Nebraska Football: Games That Could Ruin Cornhuskers’ 2015 Season

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photo and story by Patrick Runge

At one point in history, any loss would be considered catastrophic for Nebraska football fans, something to be agonized over throughout the year. But Nebraska fans have endured enough multiple-loss seasons under Frank Solich and Bill Callahan, and enough comically-bad losses under Bo Pelini, to be a little numbed to the pain of an individual defeat.

But even if Nebraska fans have become (somewhat) accustomed to losses, there are still a number of games on the schedule that could ruin Nebraska’s 2015 season. Here they are, and why those individual losses would be so catastrophic.

South Alabama or Southern Mississippi

No, we’re not going to list every game on Nebraska’s schedule, even though some fans would consider any loss disastrous. But if Nebraska would drop a game to one of its two paycheck opponents, it would color the rest of the 2015 season. Even a 9-3 or 10-2 final result would be tainted with a “yes, but” from a loss to a clearly inferior opponent.

It’s not unprecedented. In 2013, Oregon State got beat at home in a season opener by Eastern Washington. And in 2011, the Beavers dropped their season opener at home to Sacramento State. So Riley’s teams certainly have a history of shocking losses to sub-par opposition.

Let’s be clear. It is unlikely in the extreme that Nebraska will drop either of these games. But it was unlikely that McNeese State would outplay Nebraska last year in Memorial Stadium, as well. And if the worst does befall Nebraska against either of these opponents, it will be the story of the 2015 season.

BYU

There’s an argument to be made that the BYU season opener isn’t as critical for Nebraska as some other games on the schedule. It’s a non-conference game, and unless Nebraska is going to compete for a spot in the College Football Playoff this season, how NU does in conference is the only real gauge of success.

But let’s face it. Nebraska is starting a season with a new head coach, after firing a guy who never won fewer than nine games in seven years. Yes, Riley is a great guy whom just about everyone loves. But if Nebraska opens the season 0-1 – especially if the loss is ugly, which is not impossible to imagine given that NU is breaking in a new offense and a new defense – then the good feelings of this offseason could evaporate quickly.

Miami

I hesitated to include this game, as there’s only one real scenario where a loss to Miami could ruin Nebraska’s season. If Nebraska ends the non-conference season 3-1 with a loss to the Hurricanes, then there will be very few complaints.

But if Nebraska drops the opener to BYU, and then loses to Miami, Nebraska will (with all due respect to the Jaguars and Golden Eagles) be 2-2 starting conference play. Losing one non-conference game will likely be accepted by most of the Nebraska fanbase. But losing two of its first three games could throw a fanbase into a panic.

Minnesota

The Minnesota Golden Gophers have a two-game winning streak over Nebraska. In football. Raise your hand if you thought that sentence would ever be written.

You, in the back. Put your hand down, you liar.

Minnesota under Jerry Kill, though, was almost like a laboratory experiment designed to beat Nebraska even though it was thoroughly out-manned in talent. According to Dave Bartoo’s College Football Matrix, in 2014 Nebraska’s talent ranking was no. 24, while Minnesota’s was 64. With that big of a disparity, a two-game winning streak for Minnesota is an amazing accomplishment. And a remarkable failure on Nebraska’s part.

With a smash-mouth running attack, Kill’s Gophers were perfectly suited to attack former head coach Bo Pelini’s defense that focused primarily on stopping the pass and would drop an eighth defender into the box only reluctantly. Combine that with smart and disciplined play, along with NFL-level talent (running back David Cobb, tight end Maxx Williams, and defensive lineman Ra’Shede Hageman), and you have the recipe for a winning streak.

Under new defensive coordinator Mark Banker, Nebraska will likely play more three-linebacker sets with a safety playing closer to the line of scrimmage, offering an eight-man (or even nine-man) front against the run. Instead of meeting strength with weakness, the Blackshirts should go into this matchup against Minnesota meeting strength on strength.

So this is a game that Nebraska should win, regardless of the Gophers’ two-game win streak. That means a loss to Minnesota, in conference and in division, would seriously threaten Nebraska’s goal of a return trip to Indianapolis in December.

Wisconsin

Admit it, Husker fan. You want this one. You want it more than any other game on the schedule.

You remember the feeling of being up 17-3 (!) in the second quarter last year, in Camp Randall. You remember thinking that this might, finally, be the metaphorical corner for Nebraska to turn.

And then you saw a corner turn, all right. A whole bunch of corners, actually, turned by Melvin Gordon on the way to rushing for 408 yards against the Blackshirts. Gordon shattered the previous NCAA record for rushing yards in a game (in three quarters, and on only 25 carries) and led Wisconsin to a 59-24 demolition of Nebraska, likely securing Pelini’s dismissal at the end of the season.

Nebraska may end up an underdog to Wisconsin, even at home. A loss to Wisconsin may not derail any of Nebraska’s reasonable expectations in Riley’s first year.

But a loss to Wisconsin means you, Husker fan, have to deal with Bucky owning you for another year.

(On the plus side, though, a loss to Wisconsin would mean this ridiculous thing won’t be cluttering up the trophy cabinet in Memorial Stadium. Seriously, it looks like someone is trying to make a giant sailboat out of the two stadium facades.)

Iowa

I know, I know. Nebraska fans really don’t take Iowa seriously as a rival. If Nebraska has to have an in-division rival, most Nebraska fans would pick Wisconsin. The Hawkeyes aren’t that big of a deal to most Nebraska fans.

But Iowa fans don’t feel that way about Nebraska. Doubt me? Check out here, here, here, and here.

There’s one of two things that could happen on the day after Thanksgiving. Either Nebraska could be on the verge of a division title, with a loss to Iowa preventing that return trip to Indianapolis. Or, Nebraska could be out of contention for the division, and a loss to the Hawkeyes in Memorial Stadium would end a disappointing season on a sour note.

