Nebraska Football: Projecting the Cornhuskers’ Post Spring Two-Deep Depth Chart

DSC00794

photo and story by Patrick Runge

Nebraska football fans know already that new head coach Mike Riley won’t be putting out a two-deep after spring practice. So apparently it’s up to us to fill that urgent need. Of course, this is filled with speculation in terms of where the players stand now in the eyes of the new coaching staff, and could change dramatically by September.

But, come on, it’s April. Let’s live a little given how long we have to wait for football to come back.

Offensive Line

Alex Lewis might be the only certain starter of the bunch, so this position group looks to be in flux between now and fall camp. The return of Ryne Reeves will make a particular difference both for depth and competition at center.

LT: Alex Lewis, Zach Sterup

LG: Zach Sterup, DJ Foster

C: Paul Thurston, Ryne Reeves

RG: Chongo Kondolo, Zach Hannon

RT: Givens Mordi Price, David Knevel

Offensive Backs

It’s still Tommy Armstrong’s world, until and unless one of the contenders can step up and take the job away from him. As for I-back, being the starter might not mean a lot as the position will likely be a committee rather than one bell-cow back.

QB: Tommy Armstrong, Zack Darlington

IB: Terrell Newby, Adam Taylor

FB: Andy Janovich, Mitch McCann

Receivers

The starting receivers actually look pretty settled, although there could be quite a bit of competition for the next man up. Cethan Carter’s return should make Nebraska’s offense much more dangerous with what he provides at tight end.

WR X: Jordan Westerkamp, Brandon Reilly

WR Y: Jamal Turner, Jariah Tolbert

WR A: De’Mornay Pierson-El, Alonzo Moore

TE: Cethan Carter, Sam Cotton

Defensive Line

Maliek Collins and Vincent Valentine could be the best defensive end pairing in the Big Ten this season. But who will be in the rotation at defensive end—as well as behind Collins and Valentine—could be quite a question to answer

DE: Jack Gangwish, A.J. Natter

DE: Greg McMullen, Freedom Akinmoladun

DT: Maliek Collins, Kevin Maurice

DT: Vincent Valentine, Kevin Williams

Linebackers

If nothing else, the linebacker position might make Riley feel right at home. Given Nebraska’s depth problems, a two-deep at linebacker could prove challenging for NU to field, particularly if there are any injuries of significance.

MIKE: Josh Banderas, David Santos

WILL: Michael Rose-Ivey, Luke Gifford

SAM: Marcus Newby, Dedrick Young

Secondary

It will look a little strange to not see “Nickel” as part of a two-deep for Nebraska, but new defensive coordinator Mark Banker’s quarters system will usually keep all three linebackers on the field. Given the depth at this position, the two-deep is likely to exclude a number of talented players.

CB: Daniel Davie, Josh Kalu

CB: Byerson Cockrell, Jonathan Rose

S: Nate Gerry, Charles Jackson

S: LeRoy Alexander, Kieron Williams

Specialists

Not a lot of competition at most of these positions, but excelling on special teams could be a huge competitive advantage for Nebraska in 2015. Assuming it can get the placekicking position sorted out …

PK: Drew Brown, Mauro Bondi

P: Sam Foltz, Mauro Bondi

KOS: Mauro Bondi, Drew Brown

LS: Jordan Ober, Josh Faulkenberry

Punt Return: De’Mornay Pierson-El, Jamal Turner

Kick Return: De’Mornay Pierson-El, Jamal Turner

Nebraska Football: Grading Cornhuskers’ Position Group’s 2015 Spring

DSC00808

photo and story by Patrick Runge

Nebraska football fans have put 2015’s spring practice in the rear view mirror, settling in for a long summer of barbecues, baseball and an absence of football. So before we let spring practice go, let’s take a look back and see how Nebraska under new head coach Mike Riley did this spring.

Offensive Line

The offensive line is one area where it’s very hard to get a read on where players stand. It does look like Alex Lewis has solidified his position at left tackle. Paul Thurston made a good case for himself at center with the injury to Ryne Reeves. And Chongo Kondolo looked like he made progress at tackle. But with injuries to Reeves and David Knevel, it’s hard to know just where the offensive line sits after spring practice.

