In 2021, Nebraska had its best season in more than a decade, and arguably its best season since it last advanced to the College World Series in 2005. It won the Big Ten regular-season title by three-and-a-half games, securing the league’s automatic bid, and then pushed top overall seed Arkansas to a deciding seventh game in the Fayetteville Regional.
In 2022, the Cornhuskers will step into a different world, and not just because the Big Ten is returning to a normal schedule after playing a conference-only 44-game slate last season. Nebraska will find itself as the hunted rather than the hunter in the league for the first time since it joined the Big Ten, and it will do so without a number of key players from 2021, including conference player of the year Spencer Schwellenbach.
These are five questions Nebraska will have to answer next season as it looks to stay on top of the Big Ten as it reshuffles its roster.
How will Nebraska handle success?
Nebraska has a lot going for it heading into 2022. After going into last season with modest expectations from the outside looking in, it’s coming off of running away with the Big Ten regular-season title, a feat made more impressive when you consider that it came at the end of a 44-game gauntlet of conference games.
But beyond just the success of 2021, there is palpable momentum in this program. Despite losing a good portion of its best players to the draft after the season, the Cornhuskers still have some of the the most exciting players in the conference on the roster right now and they just brought in the best recruiting class in the league.
All of that comes with expectations, however, and that’s new to the players currently in the program. It’s why dealing with success was a topic of conversation during the fall.
“We have talked about it,” said Nebraska coach Will Bolt. “Just the fact that when you’re going to be the Big Ten reigning champs, you’re going to get everybody’s best shot. We’ve just got to make sure that we’re ready to try to duplicate the consistency that we showed last year and the urgency that we showed last year that was fairly built in because of the schedule that we were given, playing conference-only games and the situation of having the season ripped away from us in 2020.”
Not knowing how to handle success and expectations has felled talented teams before, but there’s no antidote to the situation quite like playing well and playing loose out of the gate, so that will be paramount for the Huskers in 2022.
What’s next for Max Anderson?
As a freshman last season, Anderson began his career by going 8-for-14 in a season-opening series against Purdue and he never really stopped hitting. He finished the season with a .332/.386/.500 slash line with seven home runs. Notable for a first-year player, he also had just 26 strikeouts, the lowest total among any Nebraska player who started at least 32 games.
After earning Big Ten freshman of the year honors for that performance, Anderson will go into the 2022 season as the unquestioned centerpiece of the Huskers’ lineup now that the likes of Jaxon Hallmark, Luke Roskam, Spencer Schwellenbach and Joe Acker have moved on.
Anderson shined in the fall, with Bolt describing him as the kind of guy who can just roll out of bed and hit. He estimates that Anderson hit about .450 with four home runs over the course of six weeks. Anderson had 16 extra-base hits last season, already a solid number, but if he’s able to tap into a bit more of his power, he suddenly becomes one of the best all-around threats in the country.
“He just does his thing, man,” Bolt said. “He just has the plate covered, he can go foul pole to foul pole. (We) started to see him use his lower half a little bit better, so I think you may see the power numbers continue to go up a little bit.”
Who will support Anderson in the lineup?
Even with significant departures after last season, there are enough returning players back in the fold to give the Nebraska lineup some certainty around Anderson.
Sophomore Brice Matthews, a versatile defensive player who played both second base and third base last season, is back after hitting .273/.381/.462 with five home runs. He has the athleticism and speed to be a catalyst near the top of the order and enough pop to be a run producer as well.
Also returning is fourth-year junior Cam Chick, who has extensive experience at second base, third base and left field. He hit .260/.387/.468 a season ago with eight home runs.
A wild card in the lineup is third-year sophomore Leighton Banjoff. He hit .341/.517/.636 in 15 games before the season was canceled in 2020, but hit just .255/.391/.345 in 22 games last season. A return to his 2020 form would go a long way toward giving the Nebraska lineup good depth.
If you’re looking for breakout stars in the lineup, fourth-year junior catcher Griffin Everitt is a prime candidate. To be fair, he had a nice year in 2021, hitting .287/.370/.410. He also had arguably Nebraska’s biggest clutch hit of the season, a go-ahead two-RBI single in the fifth inning of its first regional final game against Arkansas. But Bolt sees him becoming a true middle-of-the-order run producer in 2022.
“He swung the bat very well,” Bolt said of Everitt’s fall performance. “He’s made some adjustments physically. He’s a guy that I think you could probably see move more into an RBI spot in the lineup. And really, having a fourth-year guy back behind the plate is always a good thing.”
One other breakout candidate to watch is sophomore Jack Steil. He hit just .203 last season, but he had seven extra-base hits in just 64 at-bats. He’s a good defensive player at first base and Bolt thinks he has a chance to hit 8-12 home runs next season.
To reach their offensive ceiling, the Cornhuskers will need some returning players to take steps forward and some newcomers to be contributors right away, but overall, Bolt is confident in this position player group, which hit nearly three times as many home runs as he would expect in an average fall practice period. Now it’s just a matter of that carrying over into the spring.