Either way, ending the regular season by watching Nebraska’s black-and-gold neighbors charge across the field as time expires to grab the Heroes Game trophy and parade it back to Iowa City in triumph will leave a lasting impression on the Nebraska fanbase throughout the offseason. That’s not the way Riley wants to see his first season in charge end.

Nebraska Football: Adidas Gets It Right (Mostly) With Cornhusker Alternate Uniforms

Photo from adidas, story by Patrick Runge

For the last few days, Nebraska fans have been on pins and needles as adidas teased the Cornhuskers’ new uniforms. On Thursday, we finally got a look at what adidas has in mind.

This year’s offering will be a one-off, worn on October 24 against Northwestern (much like the Purples did last year with their Gothic-inspired alternates against Nebraska). It’s not quite as dramatic a look as adidas gave Louisville for its alternate uniform. And it’s not the sweeping full-uniform change that adidas put together for Miami this year. Nor is it the missed-opportunity disaster that adidas fostered on UCLA.

So how did adidas do in making Nebraska part of their #3StripeLife?

The Good

The helmet works well, basically replicating the standard helmet with a matte black base and chrome red striping. Functionally, it’s a matte version of the 2012 alternate helmet, which up to now was the sharpest of the helmet offerings.

There is one difference, though. On the back of the helmet, there will be giant-sized player numbers with the same horizontal slashes that permeate the design of the uniform.

The jersey is a real amalgam of previous alternates for Nebraska. Since 2013, adidas has used the stencil-like numerals for Nebraska’s alternate, and this year’s offering is no different. It has the black from Nebraska’s 2013 alternate, and incorporated the “metallic” look from the 2014 model.

However, by using a red-on-black color scheme, hopefully adidas will make the numbers legible from a distance, a huge problem with the 2014 offering.

The pants are functionally identical to last year’s model, with the color scheme being swapped (red-on-black instead of black-on-red) this year. The subtle sans-serifed N inside of the side stripes on the pants is repeated this year, which is a clever addition.

One other observation is the number adidas chose for the reveal, 15. It may not be breaking news, but this is further confirmation that De’Mornay Pierson-El will be the face of Nebraska this season.

The Bad

Yes, the undershirt is ridiculous, as pointed out by Paul Lukas of UniWatch.

(And before you say it, yes, we’ve all heard the one about the N standing for “knowledge,” thank you very much.)

But it’s an undershirt. No one other than the players will ever see it outside of today’s reveal.

Of bigger concern is the tire-tread  stretch pattern on the jerseys. Of course, we’ll hear from adidas all about how it will make the players faster, lighter, and stronger. But, come on. The primary reason for the design is to give a unified look to all adidas-outfitted schools. The German outfitter wants you to know at a glance that a uniform is living the #3StripeLife, and the pattern (along with the diagonal slashes in the stripes, as seen with Nebraska, Miami, and UCLA) is how adidas will accomplish that goal.

And The Amalgam

Adidas has come under withering scrutiny over the last year or so for producing flops in uniforms. It’s no accident that Michigan, Tennessee, and Notre Dame have all stopped living the #3StripeLife when they got the chance recently.

So there was not a little pressure on adidas to get things right this year for their football offerings. After a huge fail (UCLA), an interesting alternate (Louisville), and a qualified success (Miami), what adidas would do with Nebraska was a cross-your-fingers moment.

Taken on its own, the 2015 alternate is a success. For alternates, black seems to work better than red, as it’s easier to differentiate it from Nebraska’s standard uniforms without being overly weird. Prior to this season’s gear, the 2013 black uniforms were the best in my book, followed by the under-loved 2012 giant N uniforms (although Wisconsin’s that year were better) and then the 2014 “duct-tape” model which worked far better in theory than in practice.

But when you look at the history of Nebraska’s alternates (never mind how weird it is to think of alternate uniforms as having a “history”), this year’s offering seems like a re-tread.

See what I did there, referring to Nebraska’s tire-tread-pattered uniform as a “re-tread”? Quality analysis at work.

There’s really not much new in these uniforms. Instead, it feels like taking the best parts of previous uniforms and melding them together in the hopes of getting something right. Functionally, the uniform takes the black helmet from 2012, the black shirts from 2013, and the shiny numbers and N-pattered pant stripes from 2014 in a way that will be (hopefully) legible from a distance.

So overall, it should be fun to see Nebraska take the field on October 24 in these uniforms. Assuming the numbers are legible, adidas managed to avoid a car-crash of a uniform. And the black uniforms and helmets should be a hit.

But it’s hard not to feel like this year’s offering is anything more than a recycling of previous years’ models. And that’s not what an alternate uniform is supposed to be.

Nebraska Football: The Cornhuskers’ Biggest Position Battles Heading Into Fall Camp

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photo and story by Patrick Runge

Nebraska football fans know that fall camp is starting soon, and one of the biggest things for new head coach Mike Riley to do during fall camp is to sort out contested positions. Some positions are fairly clear, but a number of positions on Nebraska’s roster will force Riley to make some decisions.

Here are five of the positions where the battles for playing time should be the fiercest.

I-Back

Of all the battles, this position might be the most contested, simply because of the talented options available. Last year, Ameer Abdullah’s brilliance made it hard for any running backs to get much playing time, and the statistics showed. Abdullah had 62.7 percent of all rushing attempts by running backs in 2014.

That doesn’t leave a lot of room for an heir apparent, so the I-backs returning this year (along with the new guys) will all be starting from a fairly level playing field. Given the way the backs were used in the Spring Game, Terrell Newby looks to be the most likely to start against BYU in Nebraska’s opener. But Imani Cross, Adam Taylor, and Mikale Wilbon should all have their chances to earn playing time in fall camp.