Grade: Incomplete

Offensive Backs

Well, if nothing else, Nebraska established that it has depth in the backfield. At quarterback, no one has jumped up and taken the job by the horns, although junior Tommy Armstrong still looks to be in pole position as a starter given his experience. Redshirt freshman AJ Bush seemed to be impressive in camp, but struggled in the Spring Game. Redshirt freshman Zack Darlington had almost the opposite trajectory, although it did seem like he improved as spring practice wore on. While the depth is good, some down-grade has to be given for an absence of a starting quarterback that truly inspires confidence.

As for the running backs, the four scholarship players (Terrell Newby, Imani Cross, Adam Taylor, and Mikale Wilbon) all staked their claim for the position, along with walk-ons Graham Nabity and Jordan Nelson. Nebraska looks to be settling into a committee approach to I-back, keeping legs fresh and allowing players to be inserted to maximize their particular skill sets.

Grade: B

Receivers

The receiving corps took one of the biggest hits over the spring when junior tight end Cethan Carter was lost to injury. While Carter should be back in time for fall practice (according to Jon Nyatawa of the Omaha World-Herald), it prevented fans at the Spring Game from getting a good look at what could be a crucial cog in Nebraska’s offense.

There’s plenty of receiver news that was positive, though. Senior Jamal Turner looks ready to go after an injury-plagued career. Redshirt freshman Jariah Tolbert made an impact at the Spring Game, catching three balls for 55 yards and a touchdown, and looking to be a legitimate option in the passing game. Mainstays like Jordan Westerkamp and De’Mornay Pierson-El are still on track to be part of Riley’s new-look offense as well.

Grade: B+

Defensive Line

Nebraska’s defensive line might be the hardest to grade, simply because of the difference between the inside and outside of the line. At tackle, Nebraska might have the best tandem in the conference with Vincent Valentine and Maliek Collins. But at end, big questions remain. Jack Gangwish and Greg McMullen look to be the starters, but in terms of both depth and overall talent level defensive end remains one of Nebraska’s biggest uncertainties going into 2015.

Grade: C+

Linebackers

Outside of the freshman class, Nebraska has five scholarship linebackers, including one (senior David Santos) who missed most of spring practice due to injury. Combine that with new defensive coordinator Mark Banker’s quarters scheme which tends to play three linebackers, and you put a lot of pressure on the few experienced players on the roster or on true freshman to contribute at a key position.

Junior Josh Banderas seems to be settling in for his second go-around as middle linebacker, while junior Michael Rose-Ivey is still working his way back from an injury that cost him the 2014 season. So coming out of spring practice, linebacker still has to be one of the big question mark areas for Nebraska

Grade: B-

Secondary

If depth is a theme for Nebraska’s roster, the secondary has it in spades. How deep? Well, LeRoy Alexander is returning from a year’s suspension, but is one of the most talented players on the roster. He was on the White Team roster for the Spring Game, and is not at all guaranteed to get his starting job back in 2015.

The same can be said for Daniel Davie, arguably Nebraska’s best cornerback last year. An injury has kept him out of practice this spring, and given the competition level at the position it is entirely plausible that he will not be a starter next season.

So while the depth chart itself is still being sorted out, Nebraska’s embarrassment of riches in the secondary qualifies as a “good problem” for Riley and his staff.

Grade: A

Special Teams

Half of Nebraska’s special teams looks to be dominant. Sam Foltz might be the best punter in the country, and his strength and accuracy (not to mention tackling acumen) was on display at the Spring Game. De’Mornay Pierson-El is a game-changer at punt returner and kick returner, giving Nebraska a huge advantage in field position.

But Nebraska’s placekicking position remains a question. Drew Brown and Mauro Bondi remain the scholarship kickers, and neither were standouts in 2014. Nebraska was a pedestrian no. 70 nationally in touchback percentage and no. 80 in field goal percentage, according to CFBStats.com.

