Nebraska Football: Early Grades for the 2016 Recruiting Class

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photo and story by Patrick Runge

Nebraska football fans know that even though the 2015 season is still months away, important work for the 2016 recruiting class is being done. New head coach Mike Riley and his staff are beating the bushes (and social media) looking for the next crop of talented players to don the scarlet and cream.

Currently, according to 247 Sports, Nebraska’s 2016 recruiting class is no. 33 nationally and no. 7 in the Big Ten. But with a total of just six commitments, there’s plenty of room for the class to grow. But based on what we know now, here’s a snapshot of how Nebraska is looking for next year’s class.

All measurables and prospect rankings are from 247 Sports.

Offense

Nebraska currently has five commitments on offense.

Name Position Height Weight Star Composite
John Rairdon OG 6’4” 260 Four-star .9651
Bryan Brokop OT 6’5” 273 Three-star .8888
Jared Bubak TE 6’4” 235 Three-star .8538
Terry Wilson QB (DUAL) 6’2.5” 187 Three-star .8407
Patrick O’Brien QB (PRO) 6’4” 225 Three-star .8456

There are two big takeaways from this list, even at this preliminary stage. The first is the commitment of Rairdon, who would be Riley’s highest ranked recruit at Nebraska under 247 Sports’ criteria. Landing the four-star’s talent on the offensive line would be a big coup for Riley, and a huge boost for Nebraska’s offense in the years to come.

The second fascinating takeaway is the commitment of dual-threat quarterback Wilson. For his own talents as a three-star prospect, Wilson is a good get for Nebraska. But more interestingly, Wilson’s commitment means that Nebraska is still actively recruiting dual-threat quarterbacks. That was an open question with Riley given his pocket-passing pro-style offense from Oregon State.

Then, on Thursday, Nebraska secured a commitment from the three-star pro-style quarterback prospect O’Brien. Having both quarterbacks in the 2016 class, in addition to the five scholarship quarterbacks currently on the roster who would have eligibility in 2016,

Notable amongst the offers out for Nebraska is four-star running back Devwah Whaley (who, according to the Omaha World-Herald, has NU in his top ten of possible schools) and junior college offensive line prospect Malcolm Pridgeon, who according to the Omaha World-Herald stands at six-foot-eight (!) and 303 pounds.

Grade: A

Defense

At present, Nebraska only has one defensive commitment.

Name Position Height Weight Star Composite
William Johnson OLB 6’3” 220 Three-star .8617

The position is important, as Nebraska currently has only five scholarship linebackers outside of the players signed in the 2015 class. New defensive coordinator Mark Banker’s quarters defensive scheme relies on three linebackers on the field most of the time, so Nebraska will have a great need for depth at linebacker going forward. Adding a junior-college transfer like Johnson should help Nebraska with ready-to-play talent next year.

Defensive tackle will also be an area of particular need for Nebraska in 2016, with Kevin Williams graduating and juniors Vincent Valentine and Maliek Collins potentially leaving early for the NFL if they have a big 2015 campaign (Collins is included in the “others considered” of the early 2016 first-round draft projection of ESPN’s Mel Kiper).

Of course, there’s plenty of time for Nebraska to grow its defensive haul for 2016. Linebacker/defensive end prospect Quayshon Alexander is widely expected to pick Nebraska, although Sam McKewon of the Omaha World-Herald reports that Alexander is “slowing down” his recruiting process.

Grade: C

Overall

It’s a little scary to see Nebraska rated no. 7 in the B1G and no. 33 overall for the 2016 class. Ending up there would be a frightening sign of things to come.

But there’s plenty to be encouraged about, between the decisiveness at quarterback and the early handling of a position of desperate need on defense. It’s way too early to panic about results, and there’s enough good things happening to offer some comfort this early in the process.

Grade: A-

Nebraska Football: Coach Mike Riley’s Biggest Challenges for Nebraska in 2015

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photo and story by Patrick Runge

Mike Riley knew he had a big job on his hands when he took over as Nebraska’s head football coach. But now that spring practice is over, Riley will be focusing on the upcoming 2015 season. As we settle in for a long summer offseason, let’s take a look at three things that will be occupying Riley’s attention as he prepares for the upcoming campaign.

What the Quarterback Will Be

Notice the very specific phrasing of this challenge. It’s not who Nebraska’s quarterback will be—all evidence points to junior Tommy Armstrong, absent injury. The bigger question is what the role of quarterback will be in Nebraska’s new offense.

At Oregon State, Riley’s quarterbacks were pure pocket passers. Riley’s most recent signal-caller, Sean Mannion, left Corvallis as the Pac-12’s career passing leader and was a third-round pick by the St. Louis Rams in this year’s NFL Draft.

If that’s going to be what Riley is expecting, Armstrong is a bad fit. Mannion had a career 64.6 completion percentage and a 1.43 touchdown-to-interception ratio (according to Sports Reference), while Armstrong has a career 52.9 completion percentage (according to Huskers.com).