The offensive line if your name isn’t “Alex Lewis”

At left tackle senior Alex Lewis looks to have his place locked up next season. Tom Dienhart of the Big Ten Network calls Lewis a “cornerstone” for Nebraska in the upcoming season. But the rest of the offensive line is a huge question mark.

Givens Price should have a chance to compete at right tackle, with David Knevel right behind him. Chongo Kondolo and Dylan Utter will be battling with Tanner Farmer, DJ Foster, and others at guard. And at center, Ryne Reeves and Paul Thurston should be the primary contenders.

Defensive End

Nebraska’s starters at defensive tackle seem pretty clear, with Maliek Collins and Vincent Valentine taking up the middle. But at defensive end, Nebraska has a number of players who should be fighting for time.

Greg McMullen, given his history at the position, should be one of the first names on the list. But behind McMullen, Jack Gangwish looks to be battling with Joe Keels and AJ Natter for the other spot at end. And younger players like Sedrick King and Daishon Neil be challenging for playing time. Keep special watch on converted tight end Freedom Akinmoladun, whose athletic ability could make him the surprise of the unit.

Linebacker

This position isn’t so much about who will be a starter – Nebraska is so thin at linebacker, that anyone with returning experience is likely to earn a starting job almost by default. Absent injury, Josh Banderas and Michael Rose-Ivey should be all but guaranteed a starter’s role.

But behind those two is an interesting battle. Returners Luke Gifford and Marcus Newby might have first crack at the whip. But incoming freshman Dedrick Young will have a great chance to earn playing time, as he was an early-enrollee. And the other true freshmen (Mohammed Berry, Tyrin Ferguson, and Adrienne Talan) will get their shot as well.

Secondary

This caption is a little misleading, as one starting cornerback spot (Daniel Davie) and one safety spot (Nate Gerry) are likely earned already from last season’s performance. But the other spots should be the subject of fierce competition, given the depth of talent at the position.

At cornerback, Charles Jackson,  Josh Kalu, Trai Mosely, and Jonathan Rose will be fighting with incoming freshmen Avery Anderson and Eric Lee to see the field. And at safety, Byerson Cockrell and Kieron Williams will be challenged by incoming freshmen Antonio Reed and Aaron Williams (as well as any of the players at corner who may slide into the position).

Nebraska Football: Strengths, Weaknesses, and Secret Weapons

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photo and story by Patrick Runge

Nebraska football fans are anxiously awaiting the start of fall camp under new head coach Mike Riley. As they wait, they will be looking through the roster and wondering what the secrets to a successful Nebraska season could be in 2015.

What will be Nebraska’s strengths to exploit? Its weaknesses to avoid? And what secret weapons can Nebraska fans talk about and look smart to their friends around a late summer barbecue? Here are a few options to consider.

Strength: Defensive Tackle

An argument could be made that the strongest overall position might be at defensive tackle. Maliek Collins is getting rave pre-season reviews, pegged by ESPN NFL analyst Todd McShay as a first-round pick in next year’s draft. Alongside Collins will be Vincent Valentine, who was tabbed as a third-string all-Big Ten player by Phil Steele and Athlon Sports.

Being dominant on the interior of a defensive line can help a team stop the run and get a straight-line pass rush. It frees up defensive ends and linebackers, makes play-action passing less effective, and helps a secondary by decreasing the amount of time needed to cover receivers. Nebraska fans have seen what a dominant defensive tackle in Ndamukong Suh can do for the rest of a defensive unit.

No, neither Collins nor Valentine are in Suh’s class. But seeing how Suh affected the Blackshirts – and opposing offenses – gives some idea of how important Collins and Valentine could be to Nebraska.

Strength: De’Mornay Pierson-El

It’s not exactly breaking news that Pierson-El is Nebraska’s most dangerous offensive weapon returning. With the departure of Ameer Abdullah and the questions surrounding Nebraska at quarterback (more on that in a bit), Pierson-El provides the kind of threat NU will need to attack opposing defenses.

Pierson-El’s value goes up when you consider what Riley’s offenses, and the players who have succeeded in those offenses, have looked like. At Oregon State, Riley used a steady diet of screen passes and jet sweeps designed to get shifty playmakers the ball in space and challenge defenses horizontally. Pierson-El’s speed and elusiveness make him ideally suited for those roles, or as a decoy in a straight-ahead rushing attack.

It’s hard not to see a little of Jacquizz Rodgers when you see Pierson-El. Rodgers, like Pierson-El, is small, shifty, and lightning-fast. At Oregon State, Riley was able to ride Rodgers to a win over then-no. 1 USC and make him the Pac-10 Offensive Player of the Year in 2008.

Weakness: Tommy Armstrong

Hear me out on this one. Yes, Armstrong has been successful as Nebraska’s quarterback. Yes, he’s the guy with the most experience and the most ready to take on the starting job next season.

But you can’t get away from the numbers. Armstrong has a career 52.9 percent completion rate, and a 31/20 touchdown-to-interception ratio. Those numbers are simply not good enough for Nebraska to compete for a conference title.

Of course, with a new coaching staff, it’s entirely possible that Armstrong’s numbers could improve next season. Riley and new offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf have a history of success with signal-callers. Armstrong, with an off-season of work with Riley and Langsdorf, may be the beneficiary of that skill.

If Nebraska wants to contend for a conference title in 2015, he’ll need to be.