So if you take two parts of special teams play that are elite at a national level, and two parts which are (at best) average, then a middling B grade seems about fair.

Grade: B

Nebraska Football: Mike Riley’s Biggest Concerns Post-Spring Practice

DSC00786

photo and story by Patrick Runge

New head coach Mike Riley presided over his first Spring Game at Nebraska on Saturday. The score (Red 24, White 15) didn’t mean much, but there were a number of lessons to be drawn from the performance.

The most important thing to remember about the Spring Game, though, is that it is really just a glorified practice—one of fifteen in the spring, with another entire camp coming this fall. The results and performances of the Spring Game should be viewed through that lens and weight given accordingly.

Having said that, there are two glaring areas of concern Riley must have after seeing how his team performed under the lights and in front of the crowd. It might only be two areas, but it’s fair to say they’re big ones.

Throwing the Ball

Here’s the stat lines for Nebraska’s quarterbacks at the Spring Game:

Player Comp Att Yrd Comp % TD INT
Tommy Armstrong Jr. 6 12 77 .500 1 0
AJ Bush 12 22 124 .545 0 2
Zack Darlington 7 11 70 .636 1 0
Ryker Fyfe 2 6 57 .333 1 0
Tyson Broekemeier 4 6 65 .667 1 0
Johnny Stanton III 3 11 19 .273 0 1
TOTAL 34 68 412 .500 4 3

 

That’s just not good enough. Yes, some of the incompletions were dropped balls (more on that in a bit). But at least on the evidence of one practice (in front of 76,000 people), the only quarterback in whom you could put any faith in accurately delivering the ball was redshirt freshman Zack Darlington.

Again, remember the caveat about this being just one practice. But Armstrong’s completion percentage numbers were about what they have been so far in his career, making fair the question as to whether those can reasonably be expected to markedly improve.

Catching the Ball

Nebraska’s woes with the forward pass on Saturday weren’t limited to the quarterbacks. Time after time, when passes were delivered on target, receivers were unable to make the catch. Wide receivers, running backs, and tight ends were all guilty of drops in situations where a catch should have been made.

Of course, the two concerns run together. Nebraska’s run game looked effective, with jet sweep action (and play fakes off of it) putting stress on a defense horizontally and providing an opportunity to get playmakers like De’Mornay Pierson-El the ball in space.

But if Nebraska’s passing game is as anemic as it appeared on Saturday, it won’t take long for opposing defenses to scheme for the run and dare Nebraska’s quarterbacks to win with their arms. On the evidence of Saturday’s performance (which, again, is limited evidence), it’s hard to have too much faith in their ability to do so.

In other words, Riley and company still have a lot of work to do before Nebraska tees it up against BYU on September 5.

Nebraska Football: Five Things To Watch In The Spring Game

DSC06465

photo and story by Patrick Runge

Nebraska football fans will get their one dose of football on Saturday at the Spring Game to tide them over through the long summer months until football season begins again. So they will be scrutinizing every little piece of information they can find, to get some idea of what Nebraska will look like under new head coach Mike Riley when the 2015 season begins.

To help, here are five things you can keep your eyes on during the Spring Game, to help give you an insight of things to come for the scarlet and cream.

What Routes Do The Receivers Run?

Yeah, this is a pretty granular thing to be watching. But remember that we’re still early in the installation process of Riley’s new offense. There’s a lot of sorting that needs to happen from the coaching staff just to get a good handle on the quality of the roster and how best to utilize its talents. So it is likely that the offense we see in April will be at best a slimmed-down version of what will take the field this fall.

But one way to get at least a preview of Nebraska’s new-look, pro-style offense should be the types of routes run by receivers. By seeing how Nebraska utilizes its receivers—be it down the field, in high-low schemes, slants, or other route concepts—we can at least get a glimpse of Riley’s ideas of how NU will be attacking defenses in 2015.

How Accurate Are The Quarterbacks?

The signal-callers will likely be the focus of attention at the Spring Game this weekend. Will Tommy Armstrong be unseated by one of the four challengers, all of whom are likely to see the field this Saturday?