Freshman righthander RJ Sales turned in the best start of his career in a UNCW win over Ohio State Saturday.
Who will fill out the weekend rotation?
In fourth-year junior righthander Shay Schanaman, Nebraska has one returning weekend starter who has been through the rigors of the Big Ten schedule. Last season, he had a 5.08 ERA and 72 strikeouts in 67.1 innings of work, using a fastball that sits in the low 90s and a slider that induced a nearly 50% whiff rate.
Previously a Sunday starter, next season will be different for Schanaman in that he’ll be asked to lead a rotation, but he looked the part in the fall.
“Shay Schanaman really took a step forward this fall,” Bolt said. “He was our Sunday guy for most of the year last year. His last outing in the regional was one of his best outings of the year. (We) shut him down for the summer, (he) came back feeling great this fall. Really had a dominant fall. In a fall where the hitters may have gotten the best of the pitching, I think he was maybe an exception to that. I think he walked one (batter) all fall. The fastball command was there. He’s always had two good breaking balls. Just really coming into his own.”
But with the departures of Cade Povich and Chance Hroch, the team’s two best starting pitchers last season, the Huskers also have some holes to fill around Schanaman. As the fall came to a close, Bolt was looking at a number of options.
One is Grand Canyon grad transfer righthander Dawson McCarville, who had a 3.58 ERA in 65.1 innings for a Lopes team that made a regional last season. He works with a fastball in the high 80s to low 90s and brings with him a wealth of experience.
Bolt and his staff are trying to bring along freshman Drew Christo slowly after the righthander was the one of the top prep pitchers to end up on a college campus this fall, but anyone with stuff as good as his has to be considered to have at least a puncher’s chance of finding his way into the rotation. His fastball sits in the low 90s, touching as high as 95, with good life on it.
Third-year sophomore lefthander Kyle Perry didn’t take the mound last season until May 10 after his Tommy John surgery and only appeared in four games, but he accumulated big-game experience in that small window. He threw three hitless innings against Michigan on May 29 and was the starting pitcher in Nebraska’s win over Arkansas that forced a game seven in the regional. Now much further removed from his surgery, Perry could be ready for a starring role.
Fourth-year junior lefthander Jake Bunz had a 2.20 ERA last season in 32.2 innings, mostly in relief, but there’s confidence that he could be stretched out to start games. His stuff is certainly good enough for the role. His fastball sits in the low 90s and touched as high as 96 mph last season with a breaking ball that had a greater than 40% whiff rate.
It’s a similar story for fourth-year junior righthander Koty Frank, who had a 4.94 ERA in 27.1 relief innings last season. He throws the kitchen sink at hitters, including a sinker, two distinct breaking balls and two different versions of a changeup. That type of variety in repertoire could play well in a starting role.
Sophomore lefthander Emmett Olson and third-year sophomore righthander Braxton Bragg are two other rotation contenders who were used a little less often last season. Olson had a 4.50 ERA in 12 innings a season ago. His velocity ticked up this fall and now touches 93-94 mph. Bragg had an 8.04 ERA in 15.2 innings in 2021, but he has very good stuff, including a fastball that touches the mid 90s, and he’s coming off of a great summer in the Coastal Plain League, where he had a 2.66 ERA with 24 strikeouts and just three walks in 23.2 innings.
Who will replace Schwellenbach in the closer’s role?
In addition to being a lineup stalwart, Schwellenbach was Nebraska’s closer last season, saving 10 games and allowing just two earned runs in 31.2 innings along the way. Replacing that level of production will be nearly impossible to do, but the Huskers have some quality options to choose from in an attempt to do so.
Fourth-year sophomore Colby Gomes is someone who has been in the role before. In 2019, he saved 13 games, and after starting four games in 2020 and then missing all of the 2021 season, the Huskers hope to have him back on the mound in 2022. At this time, Nebraska is also focusing Gomes on solely pitching after he had been a two-way player in the past. When he’s healthy, he has closer-type stuff, including a fastball that reaches the mid 90s.
Third-year sophomore lefthander Ethan Bradford is the other early contender for the job. He’s thrown just six total innings in two seasons in Lincoln, but Bolt thinks he could be ready to handle high-leverage spots in 2022.
Bradford’s stuff is plenty good. His fastball gets into the low 90s, and in addition to a good curveball that he’s featured before, he’s recently added a slider. But mental adjustments might end up being what makes the difference and puts him in position to close games.
“He’s kind of been a guy that has flipped his mentality a little bit and has really got a shot to have put away stuff at the back end if he wants that role,” Bolt said. “I think he’s the guy that really stepped up tremendously to make his mentality and command catch up to what the stuff has always been.”
Those who don’t end up with places in the weekend rotation will also obviously filter down to bullpen roles, which could add other names to the competition. Whether it was Gomes in 2019 or Schwellenbach last season, Nebraska knows the value of having someone who it knows it will turn to with a lead in the ninth inning, and they hope to discover the next in that line going into next season.