Weakness: New Coaching Staff

Debate over the wisdom of firing Bo Pelini and hiring Riley started almost immediately after Pelini’s dismissal, and will not be resolved for some years to come. But whether the decision was wise or foolish in the long term, for this year there is no escaping the fact that Nebraska will be learning an entirely new offensive and defensive scheme. Not only that, but Nebraska will be in the no-man’s land of trying to fit players from an old scheme into a new game plan, and fitting a new scheme around the talents of the players currently on the roster.

In other words, year one of any new coaching staff has unique challenges. And given the front-loaded nature of Nebraska’s schedule, with games against BYU and at Miami in the first three contests, NU will have to be ready to play right away.

Secret Weapon: Receiver Depth

Sure, we know Pierson-El is an amazing talent. But look past him on the depth chart and Nebraska has a sneaky-good roster at receiver.

Jordan Westerkamp returns as one of Nebraska’s most reliable targets. Jamal Turner gets an extra year of eligibility and will have his final chance to be the breakout talent he was seen to be when he arrived in Lincoln. Cethan Carter has the athletic skills to create mismatches at tight end, and should be healthy enough (and in an offense which can feature a tight end) to be a factor. Alonzo Moore has speed to rival Kenny Bell, but has not been able to stay healthy enough to make a true impact.

Until the season starts, we’re not going to know how Nebraska’s run-pass balance will look on offense. But when Nebraska does decide to air it out, there will be lots of receiving options to work with.

Secret Weapon: Sam Foltz

Yes, a punter can be a weapon. Get used to it.

Field position matters in football. Take a look at a site like FBSDriveStats.com, and you can take a look at average starting field position and what a difference it makes to a team’s bottom line. The efficiency ratings from advanced analytical sites like Football Outsiders take field position into account as a primary indicia of a team’s success. Bill Connelly lists field position as one of the five most important statistics in understanding the relative merits of college football teams.

Connelly summarizes the importance of field position in one sentence. “If you win the field position battle (using average starting field position), you win 72 percent of the time.”

A punter is a crucial weapon in that field position battle. According to the NCAA, last year the difference between the no. 1 and no. 50 teams in terms of net punting average was 6.22 yards, while the difference in kick returns was only 4.74 yards.

That differential suggests that a punter, more than any other single specialist, can affect a team’s field position. And a team’s field position, as we have seen, can lead to wins.

Foltz is set up to be one of the conference’s best punters, according to Tom Dienhart of the Big Ten Network. Sure, punters get no respect, even less than placekickers in the eyes of most football fans. But if Foltz is able to help Nebraska win field position battles, his foot might carry NU to wins it would not otherwise achieve next season.

Nebraska Football: Who Benefits Most From Each Departed Player

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photo and story by Patrick Runge

Nebraska football fans have seen six players depart from the team after spring practice. And while those attritions do ease fears in terms of the 85-man scholarship limit, the question inevitably arises as to who benefits from those departures.

So let’s take a look at Nebraska’s roster and make some determinations as to who might benefit the most from each of the six departures this offseason.

Marcus Newby for David Santos

Of all the departures, Santos might have the most effect on this year’s Nebraska squad. Nebraska now only has four scholarship athletes outside of the incoming freshman class. Three of those four returning linebackers have little or no playing experience.

So there will be plenty of playing time to find for linebackers. Michael Rose-Ivey will likely be a starter after spending the season injured last year. That leaves one space left for competition, and Newby has shown the most potential. Newby did see the field last year, but almost entirely as a pass rush specialist.

Lane Hovey for Jariah Tolbert

Tolbert’s size (six-foot-three, 190 pounds) suggested he would be used more as a possession receiver, his height being an advantage in catching passes in traffic against smaller defensive backs. While Nebraska has a number of players who might be able to benefit from Tolbert’s departure, Hovey might be the best suited.

Hovey’s size (six-foot-four, 205 pounds) certainly is similar to Tolbert’s. And Hovey does have some experience last season, seeing playing time in every game and hauling in five catches for 69 yards. If he’s already earned himself a place in the mix, Tolbert’s departure opens the door further for Hovey to cement his place on the depth chart.

Byerson Cockrell for LeRoy Alexander

Nebraska was without Alexander’s services last year after a suspension, so it may not have been the biggest surprise that he is no longer on the roster. Given Nebraska’s depth in the secondary, Alexander’s loss is one NU can absorb, even though Alexander is a talented and promising defensive back.

Cockrell played at nickel for most of the season last year, but Nebraska under new defensive coordinator Mark Banker will likely use far fewer five-DB sets in favor of extra linebackers. So Cockrell’s experience will put him in prime position to compete for a starting safety position opposite Nate Gerry next season.

Zack Darlington for Johnny Stanton

There’s an argument to be made that Stanton’s departure really doesn’t affect anyone, as he found himself so far buried on the depth chart that he wasn’t really in competition for playing time.

So if you’re going to pick a quarterback to benefit from Stanton’s departure, it’s probably the one that looks to be second on the depth chart. And if I had to guess now, that’s Darlington. Using only the Spring Game as first-hand observation, Darlington was the one quarterback on the roster (including, disturbingly enough, presumed starter Tommy Armstrong) that could make all the throws Nebraska will need to succeed.

Alonzo Moore for Glenn Irons

If Tolbert looked to be a possession receiver, Irons projected as a burner to take the top off opposing defenses. While Irons’ skill set is a little reminiscent of De’Mornay Pierson-El, it’s unlikely there is much that could be done to affect Pierson-El’s critical role in next year’s offense.

So let’s go instead to Moore, a receiver who has the speed and skill set in the mold of Kenny Bell. But injuries have derailed Moore’s ability to stay on the field and make a contribution. If he’s able to do so this year, Moore has a shot to be a playmaker at receiver.