But Riley might be changing his expectations of his quarterback. His first quarterback recruit for 2016 (according to 247 Sports) is Terry Wilson, a dual-threat quarterback. Why would Riley be bringing in a dual-threat quarterback if he wanted to move Nebraska into a pocket-passer style of offense?

It’s clear that Tommy Armstrong will not be Riley’s Joe Dailey, a run-first quarterback asked to run a pass-heavy offensive scheme. But trying to find that balance between the offense Riley has run with the talent in Lincoln will be one of Riley’s biggest challenges this season.

How Nebraska Adapts To A New Defense

Nebraska’s defense will look quite different under new defensive coordinator Mark Banker. As described by Sam McKewon of the Omaha World-Herald, Banker’s Blackshirts will think less, react more, and play fast. That’s in stark contrast to former head coach Bo Pelini’s focus on complex schemes and blitzes to keep opposing oCffenses off-balance and look for advantages in matchups.

It sounds great, a very exciting style to watch. But it will also mean that Nebraska will have to win more battles athletically, as opposed to a reliance on scheme to make up the gap against a more talented opposing offense. And a team playing fast is also vulnerable to misdirections, counters, and other offensive schemes designed to use a defense’s speed and aggression against it.

Particularly in year one of Banker’s new defense, Nebraska could be face with growing pains as it learns how to play defense fast and simple. That could result in some ugly plays—which could lead to ugly losses if not managed properly.

September

“Wake me up when September ends.”

– Green Day

Say what you will about Pelini and the way he left, but he consistently won nine games. He never had his Callahan moment of a losing season and missing out on a bowl game. Yes, he never won the big prize, but he never guided Nebraska onto the reef like coaches past had done.

Some still question the hiring of Riley, whose career record of 93-80 in college may not inspire confidence in his ability to lead Nebraska to compete with Urban Meyer at Ohio State and Jim Harbaugh at Michigan. Of course, as a smart and particularly handsome analyst observed, Riley’s record in Corvallis was far more impressive than the .538 winning percentage, given the limitations at Oregon State.

But there will still be some skepticism about Riley’s ability to win at Nebraska. And his first three games present a stern challenge. A home opener against BYU and dark-horse Heisman candidate in quarterback Taysom Hill could easily see Nebraska start off 0-1. And after a paycheck game against South Alabama, Nebraska has to make a trip to South Beach to play a very talented Miami squad.

Yes, on paper Nebraska should probably be favored to win both games. But given that Nebraska is also installing a whole new offense and whole new defense, it’s not at all implausible to imagine Nebraska losing to both BYU and Miami.

And a 1-2 start to his tenure could easily to poison the well for Riley with the Nebraska faithful, particularly if NU struggles in the rest of the season and limps to a poor (dare I say) Callahan-like record in 2015.

Of course, the opposite is true as well. If Nebraska beats BYU and knocks of Miami on national television, Nebraska could find itself vaulted into the spotlight with a feel-good story of Riley’s success.

So while Riley should be afforded time to put his stamp on the program, the fact remains that the first three games of his career in Lincoln have the potential to define how he is viewed by the Nebraska faithful and the college football world as a whole.

Nebraska Football: Predicting the Cornhuskers’ 2015 Win-Loss Record

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photo and story by Patrick Runge

When Nebraska hired Mike Riley as its new head football coach, some were perplexed. How could Nebraska fire Bo Pelini after another nine-win season, something he had achieved in each of his seven years in charge?

While the reasons for Pelini’s dismissal were legion (and discussed by a smart and particularly handsome analyst), the fact remains that the bar has been set high for Riley in year one. Win fewer than nine game—heck, maybe win fewer than ten games—and some fans will be baying at the moon about how Nebraska was better off under Pelini.

So, will that happen? Of course, it’s far too early to be making definitive projections about a college football season still months away. But there’s still plenty we do know to make at least some educated guesses about how 2015 will unfold for Nebraska.

BYU (Sep. 5)

Nebraska fans should be terrified of this game. BYU comes to town with (at least at this point) a healthy Taysom Hill at quarterback. He’s adequate as a passer and dynamic as a runner, and that combination has given Nebraska defenses fits in the past.

As for the Cougars’ defense, according to CFBStats.com it’s good against the run (no. 20 nationally) and not so good against the pass (no. 114). So in game one of the Riley era, Nebraska will face an opponent that will push it away from what it does well offensively and towards what it doesn’t do well.

The difference in talent level (as of 2014, Nebraska’s talent ranking was no. 24 and BYU’s was no. 71, according to the incredibly-useful CFBMatrix) should be enough for Nebraska to win. But don’t be at all shocked if Riley starts his career in Lincoln at 0-1.

Fearless Forecast: Nebraska 28, BYU 24 (NU 1-0 overall, 0-0 in conference)

South Alabama (Sep. 12)

South Alabama isn’t exactly a paycheck game. The USA Jaguars did go to a bowl game last year, and did absorb a number of players from the now-defunct UAB Blazers football program. But even with that influx, the gap in quality between the two teams should be more than enough for Nebraska to comfortably expect a victory.

