Nebraska spring football preview: Huskers building off solid finish

Adrian Martinez led all first-year quarterbacks with an average of 295.1 yards of total offense per game in 2018. AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall

LINCOLN, Neb. -- Nebraska finished 4-8 in 2018 to equal its 2017 mark for the program's most losses in a season since 1957.

The Cornhuskers lose five of their top six tacklers from last season, plus Stanley Morgan Jr., the most productive receiver in program history, and 1,000-yard rusher Devine Ozigbo.

So why all the good vibes at Memorial Stadium and talk of challenging Northwestern, Iowa and Wisconsin in the Big Ten West? To start, they all come to Lincoln in 2019. More important in coach Scott Frost's second season, Nebraska returns one of the most exciting players in the nation, sophomore quarterback Adrian Martinez.

And it expects to build on the momentum gained in a strong finish last fall.

Frost's team won four of its final six games in his debut season, losing by five points at Ohio State and by three at Iowa. Nebraska bettered its scoring margin by 27.5 points from the second half of the year over the first.

The improvement appears set to continue into this spring.

"Now we know there's only one way to do things," senior cornerback Lamar Jackson said. "And that's the right way."

2018 record: 4-8

Spring practice start date: March 4

Spring game date: April 13

Strength this spring: The quarterback position under Frost -- who 22 years ago was the last Nebraska QB to win a national title -- remains in excellent shape.

Martinez ranked 12th nationally last year and first among rookie quarterbacks in producing 295.1 yards of total offense per game. He joined the likes of J.T. Barrett, Marcus Mariota and Johnny Manziel among six players ever to throw for 200 yards and rush for 50 per game as freshmen.

Martinez is a Heisman Trophy candidate and a leader this spring in the locker room. Everything goes through him.

"I can't promise I won't make a mistake," Martinez said. "But I'll try not to make the same mistake twice."

That's the thing about Martinez; he's an astute learner and matured quickly, evidenced by Nebraska's improvement in 2018. And the Huskers' depth at quarterback hardly resembles the situation a year ago, what with experienced backups Noah Vedral and Andrew Bunch -- in addition to Luke McCaffrey, the top prospect out of Colorado, who also is in camp this spring.

Question mark this spring: Depth in the secondary. It was an issue a year ago. Nebraska saw safety Antonio Reed blossom last year alongside Aaron Williams and Tre Neal, but they're all gone.

Redshirt freshman Cam'ron Jones offers promise after returning from injury, and classmate CJ Smith continues to work his way back to health. But Nebraska figures to rely on largely unproven upperclassmen Marquel Dismuke and Deontai Williams and perhaps get contributions from JoJo Domann, who made a successful transition to outside linebacker late last year.

The cornerback spots appear in better shape with DiCaprio Bootle and Jackson returning. However, experience beyond the top duo is limited under Travis Fisher, who provides much-needed continuity as a coach for this group that has endured much change over the past several seasons.

Instant-impact recruit: The Huskers wrestled Wan'Dale Robinson away from Kentucky, a recruiting victory that looks set to provide quick results. Robinson accounted for 45 touchdowns as a senior in high school and similarly drew attention in his first days on campus this spring. He has drawn comparisons to Purdue star Rondale Moore, with whom Robinson shared a trainer back home in Louisville. And Robinson appears a strong fit in Frost's offense, which features versatile skill players in numerous roles. He's starting work with the receivers, but Robinson rushed for 1,973 yards last season, and Nebraska will likely aim to use him in a fashion that evokes comparisons to former Frost pupil and Oregon star De'Anthony Thomas.

Instant-impact transfer: Graduate transfer Darrion Daniels has generated excitement this year after leaving Oklahoma State to join his brother, sophomore Damion Daniels, on the defensive line at Nebraska. The elder Daniels started 10 games as a junior for the Cowboys in 2017 and was lauded in Stillwater for his leadership. He's fitting into a similar role up front for the Huskers, who will showcase a pair of space-eating brothers in the Daniels duo and twins Khalil and Carlos Davis.

Game to get excited about now: The last time Ohio State ventured to Lincoln without Urban Meyer on the sideline, Nebraska won 34-27 in 2011 -- its first year in the Big Ten. Since then, the Buckeyes have won four matchups in the series by an average of 32.8 points. But a new day has dawned at both schools, what with Frost's system taking hold and Ryan Day in charge at Ohio State. The Buckeyes visit Lincoln in Week 5, and both teams could be 4-0 at the time.