Drew Brown for Mauro Bondi

Much like with Stanton’s departure, it’s hard to find too much benefit for Bondi’s leaving given how far down the depth chart he found himself. But with Bondi leaving the program, all of the placekicking duties should now fall to Brown. This can do nothing but help Brown stay involved throughout the game, keeping him warm and included throughout the contest.

Nebraska Football: Five Freshmen Who Must Shine In Fall Practice

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photo and story by Patrick Runge

Nebraska football fans will be looking to the freshman as reasons for optimism in 2015 as fall practice begins. Yes, new head coach Mike Riley gives a new blush to Nebraska’s outlook on the season. But it will be the freshmen who will provide an upgrade to the roster that (hopefully, for Nebraska fans) will make the difference.

So here are five freshmen (redshirt and otherwise) who will need to have a solid performance in fall practice to set the table for the 2015 season.

Dedrick Young

Some of the other players on this list have to shine in fall practice for the players to have a chance. In Young’s case, he has to shine for Nebraska to be successful.

Nebraska’s lack of depth at linebacker is terrifying. For 2015, Nebraska has four scholarship linebackers. Of those four, one was used sparingly as a pass rush specialist, one was injured for all of last season, and one redshirted last year. That leaves one—Josh Banderas—with significant playing experience last year.

So the redshirt freshmen linebackers are likely going to be called on to contribute. Young, as an early-enrollee, will get the first shot at playing time. And unless Nebraska is extraordinarily fortunate with injuries, he or one of the other freshmen will be critical.

The Other Freshmen Linebackers

Young will get the first crack at playing time, but given Nebraska’s paper-thin depth at linebacker the other freshmen will have their shot. As a redshirt freshman, Luke Gifford should be first in line to take a crack at playing time. But the door will be wide open for the other true freshmen linebackers, Mohammed Barry, Tyrin Ferguson, and Adrienne Talan, to find their way onto the field.

Freedom Akinmoladun

Linebacker might be Nebraska’s biggest depth problem, but defensive end isn’t far behind. Jack Gangwish and Greg McMullen look to be in the lead to start, but the depth chart behind them is wide open.

According to Tom Dienhart of the Big Ten Network, Akinmoladun is his pick for Nebraska’s breakout player. A converted tight end, Akinmoladun brings speed and athleticism to the position, which is perfectly suited to be a pass rushing specialist at defensive end. And that’s exactly what Nebraska needs in an attempt to replace the production of Randy Gregory.

Matt Snyder

A smart and particularly handsome analyst pointed out that Nebraska’s offense under Riley should feature the tight end more than it has in the past. And while Cethan Carter should be first in line to benefit from the change in offensive philosophy, it also opens the door for a true freshman like Snyder.

None of Nebraska’s other tight ends on the roster provide the offensive threat that Snyder promises. And if Nebraska does end up playing in more 12 personnel (one running back, two tight ends), putting Snyder with Carter on the field at the same time has the potential to cause matchup nightmares for opposing defenses.

Jordan Ober

Ober might be one of the most under-hyped freshmen coming in, but he is second only to Young in terms of players Nebraska needs to contribute right away. Nebraska has the potential to be have a superior special teams unit, especially punting. But that’s only if Nebraska gets consistent play from its long snapper.

And that’s where Ober comes in. With the loss of Gabriel Miller to injury, Nebraska needed a scholarship long snapper. Ober, as a true freshman, will likely be called upon to come in right away and keep Nebraska’s special teams on track.

Nebraska Football 2015 Quarterback Fall Practice Preview: Depth Chart and Analysis

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photo and story by Patrick Runge

As we get closer to the start of fall practice, now is a good time to start looking at the Nebraska football roster and depth chart to get a better idea of what we might see this season. There’s no more important position on the field than quarterback, so it makes sense to start with the signal-caller.

New head coach Mike Riley will be bringing a different offensive philosophy to Lincoln, so it’s still a little difficult to guess what Nebraska will look like on that side of the ball. But given what we know so far, here is what Nebraska’s depth chart should look like—and why.

Starter: Tommy Armstrong Jr.

Armstrong’s experience makes him the clear choice to start the season under center for Nebraska. After the Spring Game (according to the Omaha World-Herald), Riley said of Armstrong that “[t]he thing that never wavered about Tommy was, and is a separator for him right now, and that’s his confidence. He’s a confident guy and he plays like it.”

As a starter, Armstrong is 15-5. His underlying statistics, though, do not inspire confidence. He has a 52.9 completion percentage, and has a 31/20 touchdown-to-interception ratio. It is very hard to construct a scenario where Nebraska wins a conference title when its quarterback has those statistics.

Riley has a history of producing quarterbacks, though. His most recent protégé, Sean Mannion, broke the Pac-12’s all-time passing record and was drafted by the St. Louis Rams. Riley will need to work that magic on Armstrong’s efficiency numbers to get Nebraska where it wants to go in 2015.

No. 2: A.J. Bush OR Zack Darlington

At the Spring Game, it was pretty clear that Bush and Darlington were next in line at quarterback for Nebraska. The two quarterbacks have very different skill sets. Bush, at 6-foot-3 and 220 pounds, is much more imposing and able to move the ball with his legs. Darlington, while able to move, looks to be more effective in the pocket throwing the ball.

Admittedly, the Spring Game is a terribly small sample size, and as such should be used with caution to make any judgments. But from that limited data set, Darlington was the only quarterback on Nebraska’s roster who appeared to have the accuracy and arm strength to make the throws NU will need to be successful next season.

Player Comp. Att. Yds. TD Int
Tommy Armstrong Jr. 6 12 77 1 0
AJ Bush 12 22 124 0 2
Zack Darlington 7 11 70 1 0
Ryker Fyfe 2 6 57 1 0

Again, small sample size. Darlington isn’t going to be considered as a starter just because of a good Spring Game performance. But it is that type of performance Nebraska will need from its quarterback to be successful going forward.