Fearless Forecast: Nebraska 45, South Alabama 13 (NU 2-0 overall, 0-0 in conference)

At Miami (Sep. 19)

In 2014, Nebraska won a bare-knuckle street fight of a contest in Lincoln. In 2015, both star tailbacks (Ameer Abdullah for Nebraska, Duke Johnson for Miami) are now on NFL rosters.

But Miami will have the benefit of a settled head coach in Al Golden, think what you will of him. Sophomore quarterback Brad Kayaa will be settled in to his offensive duties. And Miami will easily be the most talent team Nebraska will face in the non-conference season.

Particularly if Nebraska gets by BYU in the lid-lifter, a win over Miami could give Riley fantastic momentum and buzz. But given the travel (even though Miami is hardly an intimidating road game) and talent level of the Hurricanes, that’s an awfully big ask as Nebraska transitions to life under Riley.

Fearless Forecast: Miami 31, Nebraska 24 (NU 2-1 overall, 0-0 in conference)

Southern Mississippi (Sep. 26)

It’s really remarkable what’s happened to the Golden Eagles. In 2011, Southern Miss was 12-2, and looking like a non-power-conference team on the rise.

In the next three years, Southern Miss has gone 4-32.

Yes, the Golden Eagles will likely be better under head coach Todd Monken’s third year in charge. And yes, it was Southern Miss who delivered a stunning upset to Nebraska in Bill Callahan’s first year in charge.

But that was a different Southern Miss team in 2004. The Golden Eagles’ appearance on the schedule may be coincidental, but a similar outcome to what happened in 2004 is unlikely.

Fearless Forecast: Nebraska 51, Southern Miss 10 (NU 3-1 overall, 0-0 in conference)

At Illinois (Oct. 3)

Illini head coach Tim Beckman has been busy defending himself against allegations that he mistreated his players. According to the Chicago Tribune, Darrius Millines added his voice to Simon Cvijanovic as former players critical of Beckman’s handling of injuries.

For a team that snuck into a bowl game last year at 6-6 and desperately trying to turn a corner, this type of controversy is exactly what the Illini don’t need. How much of a story this will be—or if Beckman is still in charge in Champaign on October 3—is yet to be determined.

Either way, this won’t help an Illini squad already overmatched against Nebraska.

Fearless Forecast: Nebraska 35, Illinois 10 (NU 4-1 overall, 1-0 in conference)

Wisconsin (Oct. 10)

The second incarnation of the Freedom Trophy will be played in Lincoln, with Nebraska coming off a humiliating defeat at the hands of the Badgers last season—a loss that likely contributed in large part to the firing of Pelini as head coach.

Both teams will be breaking in new head coaches, with Paul Chryst taking the helm in Madison. But Chryst has deep ties with Wisconsin, and his arrival is nowhere near the culture shock that Riley is in Lincoln.

This game may well be the de facto Big Ten West championship game, and should be fascinating to watch. But given how Wisconsin has played against Nebraska in their last two encounters, it’s hard not to lean towards the Badgers.

Fearless Forecast: Wisconsin 24, Nebraska 20 (NU 4-2 overall, 1-1 in conference)

At Minnesota (Oct. 17)

They couldn’t make it three straight, could they?

It’s hard for Nebraska fans to wrap their collective heads around this, but the Golden Gophers hold a two-game winning streak over Nebraska. In 2015, though, Nebraska will not be trying to massage a clearly-injured Taylor Martinez through a game at quarterback like it did the last time the two met in Minneapolis, and Minnesota will not have David Cobb running the ball.

Combine that with the talent disparity (Nebraska at no. 24, Minnesota at no. 64 in 2014, according to CFBMatrix), and 2015 should be the year Nebraska breaks the Gopher jinx.

Fearless Forecast: Nebraska 24, Minnesota 16 (NU 5-2 overall, 2-1 in conference)

Northwestern (Oct. 24)

In 2012 and 2013, the Purples had Nebraska dead to rights, but couldn’t land the knockout blow. After a win in 2011, Northwestern could easily have been 3-0 against Nebraska going into last year’s game in Evanston.

But Nebraska pulled away in that game, winning 38-17. Northwestern slipped quite a bit last season, finishing at 5-7. There’s little to suggest that the Purples will be able to right the ship in 2015.

Fearless Forecast: Nebraska 41, Northwestern 14 (NU 6-2 overall, 3-1 in conference)

At Purdue (Oct. 31)

Purdue’s last bowl appearance was after the 2012 season, where the Boilermakers lost to Oklahoma State in the Heart of Texas Bowl, 58-17. Since then, Purdue went 1-11 in 2013 and 3-9 in 2014.

So, yes, there’s progress. But there’s also quite a ways to go. And even with the game being at home (and on Halloween, no less), the disparity between Purdue and Nebraska should be on display.