It will be hard to tell, of course, given that the Spring Game is really one glorified practice at the end of spring camp, and that everyone will have a summer to digest the playbook before fall camp starts.

But if you want to watch one thing to get some insight as to the quarterback pecking order, keep an eye on the accuracy of the quarterbacks. How well they are able to put the ball on target will speak to two different and critical elements of player development for Riley’s quarterbacks—how well they understand the offense and are therefore able to anticipate where a receiver will be, and how technically proficient they are in delivering the football to its desired location.

Particularly in Riley’s west-coast offense where quarterbacks will no longer be seen as running backs, accuracy will be one of the primary characteristics needed for success. Finding which quarterback can best deliver accurately will go a long way in determining Nebraska’s starting signal-caller in 2015.

How Fast Will the Defense Really Play?

Ever since he was hired, we’ve heard how players in new defensive coordinator Mark Banker’s scheme will be able to play faster and freer. Most recently, defensive tackle Maliek Collins talked about how the new scheme will mean “no more hesitant play” from the Blackshirts (according to Mitch Sherman of ESPN).

That’s something we should get a glimpse of at the Spring Game. How free does the defense look? And does that freedom mean there will be spaces and gaps for the offense to exploit? At least at some level, we’ll see on Saturday.

How Do the Linebackers Cover in Space?

In addition to playing fast and free, Banker favors a “quarters” defensive structure that keeps three linebackers on the field for the majority of plays. Such a scheme, particularly against teams that play four- and five-receiver sets, will by definition ask linebackers to play pass coverage and have to excel defending in space.

How will Nebraska’s linebackers handle that responsibility? Watch for those situations at the Spring Game to get an idea of the answer to what could be the critical question facing the Blackshirts next season.

Who Stands Out in the Secondary?

Of all the position groups (save perhaps I-back), the secondary looks to be the most spoiled for choice. As a smart and particularly handsome analyst observed, the only starting spot that seems locked up is Nate Gerry at one safety position.

The others are up for grabs, with each position having two (or perhaps three) contenders that would be nailed-on starters in leaner years. It should make for fierce—and fascinating—competition for playing time, which will be on display this Saturday.

Nebraska Football: Final Spring Practice Stock Report

IMG_5384

photo and story by Patrick Runge

As Nebraska football fans enter Spring Game Week, it’s time to take a final stock of how spring practice has gone under new head coach Mike Riley. Between a new coaching staff and a new split-schedule practice, Nebraska fans have had a lot of changes to adjust to this spring.

So as we prepare for this weekend’s Spring Game, here is a look at some winners and losers as spring practice for 2015 concludes.

Stock Up: Graham Nabity

Spring football frequently produces surprise stories. And when you combine an undecided position like I-back with a new coaching staff having no pre-conceived judgments about players on the roster, surprise moves are even more likely.

(In other words, as Douglas Adams would say, expect the unexpected).

So perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising that junior walk-on Graham Nabity is getting outsized attention from Riley and the coaching staff. According to Robin Washut of HuskerOnline, Nabity’s consistency and performance has helped him to stand out, even from the four scholarship I-backs.

Take it for what it’s worth, of course. Two years ago, a smart and particularly handsome analyst mentioned Nabity but was talking up King Frazier as a player in the I-back depth chart. But at the very least, Nabity has an opportunity few would have expected coming into this season.

Stock Down: Cethan Carter

In what has been the worst injury news of the spring practice season, junior tight end Cethan Carter will miss the rest of spring practice with an injured foot. According to Jon Nyatawa of the Omaha World-Herald, Carter should be recovered from surgery in time for fall practice.

Of course, it’s hard for Nebraska fans not to flash back to the last tight end who wore no. 11 for the scarlet and cream.  In 2004, Matt Herian looked like he was going to be a crucial part of Nebraska’s renaissance as a West Coast offensive powerhouse. But a leg injury against Missouri robbed him of the 2004 and 2005 season, and Herian was never the same player even after his rehabilitation.