No. 4: Ryker Fyfe

Fyfe’s standout performance as a walkon freshman earned him a scholarship, and playing time in a live game against Michigan State last season. He has the size (6-foot-2, 210 pounds) and physical ability to compete as a Nebraska quarterback, an impressive accomplishment for a walk-on. And he played well enough to keep an Elite-11 participant in Johnny Stanton behind him on the depth chart, ultimately causing him to transfer.

But while Fyfe’s accomplishments are impressive, he still is behind the other three on the depth chart. Armstrong’s experience gives him a clear advantage over all the quarterbacks on the roster. And the athleticism and potential of both Bush and Darlington give them the advantage over Fyfe.

Nebraska Football: Why Cethan Carter Will Be Cornhuskers’ X-Factor in 2015

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photo and story by Patrick Runge

Nebraska football fans know that the college football season truly is right around the corner, and are trying to prepare themselves. Amidst the barbecues and swimming pools, fans are combing through the roster for 2015 and trying to determine who (in addition to new head coach Mike Riley) they can look to as the reason why Nebraska will take the next step and contend for a Big Ten title.

One candidate for next year is tight end Cethan Carter. Here’s why.

We haven’t seen his best yet

Carter will be a junior in 2015, but his production in his first two years at Nebraska has been limited. As a true freshman in 2013, Carter played in all 13 games, having 10 catches for 127. Coming into his sophomore season, it was hoped that Carter would continue the momentum from his freshman campaign and become a difference-maker for Nebraska.

But a combination of injuries and offensive scheme blunted Carter’s impact. He played in only nine games, catching six passes for 98 yards. So while the potential is there for Carter, we certainly haven’t seen it translate to production on the field as of yet.

He’s got the talent to succeed

But look at what Carter did when he returned from injury last year. Four of his six receptions last year were in Nebraska’s last two games, for a total of 73 yards. Sure, no one is going to mistake that production for a scarlet and cream Rob Gronkowski, but those numbers suggest at least the possibility of things to come.

Coming out of high school, Carter was a three-star prospect (according to 247 Sports) who projected as a pass-catching tight end. His size (6-foot-4, 240 pounds) and athletic ability make him the perfect matchup problem for opposing defenses, being too athletic to be covered by a linebacker and too big to be covered by a safety. If he can stay healthy, he should have the offensive structure around him to succeed.

He’s got the opportunity

Nebraska’s transition from Bo Pelini to Riley might benefit the tight ends more than any other offensive position. Under Pelini, offensive weapons at tight end would frequently evaporate from the game plan (otherwise known as the “Mike McNeil effect”). But according to Michael Bruntz of 247 Sports, tight ends under Riley are more of a focal point offensively.

Riley’s teams at Oregon State, according to Bruntz, tended to throw out of 12 personnel (meaning one running back and two tight ends) and other run-heavy formations. This spring, tight ends saw more work, including (gasp) tight end screens.  So Riley and new offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf seem primed to utilize the tight end in Nebraska’s new offense.

And the tight end is a natural fall-back for a quarterback learning a new offense. Tommy Armstrong struggles with accuracy to start with, and between those struggles and the new offensive scheme, it’s a natural fit for him to look to a player like Carter who tends to run more routes and presents size mismatches to make easier throws for the quarterback.

In the NFL, we’ve seen how a pass-catching tight end can transform an offense. Carter (along with incoming freshman Matt Snyder) have the body type and skill set to provide Nebraska with the possibilities to ask those questions of opposing defenses. Given the absence of such a threat in the past, look for Carter to get his opportunity in 2015.

Power Ranking Nebraska’s 2015 Schedule from Easiest to Toughest

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photo and story by Patrick Runge

As the calendar turns to July, Nebraska football fans can start to see the 2015 season take shape. So as they wonder what the first season under new head coach Mike Riley will be like, it’s a good time to look at the schedule game-by-game and figure out which contests look to be the toughest.

Sure, there’s a long time between now and when a football is kicked in anger this September. But given what we know now, here’s how Nebraska’s schedule looks in terms of its degree of difficulty from game to game.

No. 12: Southern Mississippi (home, Sep. 26)

Yes, you read that right. The Golden Eagles, not a South Alabama program which was born in 2009 and transitioned to the FBS in 2013, are Nebraska’s softest opponent this season. After spending years as a solid program, Southern Miss fell on hard times, going 4-32 (!) since 2012.

While the Golden Eagles have improved from last year (1-11 in 2013, 3-9 in 2014), there’s still a long way between here and respectability for Southern Miss. Cashing a check for a visit to Lincoln this season may help in the long run, but it won’t make what gets put out on the field in 2015 any prettier.

No. 11: South Alabama (home, Sep. 12)

Sure, the Jaguars are only in their sixth season of existence overall, and second in the FBS. But South Alabama went 6-6 last season and made a bowl game. And this year’s squad has eleven transfers, including seven from UAB after the school dropped football (and then un-dropped football six months later, in what might be the weirdest college athletics story of the season).

But that influx of FBS talent should help to improve an already-feisty Jaguar program. Couple that influx with South Alabama being a quintessential trap game, nestled between BYU and Miami on Nebraska’s schedule, and the Jaguars are at least enough of a challenge to avoid being tabbed as NU’s easiest contest of 2015.

No. 10: Purdue (away, Oct. 31)

I’ll save you the jokes about fearing a trip to West Lafayette on Halloween. While the first half of 2014 signaled at least some signs of life from the Boilermakers, injuries mounted and the second half of the season was a disaster. Purdue scored in the 30s in respectable losses to Michigan State and Minnesota, then limped through its last four games without topping 16 on the scoreboard.