Fearless Forecast: Nebraska 35, Purdue 13 (NU 7-2 overall, 4-1 in conference)

Michigan State (Nov. 7)

Say goodbye to former Legends Division rival Michigan State, as the Spartans fall off Nebraska’s schedule with their relocation to the B1G East division last season. And given how Michigan State has fared against Nebraska recently (winning two straight), Nebraska fans might not be sad to see them fall off the schedule.

But Michigan State returns the most experienced and effective quarterback of Nebraska’s 2015 opponents in Connor Cook. And while the Spartans do lose receiver Tony Lippett and running back Jeremy Langford to the NFL, head coach Mark D’Antonio’s defense should still be a stern test for Riley’s pro-style offense in its first year in Lincoln.

Fearless Forecast: Michigan State 21, Nebraska 17 (NU 7-3 overall, 4-2 in conference)

At Rutgers (Nov. 14)

For a time, Rutgers looked like it might have a sneaky good 2014 football season. The Scarlet Knights started out 5-1, with their only loss a 13-10 heartbreaker against Penn State.

Then, the Knights were drubbed by Ohio State, 56-17, and proceeded to lose four of their last six games. Rutgers did finish last season at 8-5, with a win over North Carolina in the Quick Lane Bowl. But Nebraska handled Rutgers comfortably last year, 42-24, and there is little about a trip to Piscataway that suggests a different outcome in 2015.

Fearless Forecast: Nebraska 35, Rutgers 21 (NU 8-3 overall, 5-2 in conference)

Iowa (Nov. 27)

Hawkeye fans were amazed at how Iowa stumbled to the finish line in 2014, losing three of its last four games (including blowing a 17-point lead to Nebraska before losing in overtime), and yet seeing Nebraska and not Iowa make a change at head coach.

Iowa has now handed the keys at quarterback to C.J. Beatherd, a move many Hawkeye fans had been clamoring for throughout much of 2014. Neither team has won a home Heroes Game trophy since the inauguration of the anodyne monument in 2011.

But given Iowa’s struggles to find traction over the last few years, look for Nebraska to break that streak in 2015.

Fearless Forecast: Nebraska 27, Iowa 20 (NU 9-3 overall, 6-2 in conference)

Nebraska Football: Who Is Replacing Every Former Husker Taken in the 2015 NFL Draft?

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photo and story by Patrick Runge

Nebraska football fans watching the NFL draft had to wait until the second day to see the first Cornhusker alum go off the board. Ameer Abdullah went in the second round to the Lions, Randy Gregory went (finally) in the second round to the Cowboys, and Kenny Bell went in the fifth round to the Buccaneers.

So who will take their place? Which players will step up and replace the NFL-level production provided by Abdullah, Gregory, and Bell last season? With the help of a projected depth chart from Sam McKewon of the Omaha World-Herald, here’s at least some potential replacements.

Terrell Newby for Ameer Abdullah

This is probably a little misleading. Newby looks to be in prime position to get the first crack at taking the lead I-back role for Nebraska in 2015. But McKewon thinks (and with good reason) that Newby will be at least the nominal starter net season.

That may not mean as much with Nebraska’s stable of backs (and with a new head coach and offensive philosophy). And there’s no doubt that none of Nebraska’s I-backs will be focus of NU’s offense and a team leader the way Abdullah was last year.

But if there’s anyone that will fill the Ameer-shaped hole for Nebraska next year, Newby looks like the man to get the first shot at it.

Marcus Newby for Randy Gregory

OK, hear me out. I know Newby is a linebacker, and isn’t even guaranteed a starting job next year. But Gregory was always undersized for a defensive end, making up for his lack of size with freakish athletic ability.

What Gregory’s real talent was for the Blackshirts was rushing the passer. In both 2013 and 2014 (according to CFBStats.com), Gregory led Nebraska in sacks. Newby had one sack in eight appearances. More importantly, though, his appearances were mainly limited to passing situations where his role was to rush the passer.

Sure, Gregory was an every-down defensive lineman at the collegiate level, not just a pass-rush specialist. But where Gregory will be most missed by Nebraska is his ability to pressure opposing quarterbacks. Don’t be surprised to see Newby fill that role next year, if he doesn’t beat David Santos out for the weakside linebacker job altogether.

Jamal Turner for Kenny Bell

Yes, De’Mornay Pierson-El is likely to be Nebraska’s most dangerous weapon at receiver. But Bell provided more than just a deep threat. He was also provided leadership and toughness. And while Pierson-El’s talent is undeniable, he hasn’t even played a full year at receiver.

Turner, on the other hand, will be starting his sixth year in the program after receiving a medical hardship. And with the injuries he has fought through, Turner has demonstrated a toughness and tenacity which the rest of the receiving corps can look to and emulate.

Admittedly, Turner doesn’t have Bell’s amazing hair. But Turner, more than anyone else on the roster, can replace Bell’s combination of playmaking speed and senior leadership.

