Nebraska Football:Final Winners And Losers From Spring Ball

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photo and story by Patrick Runge

Nebraska football fans have seen spring practice for 2014 be put into the books, and are settling in for a long summer’s wait until fall practice begins and the college football season arrives. But before we leave spring practice altogether, it’s worth taking time to review where we stand, see who the winners and the losers are

 

Winner: Alex Lewis

Coming into the start of the season, it looked like David Knevel had the inside track to start at left tackle. Lewis was still resolving his legal troubles, and it appeared that Knevel would do enough to win the job.

But once Lewis got on campus and began competing directly, he shot up the depth chart. By the end of spring, the transfer from Colorado had wrapped up the starting position, giving defensive end Randy Gregory a run for his money in practice.

 

Loser: David Knevel

Knevel’s position is the opposite of Alex Lewis. At six-foot-nine and 305 pounds, Knevel has the physical frame to be dominant as a tackle. After sitting out a redshirt year in 2013, Knevel looked ready to make the jump and compete for a starting job in an offensive line that had plenty of opportunities.

For every winner in the spring, there is a loser. Lewis’ winning of the starting left tackle position, at least at this stage, has come at Knevel’s expense.

 

Winner: Tommy Armstrong

Never mind his less-than-overwhelming performance in the spring game. Before spring practice began, most Nebraska fans expected a two-way battle between Armstrong and Johnny Stanton to win the starting quarterback position in 2014.

But very quickly during spring practice, it became apparent that Armstrong was going to win the starting quarterback position. His experience (including his 7-1 record as a starter), his charisma, and the chemistry he has built with the rest of the team has helped propel him to his role as the heir apparent for Taylor Martinez.

 

Loser: Johnny Stanton

Many Nebraska fans were hoping that Stanton would have a phenomenal spring and take the starting quarterback position away from Tommy Armstrong. But in retrospect, with Stanton learning offensive coordinator Tim Beck’s scheme for the first time after directing the scout team last year, asking him to come in and compete for the starting job in 2014 was a tall order.

Indeed, not only was Stanton not a serious competitor for the starting role, he is currently in a dogfight with sophomore Ryker Fife for the backup position. Perhaps it’s not fair to Stanton, but at least in comparison to where expectations were for many fans at the start of spring, that’s quite a fall.

 

Winner: Bo Pelini

I’m not sure that a coach has ever had a better offseason than Pelini, in terms of where he was to where he is now. At the end of the Iowa game last year, Pelini’s shameful deflection of responsibility and his all but daring athletic director Shawn Eichorst to fire him led most to think that Pelini’s tenure in Lincoln had come to an end.

But Eichorst stood by Pelini, and between now and then Pelini’s public persona has undergone an extreme makeover. He’s reached out to his Twitter alter ego, @FauxPelini, embracing the parody of himself. He’s opened almost the entire spring practice to the media, something that would be unheard of in years past. And he topped it all off by taking the field at the Spring Game carrying FauxPelini’s cat, pretty much breaking Twitter in the process.

Comparing Pelini’s perception now to the end of last season, it’s almost hard to recognize the same man. After spring, Pelini is clearly doing great. The true test will come when Nebraska loses a game next year.

 

Loser: Shawn Eichorst

In all honesty, adding Eichorst as a loser might be a bit of a stretch. If Pelini’s public relations rehab since the end of last year leads into increased success for Nebraska, Eichorst is going to look like a genius. Instead of firing Pelini, as many urged him to do and thought he would, if Eichorst’s retention of Pelini leads to a division title or perhaps a conference title, then Eichorst will get a lot of the credit for standing by Pelini. And if Pelini melts down next year, making the decision to let him go simple, then Eichorst’s position isn’t really harmed either.

But it’s the status quo that’s scary for Eichorst. Each year of Pelini’s tenure, he has lost four games. What happens if that continues in 2014? What happens if we see the same old Nebraska—decent, but error-prone, and ultimately not good enough to compete at the highest levels?

If that happens, Eichorst is in a bit of a box. He can’t really fire Pelini after delivering functionally the same result as last year. But he also can’t really sit back and do nothing while the Nebraska football program idles in neutral, particularly with schools like Ohio State, Michigan State, and now Penn State moving ahead.