Absent a dramatic turnaround—without the recruiting evidence to suggest such a feat given Purdue’s 5-year recruiting rank of 61, according to SB Nation—the Boilermakers look to be Nebraska’s softest conference opponent next season.

No. 9: Illinois (away, Oct. 3)

It was very tempting to put Illinois, not Purdue, in the bottom spot in terms of Nebraska’s conference opponents. The Illini haven’t been very good for a while now, needing a late-season surge to make a bowl last season. And head coach Tim Beckman has been dogged by stories (such as from Tom Fornelli of CBS Sports) that he has mistreated players under his care.

That’s not good for any coach. But for a coach in his fourth season with a 12-25 record, it sets up a dead-man-walking scenario for Beckman that can be a huge distraction. Still, the Illini have a talented backfield with Wes Lunt at quarterback and Josh Ferguson at tailback. That alone is enough to move Illinois up the list, at least a little bit.

No. 8: Rutgers (away, Nov. 14)

Yep, Nebraska’s going to New Jersey for a conference game. Conference realignment, ladies and gentlemen.

Last year, the Scarlet Knights looked salty, going 5-1 with a win over Michigan and Washington State. But then Rutgers hit a murderer’s row of a three-game portion of its schedule, losing to Ohio State, Nebraska, and Wisconsin by a combined 135-41.

Still, Rutgers has some talent, evidenced by a no. 48 5-year talent ranking from SB Nation. Combine that with a long trip to an unfamiliar destination and coming off a slugfest against Michigan State the week before, and Rutgers becomes a little more challenging.

No. 7: Northwestern (home, Oct. 24)

October 5, 2013, wasn’t that long ago. Northwestern was no. 16 in the country, and ESPN’s College Gameday was in Evanston to see the Purples face off against no. 4 Ohio State. It was Northwestern’s chance to really seize the moment and stake a claim as Chicago’s Big Ten Team and a player in the conference.

Ohio State won the game, 40-30. Since then, Northwestern has gone 6-13.

Prior to last year, Northwestern had a history of giving Nebraska fits, beating them in 2011 and losing heartbreakers in 2012 and 2013. But last year, Nebraska comfortably beat the Purples in Evanston, 38-17. Look for that trend to continue when Northwestern arrives in Lincoln this year.

No. 6: Iowa (home, Nov. 27)

Fans of both schools were left scratching their heads after Nebraska beat Iowa in double overtime last year, and it was the scarlet and cream that fired its head coach. After 13 (!) seasons in charge in Iowa City, the seat under Kirk Ferentz might finally be starting to warm a little after a lackluster 2014 campaign.

Iowa will be turning the reins over to sophomore quarterback C.J. Beathard, and trying to shore up an offensive line after the departure of both tackles, including Brandon Sherff. Running behind that line will be two-star running backs (according to 247 Sports) Jordan Canzeri and Akrum Wadley.

Unless Iowa can put together a surprise campaign like 2013, it’s likely that the Hawkeyes will come to Lincoln with a great deal more pressure on Ferentz. That does not bode well for a team to repeat its defeat of Nebraska at Memorial Stadium.

No. 5: Minnesota (away, Oct. 17)

Say this for the Golden Gophers under head coach Jerry Kill. They know who they are, they know what they’re good at, and they stick with it. For two years in a row, Minnesota has translated a bruising ground game and a stifling defense into a two-game winning streak over Nebraska.

But this year, Minnesota will be without tailback David Cobb and tight end Maxx Williams, both playing in the NFL. And Nebraska’s defense has transitioned from former head coach Bo Pelini’s stop-the-pass-first philosophy to new defensive coordinator Mark Banker’s nine-in-the-box quarters scheme.

The Gophers will still be a tough out for any opponent. But a combination of Minnesota’s likely regression (particularly on offense) and a Nebraska defensive scheme that presents a better matchup makes this game more manageable for NU, even in Minneapolis.

No. 4: BYU (home, Sep. 5)

Welcome to Nebraska, Coach Riley. Here’s a darkhorse Heisman contender and a matchup nightmare for you to handle in your first game. Have fun.

Cougars’ quarterback Taysom Hill is a beast running the ball. He averages 7.4 yards per carry if you eliminate sacks from consideration, according to SB Nation. And before his injury last year, Hill was completing passes at a 66.7 percent clip, with a 7/3 touchdown-to-interception ration (according to CFB Stats).

That’s a big ask for a defense playing its first game under new defensive coordinator Mark Banker’s tutelage. And while BYU’s defense isn’t exactly a world-beater (no. 58 nationally in total defense and no. 73 in scoring defense, according to CFB Stats), drawing the Cougars as an opening act for Nebraska is a huge challenge.

No. 3: Miami (away, Sep. 19)

If Nebraska’s first home game is a big challenge in 2015, its first road game is a bigger one. Miami is an immensely talented program (no. 17 nationally in the CFBMatrix talent ranking, the best of any Nebraska opponent this year). At quarterback for the Hurricanes will be sophomore Brad Kaaya, who gave Nebraska fits last year as a true freshman in Lincoln.

Yes, Miami might be under-coached. Al Golden has a -1.00 coach effect from the CFBMatrix, meaning he can be expected to cost his team a full game (!) per season. But Miami is still the most talented team Nebraska will be facing in 2015, and as the first road game of Riley’s tenure.

No. 2: Wisconsin (home, Oct. 10)

There’s no sugar-coating this fact for Nebraska fans. Wisconsin has owned Nebraska since NU arrived in the conference. Wisconsin has gone 3-1 against Nebraska in that span, outscoring NU 204-102. In the last two games, the Badgers have outscored Nebraska 129-55.

Ouch.