Nebraska Football: Reasonable Expectations for the Huskers’ 2015 Season

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photo and story by Patrick Runge

Nebraska football fans do have the capacity for being reasonable (evidence sometimes notwithstanding). So as we settle in for the off-season, let’s take some time to look ahead and think about what we can reasonably expect from Nebraska under new head coach Mike Riley.

Nebraska Will Improve on Turnovers, not Penalties

A smart and particularly handsome analyst has used this table before, but what it reveals about Nebraska under former head coach Bo Pelini is striking. Take a look at where Nebraska ranked under Pelini nationally in terms of penalty yards per game and turnover margin (stats courtesy of CFBStats.com)

Year Penalty yds/game, nat’l ranking Turnover margin, nat’l ranking
2008 99 108
2009 102 33
2010 115 61
2011 73 67
2012 95 108
2013 82 119
2014 56 75

The bold italic numbers, as a refresher, are the times when Nebraska finished in the top half nationally in those statistical categories. In other words, if the number isn’t in bold italics, it means Nebraska was (put charitably) below average.

Put less charitably—especially when the national rankings were in triple digits—it means Nebraska was regularly atrocious.

How did those numbers look in the same time period under Riley at Oregon State? In comparison, it’s a mixed bag.

Year Penalty yds/game, nat’l ranking Turnover margin, nat’l ranking
2008 83 56
2009 87 31
2010 80 35
2011 118 100
2012 78 29
2013 78 42
2014 123 41

With regards to penalties, you could argue that Riley’s Beavers were worse than Pelini’s Cornhuskers. But with regards to turnover margin, Riley’s teams were far better than Pelini’s.

So you can stop expecting Nebraska to commit fewer penalties just because Riley is such a soft touch in comparison to Pelini. But you can expect Nebraska under Pelini to do a much better job in protecting the football.

True Freshmen Will Make An Impact

A combination of talent and lack of depth will likely push a number of true freshmen onto the field in 2015. The clearest path to the field is probably possessed by linebacker Dedrick Young, given that Nebraska only has five non-freshmen scholarship linebackers on the roster (you can see a class-by-class breakdown of NU’s roster competition here, courtesy of the Omaha World-Herald).

Eric Lee and Avery Anderson, two of Nebraska’s highest-rated recruits (according to 247Sports), should be in the mix for playing time even in NU’s crowded and talented secondary. Matt Snyder, a talented offensive weapon at tight end, could be pressed into earlier service if the spring injury to Cethan Carter lingers into the fall. And Jordan Ober looks to come in right away and start for Nebraska at long snapper after losing scholarship snapper Gabriel Miller to injury last year.

Nebraska’s Record Will Be About The Same As 2014

Cue the “then why did we fire a coach who never won fewer than nine games” shrieking in three, two, one …

Nebraska’s 2015 schedule isn’t the most difficult, but it’s got some pitfalls. The season opener against BYU is a big challenge, given that Nebraska will be installing a new offense and a new defense. Riley’s first test of his new-look Cornhusker squad will be against a program with a national championship in its locker, not an FCS directional school coming to Lincoln for a paycheck.

Nebraska also has to travel to Miami to face a Hurricanes squad with more talent on paper than the Cornhuskers. In conference, Nebraska also has to go to Minneapolis to face a Golden Gopher team with a two-game winning streak over NU (I know, I had to read that a couple of times to let it truly sink in). Games against Wisconsin and Michigan State (and, to a lesser extent, Iowa and Northwestern) will challenge Nebraska, but they are at Memorial Stadium.

Last year Nebraska went 9-3 in the regular season. Given the two challenges in the non-conference and the five in-conference, combined with the difficulties of transitioning to a new coach and a new system, besting a 9-3 record would be a challenge. It would take a big step up in quarterback play, or a big step back from a number of Nebraska’s conference foes, to comfortably predict a step up from NU’s 2014 record.

We’ll have a discussion later about whether or not that can represent progress for Nebraska. Be patient, it’s a long off-season.

Nebraska Football: Cornhuskers’ Top 2016 Draft Prospects

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photo and story by Patrick Runge

The 2015 NFL Draft is less than a week old. So, clearly, it’s time to look at 2016, right?

Well, why not? While it’s hard to know exactly what Nebraska will look like next year under new head coach Mike Riley, we do have some idea of the returning talent. And there are numerous resources looking ahead to 2016 (and beyond) to see what kind of talent is in the pipeline for the NFL.

So let’s take a look to see who on Nebraska’s roster might be hearing their names called next May.

Prospect rankings from NFLDraftScout.com.

Maliek Collins (unranked DT, junior)

This is more than a little projection, given that Collins will be a junior next hear. But throughout spring practice, Collins has been the most disruptive player for the Blackshirts. According to Mitch Sherman of ESPN, Collins was compared by former Nebraska head coach Bo Pelini to LSU standout Glenn Dorsey. And he, along with fellow defensive tackle Vincent Valentine, were “the strength” of Nebraska defense this spring.

So if Collins continues his standout performance, don’t be shocked to see him give consideration to leaving after his junior season at Nebraska.