At this point, it sounds like Carter’s injury is nowhere near as serious as Herian’s. Nebraska fans are certainly hopeful that is the case, particularly given what Carter can bring to Riley’s pro-style offense this fall.

Stock Up: Jamal Turner

If Carter is on the very front end of an injury, then Turner is on the back end of a number of them.  After getting a medical hardship for missing most of the 2014 season, Turner is ready to take advantage of his final year in Lincoln.

According to Brian Rosenthal of the Lincoln Journal-Star, Turner believes the coaching change will help his performance.

“I feel like the receivers are going to play a big part in the offense this year,” Turner said. “Before, we kind of did, like on third downs. I didn’t like that. Who wants to be a second option, you know?”

Stock Down: The Scrambled Eggs and Toast Crew

Nebraska fans love their traditions, and one that has spanned four decades looks to be a casualty of the new coaching regime. As discussed by Steven M. Sipple of the Lincoln Journal-Star, the Big Red Breakfast looks to be a thing of the past. A combination of Nebraska’s radio rights moving away from KFAB and a decision by Riley to not make assistant coaches available for public speaking engagements during the season seems to have spelt the end to the breakfast meetings.

Sipple is probably right about the need for the breakfast meetings to continue, or at least that it would be good for them to do so. The people who attend those tend to be active boosters, the type that Riley will need on his side if he struggles early in his career at Nebraska. If nothing else than for self-preservation, finding a way to continue the breakfast tradition might be a smart call for Riley early in his Nebraska career.

Nebraska Football: Cornhuskers Poised for a Bounceback Year in 2015

DSC08934

photo and story by Patrick Runge

Nebraska football fans are gearing up for the Spring Game on April 11, knowing they are in for a long summer to wait before getting more football in the fall. If you’ve been following a certain smart and particularly handsome analyst, you know we’ve already discussed players who need to step up, players who have a starting role locked up, and players we have questions about, amongst other spring quandaries.

But who is poised for a bounce-back year for Nebraska. Who is ready to get off the map and reclaim their place in the spotlight for the scarlet and cream? Here are three candidates.

Jamal Turner

Turner is probably the clearest bounce-back candidate for Nebraska, simply because of how far he’s fallen. When he arrived on campus, he looked briefly to compete with Taylor Martinez for the starting quarterback job (and if you want to cue up a fascinating “what if” scenario, there’s a good one for you).

But when it was clear that Martinez was going to be the signal-caller, Turner shifted to wideout. By his sophomore year, he looked to be establishing himself at the position. But injuries derailed his progression, hampering his junior year and costing him the entirety of 2014.

Now, with a medical hardship in hand, Turner has an opportunity to establish himself in Riley’s pro-style offense. If he can retain the speed and quickness that made him such an electric prospect when he arrived in Lincoln, he might finally have the chance to be the star Nebraska fans have thought him to be.

Tommy Armstrong

It’s an interesting philosophical discussion to consider whether Armstrong needs to “bounce back” or not. He’s 16-5 as a starter, with a career passer rating of 130.64. But he also has a career completion rate of 52.9 percent, and a disturbing 31/20 touchdown/interception ratio.

So perhaps it’s unfair to label Armstrong as a bounce-back player in terms of the wins and losses he is a part of. But it is fair to tag him with that label in terms of his accuracy and decision-making, two elements that will be critical in Riley’s offense.

Riley has a history of developing quarterbacks, most recently Sean Mannion at Oregon State. While Armstrong’s winning percentage doesn’t need a bounce-back, his efficiency and decision-making do if Nebraska is to compete for conference titles.

Josh Banderas

Few players in scarlet and cream have had the highs and lows that Banderas has in his young Nebraska career. He was a starting middle linebacker as a true freshman. He was put into the doghouse and wouldn’t see the field for weeks at a time due to a lack of performance. He was, according to Steven M. Sipple of the Lincoln Journal-Star, mishandled by Bo Pelini and his staff.