Eichorst has taken a gamble on Pelini, and could find himself in a very difficult situation if that gamble doesn’t pay off.

Post originally appeared at Bleacher Report.

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Nebraska Football: How Bo Pelini Can Solve Offensive Issues This Offseason

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by Patrick Runge

Nebraska football fans know that NU’s offense is in need of some work. Last year, Nebraska was no. 48 nationally in scoring offense, no. 97 nationally in passing offense, and no. 59 nationally in total offense. The injury to starting quarterback Taylor Martinez, and the resultant upheaval coming from switching redshirt freshman Tommy Armstrong and senior Ron Kellogg, was a big reason for Nebraska’s offensive struggles last year.

This year, Armstrong looks well set as the starter, giving Nebraska some much-needed stability at quarterback going into the season. But there are still a number of things head coach Bo Pelini can do to make sure Nebraska’s offense holds up its end of the bargain in 2014.

All stats courtesy of the invaluable cfbstats.com, which you should be reading on a regular basis.

 

Protect The Ball

The single most important reason why Nebraska’s offense struggled in 2013 is because it could not hold on to the football. Nebraska was no. 119 (!) nationally in turnover margin at -11, averaging -0.85 in turnover margin per game. Nebraska was no. 122 (!!) in fumbles lost and no. 67 nationally in interceptions lost.

Nowhere was the effect of Nebraska’s poor turnover margin more apparent than at the end of last season. Nebraska was better than both Michigan State and Iowa, and would have won both games absent a minus-5 and minus-4 turnover margin, respectively. Think about what Nebraska’s 2013 season would have looked like with wins over the Spartans and the Hawkeyes for a moment, and you’ll see what a difference that statistic makes.

Of course, saying “but for the turnover margin” in those games sails directly into “other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how was the play” waters. Those turnovers—caused in part by good opposing defense and in part by Nebraska’s sloppy offense—were part of the game, the critical part that decided both games.

Pelini and his staff have preached ball security this offseason—although Armstrong’s ugly interception in his first drive during the Spring Game did little to inspire confidence in that work. But if Pelini and co. are able to get Nebraska’s turnover margin down, NU’s offense should improve next year.

 

Feed The Beast

There is little doubt that I-back Ameer Abdullah is Nebraska’s best offensive weapon. Last year, Abdullah had 281 rushing attempts, just over 48 percent of Nebraska’s total carries. That number seems high, but it is right in line with how Pelini and offensive coordinator Tim Beck traditionally lean on their best offensive weapons.

Worrying about the toll that burden might put on Abdullah is a legitimate concern. Rex Burkhead’s senior campaign was marked with injuries and declining performance, and it is fair to surmise that part of said decline was how much he was used in previous seasons.

Backing off using Abdullah a little may be wise, but the risk in doing so is going away from the player that is clearly Nebraska’s best weapon. So while Pelini would be smart to get some of his other offensive weapons involved, ultimately Nebraska’s offense should run through Abdullah if it is to be successful in 2014.

 

Tailor for Tommy

Armstrong was given a tall order last year, asked to step in cold as a redshirt freshman and replace Martinez in an offense that was designed to highlight Martinez’s strengths. While Armstrong performed well, going 7-1 as a starter, there were signs of growing pains. His poor touchdown-to-interception ratio (nine touchdowns to eight interceptions) was the most glaring of those signs.

But Armstrong has now had a full offseason to prepare himself as the starter, and to work with the rest of the starting offense in developing timing and rhythm. Just as importantly, Beck has been able to make changes to Nebraska’s offense highlighting what Armstrong does well and downplaying areas where he struggles.

An offseason of preparation for Nebraska’s signal-caller, as compared to the fire drill behind center in 2013 after Martinez’s injury, should go a long way towards making NU’s offense better in 2014.

Extra Points 04/24/14

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Some of the best info about Nebraska football from around the web.

Husker legend Ralph Brown says some ex-Huskers haven’t felt welcome in the program under Bo Pelini (Big Red Report)

How much will extra night games for Nebraska actually increase viewership? (Hail Varsity)

Nebraska cornerback Josh Mitchell says his lack of size doesn’t dent his confidence. (ESPN)

Five obstacles for Nebraska to win a B1G championship. (Bleacher Report)

Extra Points 04/18/14

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Some of the best info about Nebraska football from around the web.