Ryne Reeves (no. 18 OG)

If Reeves can stay healthy, he has an opportunity in his senior season to make a name for himself and perhaps earn a look to playing on Sundays. He has the frame (six-foot-three, 295 pounds) and the skill set to be effective, to be sure. And if Reeves is able to stay upright and on the field this year, he will have the chance to earn his ranking.

Alex Lewis (no. 15 OT)

Talk about a guy who has benefited from a change in scenery. Lewis started his career at Colorado, transferring to Nebraska after a conviction for assault. But since he has arrived, Lewis has stayed out of trouble and been a steady starter at the critical position of left tackle for Nebraska.

If Lewis is able to up his game and have a standout senior campaign, he could be one of the names called next May in the 2016 NFL draft.

Nebraska Football: 5 Things We Learned About the Cornhuskers This Spring

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photo and story by Patrick Runge

Nebraska football fans are just now settling in for a long summer’s absence of football. And with the arrival of new head coach Mike Riley, Nebraska fans have had a lot of change to absorb.

But before we let spring football for 2015 go, let’s take time to look back and see what we’ve learned about the new-look Nebraska.

The Offense Will Fit The Players

After the Bill Callahan experience, Nebraska fans can be forgiven for their concern about a coaching change. Nebraska’s 2004 campaign was a disaster, with Callahan attempting to force the square peg of quarterback Joe Dailey into the round hold of Callahan’s West Coast offense. The result was a 5-6 season and a poisoning of the well between Callahan and the fan base.

Riley looks to understand the folly of that arrogance. According to Tom Shatel of the Omaha World-Herald, Riley and offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf look to be tailoring Nebraska’s 2015 offense to the strengths of its talents, rather than trying to force them into a rigid system. For example, Nebraska looks to be operating more out of a shotgun this year, even though it appears that Riley and Langsdorf would prefer a quarterback operating under center.

“That is what they (quarterbacks) feel comfortable with,” Langsdorf said. “I’m OK with (shotgun).”

The Defense Will Be Simpler

Bo Pelini’s defensive scheme was very effective, no one will deny that. But it was also very complicated, and relied on players (particularly safeties) to make reads and respond accordingly. A mistake on those reads could be catastrophic.

New defensive coordinator Mark Banker’s system looks to be simpler, relying more on the athleticism of its players to be effective. Linebacker Josh Banderas compared Banker’s system to Pelini’s (according to Lee Barfknecht of the Omaha World-Herald) and his thoughts were revealing.

“But now I feel like I can just play football instead of a scheme. I’m a lot more fluid and can have more fun.”

Now, simpler and more fluid can be a two-edged sword. Nebraska may be vulnerable to being out-schemed offensively, or just out-matched athletically. But at the very least, the Blackshirts will look very different under the new regime.

Tommy Armstrong Will (Probably) Be The Starter

“The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.”

– Rita Mae Brown (and probably not Albert Einstein)

Armstrong has a career completion percentage of 52.9 percent. At the Spring Game, his completion percentage was 50 percent. While Riley has a history of working with and improving quarterbacks, and Langsdorf arrives in Lincoln after coaching quarterbacks for the New York Giants, the idea of Armstrong dramatically improving his accuracy is still worthy of skepticism.

As a certain smart and particularly handsome analyst observed, that’s just not good enough for Nebraska to win a conference title.

And yet, everyone from Tom Shatel of the Omaha World-Herald to Mitch Sherman of ESPN to Steven M. Sipple of the Lincoln Journal-Star remain convinced that the starting quarterback’s job is Armstrong’s to lose. Certainly, Armstrong’s experience and success as a starter are huge advantages for him. Perhaps Armstrong can make strides in Riley’s offense. Or perhaps the other quarterbacks on the roster simply haven’t been capable of showing enough in practice to unseat the incumbent.

So absent a huge shakeup in fall camp, look for Armstrong to lead the line for Nebraska against BYU in September.

The Sweep is Here To Stay

Nebraska fans can be forgiven for having nightmares about the jet sweep, after Wisconsin ground the Blackshirts to a fine red mist deploying it with Melvin Gordon in the 2012 Big Ten Championship game.

Well, it looks like Nebraska will finally be joining that party. At the Spring Game, we saw the jet sweep deployed a number of times, to great effect. Combining a jet sweep or a fake sweep with an inside zone running game gives Nebraska an opportunity to put defenders in a quandary, forcing them to make a decision and perhaps be a step or two behind the ball carrier.

According to Sam McKewon and Jon Nyatawa of the Omaha World-Herald, don’t be surprised to see the jet sweep as a staple of Nebraska’s offensive attack.

“I think that sweep play is always going to be something that is part of our identity,” said Riley. “There’s some other stuff that goes with it that has always been fun to do, and it’s nice to see it take shape like that because when it’s going it gives you another running weapon in your offense.”