But now he’s getting his chance to shine under new defensive coordinator Mark Banker. According to reports from spring practice (including the Fremont Tribune), Banderas is settling into his role at middle linebacker. And given Nebraska’s lack of depth at linebacker, Banderas will have a long leash to get the position right this time.

Nebraska Football: Who Needs To Come Through For Huskers In 2015?

DSC05465

photo and story by Patrick Runge

Nebraska football fans have been paying lots of attention during spring practice in term of which players might be making the leap, and which might find themselves on the bench this fall. But a different, and perhaps more important, question to ask is which players have to step up and excel for Nebraska to have a successful first season under new head coach Mike Riley. Here are three players whose success is crucial for Nebraska to win in 2015.

Tommy Armstrong

OK, pipe down, I know this is the Captain Obvious pick. But just because it’s obvious doesn’t mean it isn’t true. Sure, there’s no guarantee that Armstrong will even win the job. But if he doesn’t, that means Nebraska will be starting a quarterback with almost no in-game experience. Couple that with a new offensive (and defensive) scheme being introduced and two tough games (BYU and at Miami) in the first three, and Nebraska will have precious little time to get right as the 2015 season starts.

So that puts the pressure squarely on Armstrong’s shoulders to make the necessary improvements (which is columnist-speak for “have a better completion percentage”) and secure the starting quarterback job as quickly as possible. Nebraska isn’t guaranteed a successful 2015 campaign if Armstrong wins the starting job, of course. But if he doesn’t, the chance for Nebraska’s 2015 season to be successful diminish considerably.

Josh Banderas

In one of his spring camp observations, Brian Christopherson of the Lincoln Journal-Star pointed out that Banderas is settling into the middle linebacker position much more comfortably than he did when pressed into service as a true freshman. That’s good news for Nebraska on two fronts. First, getting Banderas on the field and contributing would be putting his considerable skill set to good use.

But perhaps more importantly, Nebraska would have the chance to get solid and consistent play from the middle linebacker. After Michael Rose-Ivey went down just before the season started last year, Nebraska struggled to find anyone that could fill the position appropriately. And particularly at middle linebacker, with the kind of additional leadership role the position requires, inconsistency at the position will sap the effectiveness of the entire linebacker corps, and ultimately the defense as a whole.

If Banderas is able to solidify himself at middle linebacker, especially given new defensive coordinator Mark Banker’s emphasis on three-linebacker sets, the Blackshirts will have an opportunity to take a step forward. Banderas’ ability to make such a leap is a crucial question coming into 2015.

Drew Brown

Oh, good grief, is he talking about kickers again?

Yep. After being spoiled for years, Nebraska toiled through a very average placekicking game in 2014, to the point where NU tried for a long fourth down conversion rather than risk a long field goal.

Like them or hate them (or, more likely, just mock them), having an effective placekicker is a huge strategic advantage for a team—and a huge liability for a team without a reliable kicker. Nebraska does have two rostered kickers in Mauro Bondi and Brown, but given Bondi’s history it seems like Brown is the far more likely candidate to have a breakthrough season in his sophomore campaign.

If Brown is able to show some of the promise he flashed when he arrived in Lincoln, Nebraska’s chances of a successful 2015 campaign go up dramatically.

Nebraska Football: Who Has A Starting Role Locked Up?

DSC05380

photo and story by Patrick Runge

Nebraska football fans have been watching spring practice closely, looking for clues as to what the team will look like under new head coach Mike Riley. And while there are many more uncertainties this year, given new offensive and defensive schemes, we still have a good idea of at least a few starters for next season. Here are four players who are likely to be on the depth chart next August.

Jordan Westerkamp

Wide receiver is a tricky position to handicap for Nebraska, as there are a number of talented veterans returning in 2015. De’Mornay Pierson-El is easily Nebraska’s most dangerous offensive weapon, but his size means his use will likely be limited on offense. He will play, most certainly, but will likely only be seen in particular packages.

Jamal Turner is another talented veteran who will very likely see the field in 2015. But even though all reports are positive, we still don’t know if he has fully recovered from the injury that cost him the bulk of last season. So it’s hard to call Turner a certain starter until we know his health status.