There is room for optimism for Nebraska fans this time around against the Badgers, though. The game is in Lincoln, home of Nebraska’s only win in the series. Melvin Gordon will be in San Diego (at least this year) playing for the Chargers. Nebraska’s defensive scheme under new coordinator Mark Banker should be far better structured to stop Wisconsin’s power rushing attack. And Wisconsin, like Nebraska, will be adjusting to a new head coach.

Still, Nebraska fans can be forgiven for waiting to see NU succeed against the Badgers before they believe it.

No. 1: Michigan State (home, Nov. 7)

The Spartans are still the class of Nebraska’s 2015 schedule, even after NU nearly pulled off an improbably comeback in East Lansing last season. Although tailback Jeremy Langford is gone, returning is quarterback Connor Cook to guide the surprisingly-lively Spartan offense. And under head coach Mark D’Antonio, the Spartans defense has been its calling card (no. 1 in rushing defense and no. 8 in total defense last year, according to CFB Stats).

With an experienced quarterback and a top-flight defense coming to Lincoln, Michigan State looks to pose Nebraska’s toughest challenge in 2015.

Nebraska Football: Incoming Freshmen Most Likely to Start This Season

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photo and story by Patrick Runge

Nebraska football fans already know they are in for big changes with the arrival of new head coach Mike Riley. But after being caught in a “Groundhog Day” type of almost-but-not-quite-good-enough seasons in the past, it’s a legitimate question to ask why fans should expect a breakthrough in 2015.

One reason for optimism might be true freshman seeing the field and making a difference. Last year, we saw what a difference De’Mornay Pierson-El made for Nebraska. Here are five (well, not exactly) true freshman who could see themselves as starters in 2015.

Dedrick Young, LB

Of all Nebraska’s incoming freshman, Young might be the one the team most desperately needs. With the departure of David Santos, Nebraska is down to four scholarship linebackers who aren’t true freshmen. One (Michael Rose-Ivey) is coming off a missed season due to injury, one (Marcus Newby) saw limited playing time last season as a pass-rush specialist, and one (Luke Gifford) redshirted last year.

Oh, and Nebraska’s new defensive coordinator Mark Banker uses a quarters defensive structure that favors three linebackers on the field for most plays.

So Nebraska is transitioning to a defensive scheme that puts an extra demand (as opposed to former head coach Bo Pelini’s preference for a fifth defensive back) on an area of the roster particularly thin this season. As a result, the young guys are going to have an opportunity early.

Young, as an early enrollee, should have the first shot at earning a starting role. Yes, he’s a true freshman, but it looks like he may be competing with a redshirt freshman and a bunch of walk-ons for that starting job.

All the other freshmen linebackers

In addition to Young, Nebraska signed four other linebackers in the 2015 class, Antonio Reed, Mohammed Barry, Tyrin Ferguson, and Adrienne Talan. Given the borderline crisis Nebraska is facing with its linebacker depth chart, it’s not inconceivable that one of these true freshmen could have a breakout performance in fall camp and find his way onto the depth chart.

Admittedly, it will probably take some additional injuries (or a truly monumental fall camp) before any of the other freshmen linebackers could be considered a starter. But given Nebraska’s perilous lack of depth at linebacker, and history of linebacker injuries prior to the start of a season (Michael Rose-Ivey in 2014, Trevor Roach in 2013), that scenario isn’t inconceivable.

Matt Snyder, TE

Under Riley, it appears that the tight end might be a renewed source of interest. For the 2016 class, Nebraska has already signed two tight end prospects, perhaps signaling an end to the “Mike McNeil” syndrome of talented offensive weapons at tight end disappearing from Nebraska’s game plan.

Currently there are three scholarship tight ends on Nebraska’s roster. Only one, Cethan Carter, is the kind of offensive weapon Snyder projects to be. And Carter has struggled with injuries throughout his career at Nebraska.

As of right now, Carter’s experience gives him the clear starting nod. But should Carter be unavailable, don’t be surprised if Snyder is next in line to start at tight end for Nebraska.

DaiShon Neal, DE

Neal’s path to a starting position is more circuitous than some of the others on this list. But Nebraska’s lack of proven depth at the position provides Neal with at least a plausible means to get there.

Really, Nebraska only has one defensive end returning who is truly proven in Greg McMullen. Jack Gangwish’s play at the end of last season was solid enough to make him the likely starter opposite McMullen, but we haven’t seen enough of Gangwish over the course of a season to know what to expect.

Behind McMullen and Gangwish are a number of players, but with significant questions. Senior Joe Keels and sophomore A.J. Natter have been on the squad long enough to know they have failed to earn significant playing time, at least to date. And the two redshirt freshmen, Sedrick King and Freedom Akinmoladun, have a year learning the previous system but no playing experience. Akinmoladun is also trying to learn a new position, converting from tight end.

So Neal has a number of hurdles to get from where he is now to a starter. But certainly in comparison to some other true freshman on the roster, there is at least some opportunity for Neal to clear those hurdles in fall camp.

Jordan Ober, LS

Of all the incoming freshmen, Ober might have the clearest path to a starting job in 2015. With the loss of Gabriel Miller, Nebraska was without a scholarship long snapper coming into the season. The signing of Ober recognizes the importance of the specialty position, and signals the likelihood that he should win the starting position over walk-on freshman Chase Urbach.

Don’t dismiss the importance of this development. A long snapper is an easy position to ignore. But think about how critical a consistently accurate long snap is for field goals and punts. The consequences of a bad snap in those situations is disastrous for field position, or for surrendering potential points on the board. There’s a reason Nebraska burned a scholarship on a specialist like Ober, and it would be quite an upset (and likely represent a big failure in scouting) if Ober wasn’t Nebraska’s starting long snapper in 2015.