Mike Riley is not Bo Pelini

If nothing else, Pelini’s departure has freed some of the journalists covering Nebraska to lift the curtain and show off some of the warts that were present under his leadership. Steven M. Sipple of the Lincoln Journal-Star discussed the “mismanagement” of linebacker Josh Banderas, to the point of him nearing a transfer. Perhaps more damning, Lee Barfknecht of the Omaha World-Herald wrote about Pelini’s “loser’s limp” of complaining how hard it was to recruit to Lincoln, and about the “frat house” atmosphere in the football program without “adult” leadership.

Citing as an example of the “frat house” atmosphere, Barfknecht referred to an interview with defensive tackle Kevin Williams this spring, where Williams said “meetings actually start on time now.”

Is that a little thing? Of course it is. But big things are nothing more than a collection of little things put in the proper order.

Riley’s arrival does not, of course, guarantee success for Nebraska. Indeed, in 2015 Riley will face a challenge to even equal Pelini’s win-loss total from the previous season.

But there is no question that Nebraska under Riley will look and feel radically different than it did under Pelini.

Nebraska Football: NFL Draft Projections for Every Former Cornhusker

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photo and story by Patrick Runge

On Thursday, the 2015 NFL Draft will begin, and Nebraska fans will be keeping an eye out to see where former Cornhuskers land. Ever since the Bill Callahan era, Nebraska has touted the success of its alumni in the NFL, and there are at least three players who look likely to join their ranks.

Lance Zierlein and Chad Reuter at NFL.com put together a seven-round mock draft showing where each player could land. While mock drafts are notoriously unreliable in terms of their predictive accuracy, they are interesting as a starting point to think about how players could fill needs on a certain team. So an exercise like the one on NFL.com is useful as a discussion point.

With that caveat in place, let’s take a look at where this year’s crop of ex-Cornhuskers might land on Sundays.

Randy Gregory

New Orleans Saints (first round, no. 13 overall)

After the regular season, Gregory was considered by some to be the top overall pick in the 2015 NFL Draft. But a positive marijuana test at the NFL Combine has dropped perception of him out of the top ten, in large part due to the irresponsibility of allowing himself to have the drug in his system when he knew he was going to be tested.

But while that will likely cost Gregory a healthy sum in terms of his rookie contract, it also pushes him down the board and likely to a better team. The Saints are a team re-tooling after a disastrous 7-9 season which kept them out of the playoffs (even in the comically-inept NFC South, which was won by a 7-8-1 Carolina Panthers).

In this offseason, the Saints traded their most explosive offensive weapon in tight end Jimmy Graham to the Seattle Seahawks in exchange for picks and a Pro Bowl caliber center in Max Unger. It may be a signal that the Saints are moving towards more of a focus on defense and running the ball. Given that the Saints were no. 25 in the NFL last year in sacks, a pass-rushing specialist would fill a big need.

And if Gregory’s indiscretion at the Combine drops a top-five level talent to New Orleans at 13, it makes a lot of sense for the Saints to jump on him there.

Ameer Abdullah

Detroit Lions (third round, no. 88 overall)

Well, if nothing else, Nebraska fans could keep the Lions as their adopted NFL team, trading their Ndamukong Suh shirts (who went to the Miami Dolphins in free agency this offseason) for Abdullah ones.

Upgrading at running back makes a lot of sense for the Lions, especially as their defense will of necessity take a hit after losing Suh. With Matthew Stafford at quarterback and Calvin Johnson and Golden Tate at wideout, the Lions already have some effective offensive weapons. But their only rostered running backs at this point are Joique Bell, Theo Riddick, and George Wynn. There is a huge opportunity for a running back to earn playing time (at the very least in a committee with Bell), one that Abdullah would be well-poised to exploit.

Kenny Bell

Buffalo Bills (fifth round, no. 155 overall)

Bell to Buffalo is an intriguing prospect. Given his injury history and lack of size, a fifth-round grade is probably fair. And yet, throughout his career at Nebraska, fans saw his speed, route-running, and hands on display, as well as his toughness and leadership.

Going to Buffalo would put him on the field with a number of other exciting offensive weapons, such as Sammy Watkins, Percy Harvin, and LeSean McCoy. If Bell can make the team as a third or fourth wideout, he could have the opportunity to exploit matchups against linebackers or safeties, with the other team’s best cover corners on Watkins and Harvin.

Of course, he would also have guys like Matt Cassel and E.J. Manuel throwing him the ball, which right now is the biggest limiting factor in the Bills’ offensive future. Still, given what the Bills look to be building on offense, Bell makes a lot of sense in Buffalo.

Free Agents

According to CBS Sports, here are the other Nebraska players who have a shot at earning a roster spot as an undrafted free agent.

Player Position Positional Rank
Trevor Roach ILB 21
Zaire Anderson OLB 44
Josh Mitchell CB 64
Corey Cooper SS 28
Jake Cotton OG 51

Nebraska Football: Five Things Standing in The Way of a B1G Championship

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photo and story by Patrick Runge

For the most part, Nebraska football fans aren’t unrealistic. Honest. They don’t expect to see Nebraska winning national titles like in the late nineties. They do expect, however, to see Nebraska competing for conference titles, especially seeing other schools in similar situations (such as Michigan State, Wisconsin, and Oregon) able to do the same.