As a result, Westerkamp is the only veteran receiver that looks set to step into the role of starter for Nebraska. He leads all returning receivers in receptions (according to CFBStats.com), and has a history of spectacular and dramatic catches. So while there are a lot of mouths to feed in Nebraska’s receiving corps, it looks like Westerkamp will be first in line.

Cethan Carter

The only other pass-catcher that seems certain for the field is Carter, Nebraska’s most experience pass-catching tight end. Under previous head coach Bo Pelini, Nebraska had a maddening habit of ignoring its tight end for long stretches (call it the Mike McNeil effect).

But Riley likes to put the ball in the air, and likes to utilize an “H-back” by putting a receiver or tight end into the backfield. Carter would be a perfect fit for the H-back role, giving him more opportunities to see the field.

Maliek Collins and Vincent Valentine

It’s a little strange to think of the rest of Nebraska’s roster as being in flux, and yet having the defensive tackle position clearly locked down. But given the performance of Collins and Valentine in spring practice, that’s exactly what has happened.

Both Sam McKewon of the Omaha World-Herald and Brian Christopherson of the Lincoln Journal-Star have observed how Collins and Valentine have been dominating the offensive line all throughout spring practice. So wherever else Nebraska may have questions, defensive tackle is not one of them.

Nate Gerry

Nebraska is loaded with talent in the secondary, so almost all of the starting back four should have intense competition. At corner, there is a possibility of Nebraska being three deep with players that could start with a less-crowded secondary.

But Gerry looks to be the one certainty at safety. His play last year, after moving from linebacker after his freshman year, cemented his place as Nebraska’s most consistent defensive back. Look for him to be the one starter we know at this point in Nebraska’s talented backfield.

Nebraska Football: What We Still Don’t Know About Mike Riley’s Huskers

DSC00075

photo and story by Patrick Runge

As we near the end of spring practice, we are finding out much more about what Nebraska will look like under new head coach Mike Riley. But even though we are getting quite a bit of information—more, in all honesty, than some expected we would have at this point in the process—we still are in the dark about a number of important things. Here are three of the biggest questions that remain unanswered.

Who will be in the backfield?

We’re starting to get a clearer picture of what Nebraska’s offense will look like under Riley. Sam McKewon of the Omaha World-Herald discussed how Nebraska’s offense is progressing from a spread-based concept to more of a pro-style with the quarterback under center and receivers running more defined routes.

So at least we know a little of what the offense may look like. But who will be executing that offense is another story. As a smart and particularly handsome analyst pointed out, quarterback Tommy Armstrong’s status as next year’s starting quarterback is far from certain. And the battle to succeed Ameer Abdullah at I-back is even more in question. None of the four contenders (Imani Cross, Terrell Newby, Adam Taylor, and Mikale Wilbon) have any significant leg up over the others, meaning competition for playing time at I-back should be fierce all the way up to the first kickoff.

Can Nebraska take care of business?

Under Riley, Oregon State was known for giant-killing. But it also had a disturbing habit of dropping games to far inferior competition. In 2013, Oregon State dropped its opener to Eastern Washington. And again in 2011 to open the season, the Beavers were upset by Sacramento State.

If twice is a trend, three times is a trajectory. We have two data points in recent years to show that teams under Riley are capable of shocking defeats. Can he make sure that a third data point isn’t created in Lincoln?

Is Riley ready for the big time?

In some ways, this really is the question that underlies all the other questions about Nebraska under a new regime. Yes, Riley over-achieved in Corvallis, a place where it is insanely difficult to succeed at the highest level.

But over-achieving with plucky Oregon State is one thing. It’s a different skill set entirely to come from Corvallis to Lincoln, to go from having no advantages to having one of the top programs in the country. To go from very little attention both in-state and nationally to being in the spotlight and living in a fishbowl.

The only job Riley has held with similar attention and expectation was his time as the head coach of the San Diego Chargers. From 1999-2001, Riley went 14-34 with the Chargers and was fired after his third year into a five-year contract.

