can use a dose of both. Williams, who is an Omaha North graduate, and Anthony both will have two seasons of eligibility.
The Nebraska defense and special teams also picked up some transfer portal talent.
Arizona State defensive back Tommy Hill will bring a year of experience with the Sun Devils to a position group that lost three starters to graduation.
Hill, who was recruited by Nebraska out of Orlando (Edgewater) High School, played in 11 games and finished 2021 with seven solo tackles and two assists.
Another cornerback from the portal is 2019 FCS defensive freshman of the year Omar Brown out of Northern Iowa, who has two years of eligibility remaining.
Yet another touted defensive back, Javier Morton, is on board from the junior college ranks (Garden City Community College in Kansas). At 6-2 and 185 pounds, he is said to have the potential to be a lock-down corner.
Punter Brian Buschini is the second Montana transfer into the Nebraska program in as many seasons. If he comes close to matching the success wide receiver Samori Toure had for the Huskers in 2021 – 46 catches for 896 yards and five touchdowns – Buschini will become a fan favorite.
The FCS punter of the year averaged 46.7 yards on 56 punts in the 2021 season, with a long of 62 yards. Twenty-six of his punts landed inside the 20-yard line, and 27 of his boots went for more than 50 yards.
Former Furman kicker Timmy Bleekrode is expected to become Nebraska’s new placekicking specialist. Converting on 84% (21-of-25) of his field goal attempts over two seasons, Bleekrode has three remaining seasons of eligibility.
No one could have imagined that while watching Iowa land those fourth quarter blows that would make Nebraska’s record 13-18 the past five seasons at Memorial Stadium that the Huskers could make such impressive additions to their roster in a short period of time.
Suddenly it’s OK to start dreaming of another 7-0 home record like the one the 2016 team posted in an emotional season when some amount of confidence was achieved by stacking wins together.
That 2016 bunch also was the last to play in a bowl game. That’s a fact that stings anyone who has ever had any kind of emotional investment in the Nebraska football program, whether that investment has been for six years or six decades.
For a program once accustomed to playing in bowl games and even national championships, a five-year absence from postseason play has been a source of frustration. Making it to a bowl game in 2022 would be a positive step.
Suddenly, it seems attainable.