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Arkansas State versus Nebraska: 5 things to watch for

John Peterson/Icon Sportswire

The third meeting between Arkansas State and Nebraska represents a huge opportunity for both teams.

For the Red Wolves, a win over the Cornhuskers would be an amazing way to start their season and build momentum toward the Miami (FL) home game the following week. For Nebraska, it’s the perfect chance to take a significantly different team out for a test drive against a scrappy opponent.

What should we focus on this weekend?

1.) Keeping It Vanilla – Both teams have something else in common: big-time opponents in the second week of their seasons. The Red Wolves have the Hurricanes while the Huskers have the Oregon Ducks, now led by Willie Taggart.

If you’re ASU and you want to pull off the upset, Tanner Lee’s lack of game experience with the Big Red demands attention. The Blackshirts’ transition to the 3-4 defense might provide the perfect opportunity for quarterback Justice Hansen and the skill players surrounding him to shine.

These two teams have to walk a fine line between doing enough to win and giving too much away for next week’s opponents to watch. That battle favors the Huskers due to sheer athleticism, especially with ASU defensive lineman Dee Liner being questionable for the game.

2.) Run the Damn Ball – For better or worse, expect Nebraska to hand off plenty of times on Saturday. With four running backs slated to play, experimentation with ballcarriers — and what their offensive line can do for them — is certain. Offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf may please the crowd even more with an offering to fullback Luke McNitt.

3.) Breaking in Savage Professionalism – Langsdorf knows what he has in Stanley Morgan, Jr., De’Mornay Pierson-El and J.D. Spielman. He has a good idea of what to expect from true freshman Tyjon Lindsey, but the California native still needs to experience what it’s like when the yards go on an official stat sheet.

Beyond that, these wide receivers need a true test like the Red Wolves to find out what they’re capable of. They aren’t alone, either. The tight end position appears to be more prominent in this version of Mike Riley’s offense than ever before. Tyler Hoppes will get the chance to confirm his head coach’s praise.

Seeing two or three tight ends get catches against Arkansas State wouldn’t be a shock.

4.) A Calm, Cool and Collected Front Seven – They have practiced for months and months. It’s time for the Blackshirts to hit someone wearing a different helmet. While Hansen will attempt to test a Chris Jones-less Nebraska secondary — look for this to be a trend — the front seven he faces is quite cohesive.

As of this writing, only one spot in the Red Wolves’ offensive line has been determined. They lose linemen with a combined 172 career starts. While the Blackshirts lack game experience as a unit, defensive coordinator Bob Diaco couldn’t have picked a better offensive line for his new crew to challenge.

5.) A Spark in the Return Game – This marks the first time during Mike Riley’s tenure at Nebraska that the Huskers’ special teams won’t be overseen by Bruce Read. Those duties have been distributed throughout the coaching ranks with Diaco helping with punting, for example.

The Huskers have been missing the threat of a true returner since… well, since Pierson-El was healthy in 2014. He averaged 18 yards on 34 returns and scored three times that year. Now he’s back and better than ever. Since he was wounded, Nebraska has averaged a combined 11 returns for 114 yards in 2015 and 23 returns for 168 yards in 2016.

Considering how many Big Ten bottom-dwellers the Huskers face before Wisconsin, if DPE can get the blocks, he has a great shot at matching his scoring output from the olden days at season’s end.

The kickoff return team is easily the best Nebraska has fielded since Ameer Abdullah and Kenny Bell were threats in… wait for it… 2014. That duo combined for an average of 26 yards per return on 22 tries.

Two of Nebraska’s most talented (and by no coincidence, fastest) athletes will be back deep this season. Though inexperienced, the aforementioned Spielman and Lindsey have the ability to appropriately follow their blocks and make guys miss.

To comment or keep up with the author, follow Brandon on twitter at @eightlaces

A member of the Football Writers Association of America, Brandon has spent over a decade reporting on and researching college football, both the sport itself and recruiting.

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