That doesn’t mean he can’t be successful at Nebraska, of course. At age 61, Riley has learned a lot, and made tremendous connections within the football coaching community. He has never been at a college program with the kind of resources and support he has in Lincoln.

But his history does, at the very least, make whether Riley can excel on the biggest of stages in college football a legitimate question to ask.

Nebraska Football: Biggest Storylines So Far This Offseason

DSC05473

photo and story by Patrick Runge

As Nebraska football’s spring practice winds on, a number of storylines have emerged. Given the hiring of new head coach Mike Riley and entirely new schemes on offense and defense being installed, the flood of news certainly isn’t surprising. But there are a few storylines that really stand out in bold type as we work our way to the 2015 season.

Here are three of the biggest storylines that have emerged this offseason.

A Simpler Defense

Under Bo Pelini, Nebraska’s defense was famously difficult and challenging to learn. It appears that under new defensive coordinator Mark Banker, Nebraska’s defense will be far simpler. Check out what junior safety Nate Gerry had to say about the contrast in styles at a pre-spring practice press conference (transcript via Huskers.com)

“My first impression is that I’m really excited for it. It’s a lot simpler than it was. … That’s the thing [new defensive coordinator Mark Banker] wants us all to do, to be able to get to the ball faster and to stay loose. Last year we had a lot of people overthinking. Mentally weweren’t as sharp as we were maybe supposed to be.”

Now, simpler doesn’t always mean better, of course. Check out Derek Johnson’s analysis on the HuskerMax forum about how Nebraska’s defense could struggle by insisting on remaining in a three-linebacker set.

But a simpler defensive scheme will, at the very least, mean that talented players are less likely to be kept off the field based on a lack of scheme knowledge. And that change in defensive philosophy might be the biggest one in Lincoln we’ve seen this offseason.

A Pro-Style Offense

When Riley first arrived, questions lingered as to whether he would be importing his pro-style offense. Certainly, given what happened the last time Nebraska brought in a coach to revamp the offense (by some dude whose name rhymes with Cill Ballahan), things didn’t go well. So many Nebraska fans wanted to downplay the likelihood of offensive upheaval.

And there is some ground for that reassurance. Riley has talked about the need to adapt the game plan to the talent available (as quoted by Steven M. Sipple of the Lincoln Journal-Star).

“We have what we’ve done as coaches and we have a new skill set at quarterback almost all the way around,” Riley said. “We are trying to blend the two as best we can together so we can help them be comfortable.

“This is not about what we (as coaches) want to do; this is about giving them (the players) the best tools to play fast and win games. It’s kind of interesting, and kind of fun for us, too.”

Having said that, though, there is no doubt that Nebraska under Riley will be a pro-style offense. In a pre-spring press conference (transcript from Huskers.com), wide receiver Jordan Westerkamp said straight out that Nebraska will have a “pro-style type of offense.” Quarterback Tommy Armstrong was quoted by Eric Olsen of the Associated Press of being told by offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf that he would “not be a running back” and that his job as a quarterback would be to “sit in the pocket, deliver the ball when I can and make smart decisions.”

How does incorporating a pro-style offense mesh with using the talent available on the roster for Riley? That’s the fascinating question we will see answered in part during spring practice, and in full this autumn.

The Starting Quarterback Job Is Up For Grabs

Yes, Riley has said that Armstrong’s experience is a benefit as he determines next year’s starting quarterback (according to Steven M. Sipple of the Lincoln Journal-Star). But that doesn’t mean he’s a guarantee to win the job.

Gerry DiNardo from the BTN is in the midst of touring spring practices from around the conference. Check out what he said about the quarterback races he’s seen so far.

Um, wow. A savvy outside observer says Nebraska’s quarterback decision “isn’t clear.” Add in the report from 247 Sports that Armstrong that back spasms have been hampering his performance and made him sit out of Wednesday’s practice, and the recipe is certainly there for someone other than Armstrong to win the job.

A smart and particularly handsome analyst pegged Armstrong’s chances to be the 2015 starter at 50 percent. Looks like recent developments from spring camp make that number just about right.