Nathan Gerry becoming more comfortable at safety after spending last year at linebacker. (Grand Island Independent)

Nebraska transfer Harvey Jackson ends up at BYU. (Salt Lake Tribune)

Nebraska’s contest with Fresno State to be at 9:30 p.m. central on the CBS Sports Network. (KMA Land)

Bo Pelini’s four biggest concerns after spring practice. (Bleacher Report)

Nebraska Football: What Tommy Armstrong Must Do To Succeed

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by Patrick Runge

Coming out of spring practice, Nebraska quarterback Tommy Armstrong has established himself as the clear-cut starter for 2014. It certainly wasn’t on the performance at the spring game, where he went 4-of-8 for 97 yards and an interception.

But based on all reports, at the conclusion of spring practice, Armstrong was pretty well-ensconced as Nebraska’s starting quarterback next year. So if Armstrong is to lead Nebraska to greater glories, what must he accomplish?

Be More Accurate

Let’s do a thought experiment. Here are the blind statistics of two quarterbacks. Take a look, and think about what conclusions you can draw.

  Completion Percentage Touchdown/Interception Ratio
Quarterback A 51.9 9/8
Quarterback B 59.2 10/7

In comparing the two, it’s pretty clear that while neither signal-caller would be confused with Peyton Manning, Quarterback B had a fairly decided advantage in terms of general accuracy, scoring and avoiding turnovers.

Quarterback A is, of course, Armstrong’s stat line from 2013. Quarterback B? That would be for Taylor Martinez in his freshman year of 2010.  Yes, that Martinez, the one who wowed us all with his legs but terrified us with his mechanically awkward throwing motion and predilection for incompletions and interceptions. That Martinez is the one who looks statistically superior to Armstrong’s production in 2013.

Now, in many ways, the comparisons aren’t really fair. Martinez won the starting job in fall camp, where Armstrong was pressed into service midway through the season due to injury. Martinez in 2010 had a defense that was much more reliable than Armstrong did in 2013. And Martinez was so dangerous with his legs that the passing game was far more open than it was—or will be—for Armstrong.

But the numbers don’t lie, regardless of what Mark Twain said. If Armstrong is to be successful as Nebraska’s quarterback, those numbers simply have to get better.

Manage The Game

It may very well be unfair to ask Armstrong to make a quantum leap in his passing stats from 2013 to 2014. But given what Nebraska has on offense, the onus likely will not be on Armstrong to be successful.

Nebraska’s best weapon on offense, pretty clearly, will be I-back Ameer Abdullah. Behind Abdullah are a number of talented backs, including Imani Cross and Terrell Newby who both demonstrated unexpected flexibility in the spring game. Nebraska’s receiving corps, led by Kenny Bell and including Jamal Turner and Jordan Westerkamp, may be the deepest and most talented in the school’s history.

 Of course, what Armstrong does under center will be critically important. But it doesn’t look like Nebraska will need to lean on Armstrong to be the driving offensive force. Instead, Nebraska will need Armstrong to perform in a role similar to Russell Wilson for the Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks—provide leadership, make plays and move the chains when needed and protect the football.

(And yes, that gratuitous reference to Wilson comes from a Seahawks fan still basking in the glow of Super Bowl XLVIII and looking for any excuse to bring it up in print. Get used to it.)

Just Win, Baby

Yes, I understand this argument is circular—the thing Armstrong needs to do in order to win is to win. But at a certain level, that’s the nature of the job. In his freshman year, Armstrong was dazzling at times and cringe-worthy at other times.

But ultimately, Armstrong is 7-1 as a starter. That kind of momentum and production is part of the reason he has been able to establish himself as a leader in the huddle and on the field. Football is, ultimately, a funny game with an odd-shaped ball that takes weird bounces. Throughout the course of the 2014 season, Armstrong will be presented with unpredictable obstacles to overcome.

If he is able to figure out a way to guide Nebraska through those obstacles and keep winning, he will be able to keep the momentum going he has generated already and allow his success to beget further success.