This year, new head coach Mike Riley will be trying to do what three coaches before him were unable to accomplish. So what’s standing between Nebraska and a conference crown? Here are five of the biggest hurdles.

Consistent Quarterback Play

If the website would permit it, I would have this headline in bright flashing neon with a klaxon alarm blaring in the background.

(Hey, webmasters, get on that, wouldya?)

Throughout the Bo Pelini era, nothing held Nebraska’s progression back more than its signal-caller. In 2009, Nebraska’s defense was historically good with a once-in-a-generation talent in Ndamukong Suh. But a near-absence at quarterback (an injured Zac Lee) and an additional one second in Dallas doomed Nebraska’s chances for a conference title.

Starting in 2010, the Taylor Martinez era began. For the next four years, Martinez’s dazzling athleticism covered his deficiencies as a signal-caller, placing a ceiling on Nebraska’s accomplishments. And last year, Tommy Armstrong’s toughness and leadership were not enough to overcome his 52-percent completion percentage and his 22/12 touchdown-to-interception ratio. Combine that with the loss of Ameer Abdullah, who was arguably Nebraska’s best I-back since Ahman Green, and NU’s drought of conference titles since 1999 continued.

Riley has five scholarship quarterbacks to pick from in 2015. But there is no evidence—yet—to suggest that Nebraska fans can expect dramatic improvements from its signal-caller. If Riley can be the quarterback-whisperer and boost the performance of Armstrong (or whomever ends up winning the job), then Nebraska may finally have a shot at replenishing the trophy cabinet.

Mental Mistakes

If inconsistent quarterback play was the primary reason for Pelini’s teams to struggle, mental mistakes might have been a close second. Consider these stats for the Pelini era (courtesy CFBStats.com)

Year Penalty yds/game, nat’l ranking Turnover margin, nat’l ranking
2008 99 108
2009 102 33
2010 115 61
2011 73 67
2012 95 108
2013 82 119
2014 56 75

Ugly stuff. The numbers in bold italics represent the times (once in seven years for penalties, twice for turnover margin) when Nebraska was in the top half nationally. Or, put less delicately, when Nebraska wasn’t below average in two of the statistical categories most closely aligned with mental mistakes.

To win a conference title, Nebraska will be competing against schools with better talent. Until Nebraska can stop beating itself, there is no reasonable likelihood it can even hope to win at the levels necessary to win a conference title.

A Reliable Placekicker

As a smart and particularly handsome analyst observed, Nebraska has been blessed throughout its history with great placekickers. Last year was the first in some time that Nebraska’s placekicker could not be counted on to deliver in clutch situations.

It’s not that true freshman Drew Brown was horrible in 2014. Brown went 14-for-21 in field goals, for a respectable 66.7 percent. Overall, Nebraska was no. 80 nationally in field goal percentage, meaning it was slightly below average.

But as with mental mistakes, Nebraska’s talent deficiencies at the highest level mean that it must excel in other areas to win conference titles. And that means Nebraska must be able to count on putting points on the board, even from long distance, from its kicker.

Wisconsin

204-102. 1407-818.

What are those numbers? The aggregate final score and rushing totals of Nebraska’s four games against Wisconsin since joining the Big Ten.

There’s no way to sugar-coat it for Nebraska fans. Wisconsin has owned Nebraska since NU’s arrival in the B1G. Even with Nebraska’s victory over the Badgers in 2012, Wisconsin has utterly humiliated Nebraska’s defense on three separate occasions. There’s a good case to be made that the 581 rushing yards (!) that the Badgers hung on the Blackshirts in 2014 did as much to get Pelini fired as his legendary tirades.

And Nebraska can’t get to Indianapolis without going through Wisconsin. Yes, the Badgers come to Lincoln this year with a new coach and without Melvin Gordon. But unless Riley can do what Pelini could not and solve the Wisconsin riddle, Nebraska’s dreams of a conference title will go unfulfilled.

That School Down South

Assuming Nebraska can finally slay the beast from Madison that has been haunting it for the last three years, there’s another fairly imposing hurdle to clear. Under Urban Meyer, Ohio State hasn’t lost a regular season conference game, is the defending national champion, and could very well have gone two-for-three had the Buckeyes not chosen to play in the 2011 Gator Bowl and therefore been ineligible for the BCS the following year.

And they might have been a year early in winning the title last year, given the talent coming back.

Nebraska has a number of hurdles to clear to give some company to the lonely “1999” on the façade of the West Stadium on the “conference champions” line. But the biggest hurdle might be the scarlet-and-grey monster from Columbus.

(The “team down south” moniker, by the way, comes from the legendary Michigan-Ohio State rivalry, in which partisans from each school will refuse to call the other school by name.)

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

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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